Ottawa braced for Russian retaliation after barring state media from Lima Group talks
'We can expect reciprocal action against Canadian media in Russia,' GAC official warned
Canadian officials decided on short notice to deny accreditation to all Russian and Venezuelan state media outlets planning to attend an international conference in Ottawa this winter — even though they knew the action likely would provoke retaliation against Canadian media.
"We can expect reciprocal action against Canadian media in Russia," Alison Grant, Global Affairs Canada's director for Eastern Europe and Eurasia, told her colleagues after the federal government received official protests from the Russian Embassy over a decision by GAC officials to block Russian and Venezuelan state media from the meeting of the Lima Group in February.
The back-and-forth over media accreditation for the meeting is captured in a series of emails obtained by CBC News under Access to Information law.
The Lima Group conference was called on short notice when political tensions in Venezuela suddenly escalated following the decision by National Assembly president Juan Guaidó to assume the title of acting president of Venezuela.
Guaidó cited three articles of the Venezuelan constitution that he said provided a mechanism to replace a government that had lost its democratic mandate but refused to surrender power. Canada, along with the U.S., European Union and most of Latin America, recognized Guaidó and called on President Nicolás Maduro to step down.
Canada is a founding member of the Lima Group, a gathering of about a dozen like-minded American nations that consider the Maduro government an illegitimate dictatorship (the United States is not a member).
In early February, Lima Group foreign ministers headed to Ottawa for a meeting that would, for the first time, include a representative of the Guaidó "government," ambassador Julio Borges.
As the conference came together, Venezuelan events were dominating news worldwide and foreign media began to request accreditation to cover the Ottawa conference.
Canada granted accreditation to U.S. networks like CNN, Univision and Voice of America, European outlets like France 24 and EFE (Spain), Asahi Shimbun and NHK of Japan, Al Jazeera, Latin American outlets such as NTN24 and O Globo of Brazil, and major Canadian news organizations such as CBC, CTV, Global, La Presse and Canadian Press.
But the Venezuelan state television network TeleSUR, and Russian news organizations ITAR-TASS, Sputnik, Ruptly TV and RIA Novosti, were all denied accreditation. The reasons don't seem to have been explained to them.
The decision was taken by officials at Global Affairs Canada after the self-governing Parliamentary Press Gallery, which usually is in charge of arranging accreditation, told the government it was "not comfortable with approving foreign media."
The topic of the conference was extremely sensitive and protests were anticipated.
"We will only ask some media for letters by way of email, essentially to confirm that any questionable registrants are actually media, not a blogger, stakeholder, or protester in disguise," wrote Global Affairs' John Babcock. "We don't need to ask the PPG (Parliamentary Press Gallery)."
On February 1, Global Affairs produced a list of media that would receive accreditation. At the foot of the list, under the heading 'Do Not Send', were the names of six reporters and one camera operator being denied accreditation — all representatives of one of four Russian outlets: Sputnik, TASS news agency, Ruptly TV and RIA Novosti.
You can't deny a journalist the right to do his job just because two governments have a problem- Rafael Rey of Sputnik
The following day, Global Affairs received a request from TeleSUR's U.S. bureau to accredit three reporters, which it also denied.
TeleSUR is an international news channel created by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and financed by the government of Venezuela. Always on the left, it has taken a harder turn towards pro-Maduro propaganda since the Venezuelan government has come under pressure at home.
On February 3, TeleSUR wrote back to the GAC media relations team to ask "if there was a mistake in the information we provided or why we weren't credited as media? What can we do to get accreditation? Our correspondents are already on the way."
The Canadian government has denied teleSUR press access to cover the so called "Lima Group" meeting.<br><br>"<a href="https://twitter.com/telesurenglish?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@telesurenglish</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/teleSURtv?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@teleSURtv</a> will not give up in it's mission to inform" - <a href="https://twitter.com/pvillegas_tlSUR?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@pvillegas_tlSUR</a> <a href="https://t.co/t40u8rL60a">pic.twitter.com/t40u8rL60a</a>—@telesurenglish
Sputnik stuck in orbit
"On another note," GAC's Richard Walker wrote to his colleagues the morning of February 4, "Sputnik reporter from Uruguay is here and is very upset. He flew in Saturday night and wants an official reason why he can't attend. The guy seems honest."
Sputnik's reporter Rafael Rey had travelled from his network's South American bureau in Montevideo, Uruguay only to learn that his trip was in vain. He wrote Walker later that morning to ask for the reason for his rejection.
"They asking me for that in Moscow. Can you send me what you tell me about Freeland and Sputnik?" Rey wrote, referring to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Sputnik would later publish a story claiming that a Canadian official, asked to explain the refusal, said that "in the past, Sputnik hasn't been cordial with minister Freeland."
Canadian officials denied that quote was accurate.
U.S. and Canadian government officials have described Russian government-funded news organizations such as Russia Today and Sputnik as part of a Kremlin disinformation effort aimed at sowing doubts and weakening alliances in the West.
From Montevideo, Rey told CBC News that he was annoyed with Canadian officials for waiting until he was in Canada to tell him he wouldn't be allowed to cover the event.
A wasted journey
Rey said he flew from Montevideo to Miami, then to Philadelphia, then Ottawa. "I got to my hotel in Ottawa, checked the email and found out they didn't give me the accreditation," he said.
"They say it was because there were some troubles, some differences in the past between Sputnik and Canada, Chrystia Freeland, about Ukraine, and that was the reason they didn't want Sputnik in the meeting."
Rey said his bureau is focused on the Americas and doesn't cover Ukraine.
"I understood the situation. There's a conflict between Russia and Canada, and Sputnik is state-funded media. So we can say Sputnik is Russia in some way."
But Rey said it's still a mistake for Canada to behave the way it did in this instance.
"They were meeting on Venezuela. One of the main issues in Venezuela is freedom of speech," he said. "You can't deny a journalist the right to do his job just because two governments have a problem, even if you're working for a government outlet.
"When you have a government that is always talking about free speech in other countries, or asking for freedom of speech in other countries, it's kind of a contradiction. Not a very good one."
'Propaganda and misinformation'
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to CBC News about the decision.
"Canada is a strong voice for freedom of expression and freedom of the press at home and abroad," said Adam Austen. "Global Affairs Canada has a broad accreditation policy to ensure that media are able to report on events hosted in Canada. We take this responsibility seriously. Our objective is to provide access to media outlets that do not deliberately distort facts or spread propaganda and misinformation.
"The Global Affairs Canada process was followed in the lead up to the Lima Group meetings. We are always evaluating this accreditation process to ensure it meets the needs of Canadian and international media outlets."
The Press Gallery said it would have liked to see the government handle matters differently.
"Canada should give an example of what free press is, if we want to boast to ourselves about a free press," said Gallery president Pierre-Vincent Foisy.
"For us, that one of our members is being denied, and we don't know the basis for that denial, is really, really problematic."
TASS has a permanent correspondent in Ottawa who has long been a member of the Press Gallery. Foisy said there have been no complaints about the correspondent and the Gallery is satisfied that TASS meets the criteria for accreditation.
Foisy said the government should think about how its actions will be received overseas.
"It's something that the government should always think about since we have journalists abroad."
By February 5, the Russian Embassy was protesting to the Canadians about Russian media outlets being blocked. Canada also received a request for an explanation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In an email, Grant told her colleagues that the Russians "have said that they view this as 'being outside of the rules and common practice based on freedom of speech' and have asked for an official explanation, 'taking into account the principle of reciprocity.'"