Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister threatens to sue newspaper, wants source revealed
Story triggered questions about whether premier owes taxes on Costa Rican vacation property
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is threatening to sue a Winnipeg newspaper over stories it published about taxes on the premier's vacation home in Costa Rica. He wants the paper to reveal its source and publish a front-page apology.
The Winnipeg Free Press published a story April 4 that raised questions about whether the premier owed outstanding luxury taxes on his Costa Rican property. A second story was also published online the next day.
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The initial April 4 story triggered questions from Manitoba's opposition NDP, who grilled the premier about the matter in question period. Pallister then said he was "surprised" and "disappointed" to learn he might owe taxes on the property while insisting he's always taken care of his tax bill.
"But we'll investigate further," Pallister told media after question period.
On April 13, the Free Press and veteran reporter Larry Kusch received a formal notice sent by the premier's lawyer, Robert Tapper.
Our readers deserve to know what actions [the premier] was taking rather than answering the questions.- Paul Samyn , Editor, Winnipeg Free Press
The notice challenged several points in the articles and the source of the information.
"The article was designed by the Winnipeg Free Press to impugn the integrity of Premier Pallister and to bring his reputation into disregard, odium, and hatred," the notice reads.
"All tax bills received by the Pallisters in respect of their Costa Rica property have always been paid in full and on time. There are no outstanding taxes currently owing in respect of the property."
Under Manitoba's Defamation Act, a notice is required before someone can move forward with a defamation lawsuit.
Paper stands by reporting
In an email to the Free Press, Tapper asked the paper to print a prominent apology on the front page of its Saturday edition; the paper's biggest circulation day. The request stated the apology must be accompanied with a photo of Pallister, of his choosing, and the paper's source for the story must be identified to the premier and Tapper.
Free Press editor Paul Samyn said the paper isn't willing to reveal its source and is prepared to go to court to defend themselves if necessary. "We are not backing off," Samyn said.
"It is fair and balanced reporting. That is what the Free Press has done in this story and that is what we'll continue to do."
Samyn said the threat of a lawsuit came after the paper started asking more question of the premier.
On April 14, after being served with the notice, the Winnipeg Free Press published a story about the premier's demands. When asked about that decision, Samyn said the premier issuing a newspaper with a defamation notice "in itself is news.
"And our readers deserve to know what actions he was taking rather than answering the questions that he himself seemed prepared to give answers on more than a week ago."
'I don't recall anything like this': Prof
Political experts CBC spoke to said they've never heard of a Manitoba premier threatening to sue a media outlet.
"I've studied Manitoba politics going back to the 1870s and I don't recall anything like this before in Manitoba," said Christopher Adams, a political scientist based at St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba.
"I think it's pretty unprecedented," added Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
But it's not the first time a politician has turned to the courts with a case against a media outlet in the province.
In 2014, former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz sued the University of Winnipeg, Mouseland Press — which publishes The Uniter, a student newspaper at the University of Winnipeg — and one of the paper's volunteers over a column that focused on a controversial land deal.
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Adams and Thomas said Costa Rica and the premier being in the news isn't good politically for Pallister.
"The more Costa Rica is listed, is discussed in the media, the more damage it does to the premier," Adams said.
In a statement sent Sunday, Pallister's communications director said the premier and his wife "have never received a tax statement from the Costa Rica taxing authority that they have not paid.
"They have never received a tax assessment appraising the property, nor have they received a request for an independent appraisal."
The spokesperson said the Free Press made "baseless and false allegations" in its reporting, and alleged the paper failed to talk to anyone in the Costa Rican Government for the stories in question.
"One would have hoped that the Free Press would have done even a modicum of investigation first rather than make these allegations on the front page," the statement reads.
With files from Leif Larsen