Recently, in an uncommon show of unity, media across Canada blasted the NDP government in Alberta over media access, essentially putting right-wing commentator Ezra Levant in the stoplight as the poster child for censorship.
For those who have not heard of Ezra Levant, he is the owner of the right-wing news and comment website The Rebel, which he started after his former employer, Sun News Network, closed a year ago.
Clearly standing in the far right end of the political spectrum in terms of coverage, The Rebel is arguably more comment than it is a news site.
But last week, media erupted upon learning the Alberta NDP government threw out a Rebel reporter from a media news briefing and did not allow another to attend a private stakeholders meeting when the government announced its decision not to raise resource royalties.
The reason? Levant doesn’t identify as a reporter, therefore The Rebel is not a media outlet and therefore is not eligible to attend government media events.
This argument had stemmed from a Levant quote, said under oath during a 2014 Ontario Supreme Court case, when lawyer Khurrum Awan sued him for libel.
“I’m a commentator, I’m a pundit,” said Levant in his testimony back then. “I don’t think in my entire life I’ve ever called myself a reporter.”
Levant had lost that case, among a string of libel suits that have emerged against him since 1998, and was ordered to pay $80,000. His argument back then that Awan’s accusation was a violation of his Charter right to free speech, and of fair comment – which is, notably, a defense used by journalists, which Levant claimed he wasn’t – did not work.
The Rebel cried foul, and announced plans to launch a lawsuit against the Albert government, even starting a campaign to fund it.
They dropped the lawsuit when a day later, the ban was dropped and the NDP admitted they made a mistake in barring The Rebel’s staff from media events, but only after huge media backlash.
A review into government policies concerning media was launched.
Levant has been accused of approaching each event with an agenda which flies in the face of the optimal view of media which is to be fair and unbiased. Not a stretch of thought given the media outlet helps fund itself through merchandising espousing right-leaning ideologies such as ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Conservative’ and ‘I Miss Ralph Klein’ memorabilia. It is safe to say any meeting involving a Liberal federal government or an NDP provincial government will be met with an axe to grind by The Rebel given their blatant campaigning.
It all comes down to where does one draw the line for access to ones politicians and news of the day? If Levant does not consider himself a journalist, then should not the flood gates be open to any pundit to any meeting of political interest regardless of ones leaning or accreditation? Would The Rebel have offered the same outrage to Vancouver journalist Shelby Thom who was booted out of a Conservative Party rally attended by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, by asking rally supporters if they supported legalizing marijuana?
Another case involved a National Observer reporter being prevented in Toronto by security staff from asking Harper about Senator Don Meredith, less than 24 hours after allegations emerged of an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl. Harper’s government ended the tradition of informal scrums with the prime minister and other ministers after Tuesday morning cabinet meetings, deploying security guards to keep reporters away from the cabinet room and no longer making the times of such meetings public anymore, soon after he was elected in 2006.
If one is to cry outrage over freedom of the press, speech, fair comment and assembly, it must include all views, not just those of the elected government and like viewpoints of the time.
Whether you agree with Levant’s views or not, what the NDP government did was censorship. No matter your thoughts on Levant or The Rebel, them barring them from these events is akin to town council barring The Times from their meetings.
But just because one has a freedom, does not mean there are no responsibilities attached to those freedoms as Levant has found out himself with several libel cases against him.
There is also a decorum/dignity assumed with these accesses to political figures, much like there is a way one must handle themselves in a court room. A journalist’s duty is to report the news asking various questions, not become it…that is what opinion pieces are for, and something that is becoming increasingly blurred with new bloggers emerging every day on the Internet.
Whether you agree with The Rebel’s views or not, you have to stand up for them in cases like these, because otherwise, it will snowball until we are not actually writing the news, but instead what is dictated to us to write.