EDMONTON – The Alberta government is battling an online news outlet over access to the legislature and has asked a recently retired journalist to review its media policy.
The conflict began two weeks ago when two contributors from The Rebel, a highly conservative web platform driven by political commentator Ezra Levant, were barred from a government announcement in Calgary about new rules for oil royalties.
Sheila Gunn Reid and Holly Nicholas say the premier’s staff denied them access to the news conference because they were with The Rebel.
Three days later, Reid tried to enter the legislature to cover a joint news conference with Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Reid said security staff denied her entrance because the premier’s office had directed that The Rebel was on a “no-go” list.
Government spokeswoman Cheryl Oates denied the accusations.
Oates said the pair had not signed up ahead of time for the royalty review news conference — as required from all media — and therefore couldn’t attend.
As for the Trudeau visit, the legislature was under tight security and only mainstream media organizations and accredited legislature press gallery members were allowed, she added.
“The legislature was closed to the public that day,” Oates told The Canadian Press.
“The Rebel was not singled out. There were other people who were turned away because they were not accredited media sources.”
She also disputed Reid’s assertion that The Rebel was on a no-go list.
“The premier’s office, the communications office, does not have a no-go list,” Oates said.
She also said that such events are intended for working media and pointed to court testimony in which Levant had denied being a reporter.
“If you have testified under oath that you are not a journalist, then we don’t consider you a journalist.”
In a 2014 defamation hearing, Levant told a judge: “I’m a commentator. I’m a pundit. I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever called myself a reporter.”
Levant, a former Sun media columnist, started The Rebel with some former colleagues about a year ago. The site has been sharply critical of Notley’s NDP government.
Levant directed requests for comment to Reid, who did not return calls.
The Rebel has released a video which it says shows its reporter being turned away from the legislature. It shows a security guard asking Reid for accreditation as she stands in the entrance of the building. When she fails to satisfy the request, the guard asks for her to be removed.
No politicians or political staff are visible in the video.
Darcy Henton, president of the legislature press gallery, said he had spoken to The Rebel about legislature access.
“Journalists are not required to have accreditation from (the legislature) press gallery in order to cover media conferences at the legislature,” Henton wrote on Twitter. “It has long been the practice that reporters simply present their credentials to security to access news conferences.
“The press gallery supports the right of journalists to provide vigorous and diverse coverage of the Alberta legislature.”
The government has asked Heather Boyd, former Western Canada bureau chief for The Canadian Press, to review its accreditation guidelines.
“I’ve been asked to review policies elsewhere and come up with a policy on the issue,” said Boyd. “It’s an intriguing problem.”
She is expected to report back to the government in two to three weeks.