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Opinion

Defending free speech

Who gets to say who is a journalist? The debate was ignited earlier this month in Alberta

Pawel Dwulit / The Canadian Press Files</p><p>Ezra Levant (above) has threatened to sue the Alberta government over access to news conferences.</p><p>

Pawel Dwulit / The Canadian Press Files

Ezra Levant (above) has threatened to sue the Alberta government over access to news conferences.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2016 (879 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What is a journalist?

With the rise of citizen journalism, bloggers and online news portals, this is a debate that is becoming increasingly muddied.

The latest upset in this game involves The Rebel being denied access to an Alberta government announcement regarding new rules for oil royalties in Calgary two weeks ago. The Rebel is a right-wing website founded by Ezra Levant. Sheila Gunn Reid and Holly Nicholas say they were denied access because they worked for The Rebel. Reid was apparently also denied access to a joint news conference with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Notley’s spokesperson says that the two hadn’t signed up in time for the news conference on royalties, and that was why they were turned away. As for the Trudeau trip? Well, according to the government, only mainstream media were allowed in because of tight security.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2016 (879 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What is a journalist?

With the rise of citizen journalism, bloggers and online news portals, this is a debate that is becoming increasingly muddied.

The latest upset in this game involves The Rebel being denied access to an Alberta government announcement regarding new rules for oil royalties in Calgary two weeks ago. The Rebel is a right-wing website founded by Ezra Levant. Sheila Gunn Reid and Holly Nicholas say they were denied access because they worked for The Rebel. Reid was apparently also denied access to a joint news conference with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Notley’s spokesperson says that the two hadn’t signed up in time for the news conference on royalties, and that was why they were turned away. As for the Trudeau trip? Well, according to the government, only mainstream media were allowed in because of tight security. 

The Rebel went into fight mode, suggesting on its website that Notley is a bully and that the organization is on some type of blacklist. It followed up with the threat of a lawsuit.

Faced with an insurmountable backlash, the Alberta government retreated and issued a written statement on Tuesday: "We’ve heard a lot of feedback from Albertans and media over the course of the last two days and it’s clear we made a mistake."

The government appointed a former Canadian Press bureau chief to investigate its policy and report back in three weeks. Until then, no media outlet will be banned from government newsers.

There is no doubt that a government of any stripe can make a decision on who it will and will not respond to in terms of questions from the media. Former prime minister Stephen Harper regularly bypassed the national media in Ottawa, preferring to talk to local reporters from smaller news outlets. During the last federal election at stops in Manitoba, Harper prevented reporters from interacting with crowds at election rallies, instead segregating them to a small area and preventing any meaningful questioning.

In a study done at the University of Calgary, Ruth Klinkhammer detailed former premier Ralph Klein’s favouritism with the media, demonstrating a softness for the Calgary Sun and freezing out questions from the CBC.

In Ottawa, there are very clear rules about who is issued a pass as a member of the press gallery, thus limiting access to those in power. The press gallery, an organization that is run by its members, is supposed to be non-partisan.

According to the press gallery website, active membership is "open only to journalists, photographers, camerapersons, soundpersons and other professionals whose principal occupation is reporting, interpreting or editing parliamentary or federal government news, and who are assigned to Ottawa on a continuing basis by one or more newspapers, radio or television broadcasting stations or systems, major recognized news services or magazines which regularly publish or broadcast news of Canadian Parliament and government affairs and who require the daily use of gallery facilities to fulfil their functions."

Access then is limited by those who run the press gallery at the federal level, and it has been known to eject members if they behave poorly. The Alberta legislature — or Manitoba’s — seemingly doesn’t have those types of rules in place.

But the flaw in the Notley response to The Rebel was stating that the government doesn’t consider the organization to be a journalistic source. At the centre of that, is Levant’s testimony in a 2014 defamation hearing: "I’m a commentator. I’m a pundit. I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever called myself a reporter." 

He may not call himself a reporter, but certainly by commenting on the political scene, Levant and the organization he represents can claim to be practising journalism. And it’s not up to any government to pile on by saying it’s not legitimate. 

Dean Jobb, who is a regular contributor to these pages and an associate professor in the school of journalism at King’s College, says the courts have weighed in on the definition of "journalist." In 2009, the Supreme Court, in a defamation suit levelled against the Toronto Star, ruled: "The traditional media are rapidly being complemented by new ways of communicating on matters of public interest, many of them online, which do not involve journalists. These new disseminators of news and information should, absent good reasons for exclusion, be subject to the same laws as established media outlets."

The court ruled further in 2010 in an issue regarding confidential sources that "the protection attaching to freedom of expression is not limited to the ‘traditional media,’ but is enjoyed by ‘everyone.’"

I do admit, I did feel a fair amount of schadenfreude when I first read about this case and that line about karma immediately came to my mind. After all, it’s unlikely Levant or his reporters would have stood up to complain about the treatment of the media under governments who have been ideologically friendly to them. 

But there are bigger issues at play here than my own personal beliefs about the work Levant does.

There’s a great scene in The West Wing where a right-wing Russian journalist is seeking accreditation to cover the U.S. president. Toby Ziegler, the White House communcations director, tears a strip off the reporter about her coverage and her journalist standards, stating: "We’ve got people like you here, on cable and on the Internet, and there’s no one anywhere on the ideological spectrum that doesn’t roll their eyes when their names are spoken out loud. You know, we’ve always had free press here, we take it for granted."

He then hands her her credentials.

Sums up my feelings exactly. Just because I don’t like what you have to say, doesn’t mean you can’t say it. That’s a hard lesson for the new Alberta government to learn. 

Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.

shannon.sampert@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @paulysigh

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History

Updated on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 5:51 PM CST: Clarifies credentials of Alberta government appointee.

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