Rachel Notley's NDP lifts ban on The Rebel, says it made a mistake

Alberta's NDP government says it will not ban any media outlets from news conferences while a review of its policies is underway.

Alberta government said last week that journalists from conservative news site 'are not journalists'

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has asked a former journalist to review media policies in light of the ban against the Rebel Media. (CBC)

In an abrupt about-face, the Alberta NDP government says it will not ban any media outlets from news conferences while a review of its policies is underway.

"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," Cheryl Oates, communications director for Premier Rachel Notley, said Wednesday in a written statement.

"The government has appointed former Western Canadian bureau chief for Canadian Press, Heather Boyd, to consult and give us recommendations on what the government's media policies should be. In the meantime, no one will be excluded from government media events."

The government banned correspondents from The Rebel conservative news site last week, saying "they are not journalists."

The site, owned by right-wing pundit Ezra Levant, has been highly critical of Notley and her government. In a posting on The Rebel Wednesday, Levant said Notley's decision is only a partial victory. 

"But pay attention to that last line: Notley has hired an 'expert' to advise her on how to handle troublesome journalists," he wrote about Oates's statement. "The lifting of the blacklist is only 'in the meantime' Notley may well revert to a policy of government-regulated journalism if her hand-picked advisor can find a way to spin it.

The ban was criticized by journalists and free speech advocates across the country, and was the subject of a scathing editorial in the Globe and Mail that called it "beyond deplorable."

Edmonton media lawyer Fred Kozak is representing Levant and Rebel Media in this matter. Kozak says the government's decision to lift the ban is a good one. He says legal action is now on hold. 

"The whole point of our letter on behalf of Rebel Media was to say, this is a government that has espoused openness and transparency and we'd like to see that put into practice," he said. 

Not obvious 

Boyd's review is being watched with interest by reporters, academics and free speech advocates across the country. 

Kelly Toughill, director of the school of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, applauded the government for admitting they made a mistake but she still has concerns.  

"The underlying issue, of course, is who gets to decide who's a journalist," she said. "Do you really want government deciding who's a journalist? I don't think so. I think that's a very dangerous path. 

Toughill said the review should be instructive to members of Notley's government. 

"What's obvious to me, because I've been in this world and thinking about these issues for decades, may not be immediately obvious to everyone else," she said. 

"I think that Heather Boyd is a really good person to conduct this review and that what she does will really help inform both the government and the public about the role of press in Canada."

The issue came to a head after Rebel correspondent Reid was barred from covering a news conference at the Alberta Legislature involving the premier and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 3. 

Last week, The Rebel sent a letter to the government through Kozak that outlined problems correspondents Holly Nicholas and Sheila Gunn Reid have encountered accessing media conferences and lockups. 

Rite of passage

The Justice Department responded to Kozak with a brief letter dated Feb. 12.

"Our client's position remains that your client and those who identify as being connected to your client are not journalists and are not entitled to access media lockups or other such events," the department wrote.

Toughill said problems with the media are pretty much a rite of passage for new governments. She expects the review will help change the Alberta NDP's view on the role of the media.

"I would be very, very, very surprised when this is over if they think they can control who attends their press conferences," she said. 

The dispute between Levant and the Alberta government may still end up in a courtroom. Levant has set up a petition called "Notley is a bully," and is fundraising for future legal costs.