Press Gallery accuses PMO of impeding
freedom of the press
[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. March 8, 2006]
|Press Gallery reporters wait outside a
cabinet meeting room on the third floor of the Centre Block
Tuesday for perhaps the last time for a while.
OTTAWA — The
Parliamentary Press Gallery is accusing the Prime Minister's Office
of impeding the freedom of the press to access decision makers after
a decision to move the location for scrums with cabinet ministers.
On Tuesday, reporters were told by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's staff that they would no longer be allowed to hold scrums with cabinet ministers at two microphones in a hallway outside of the cabinet meeting room on the third floor of the Centre Block.
Under the new procedures, ministers could choose to speak to reporters at a microphone a level below in the foyer
outside of the Chamber.
However, reporters are suspicious that this could allow cabinet ministers to sneak out of the
Centre Block and avoid questions from reporters.
In a letter to Sandra Buckler, the PM's director of communications, Emmanuelle
Latraverse, a Radio Canada correspondent and president of the Press Gallery, called the decision "abrupt and arbitrary."
"Switching the location of the availability of ministers would roll back decades of tradition and impede the freedom of the press to have access to our country's top decision makers," Latraverse wrote.
"It is a move that the Gallery and its members cannot support."
On Tuesday, reporters waiting outside the cabinet meeting room were told
the PM would speak to them outside the foyer in about five minutes.
When the PM came downstairs and held a news conference, Trade Minister David Emerson, who had not scrummed with reporters in Ottawa in over a month, emerged late from the cabinet meeting room
upstairs and took questions from the handful of reporters who did not go downstairs to cover the PM's press conference.
Harper's press secretary, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, told reporters Tuesday that the PMO planned to discuss the move further with the Press Gallery.
She denied that it was designed to give ministers an escape route from journalists and said the new arrangement would give reporters "more space."
While not part of the official complaint to the PMO, reporters are also grumbling about a new system Harper's staff has come up with for scrums.
Unlike past prime ministers, Harper will hold formal news conferences with reporters after the cabinet meetings at a podium in the foyer.
The positive side is Harper took far more questions than former prime ministers Paul Martin or Jean Chretien normally would after cabinet.
The downside is instead of shouting questions reporters have to submit their names to a list controlled by one of Harper's aides.
During the press conference, the aide reads off the reporters' names from the list for each question.
On Tuesday, a Globe and Mail reporter concentrating this week on the showdown between Harper and
Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro complained as Harper left the podium that his name was deliberately skipped on the list.
This is the second time in the past month that the Gallery has written a letter to complain about PMO communications.
Last month, the Gallery complained in writing about the lack of a photo-op or media availability when Quebec Premier Jean Charest met with Harper in Ottawa.
A photo-op was eventually granted.
The Gallery has also asked for a formal meeting with PMO communications staff to iron out logistical issues and to discuss "problems that have arisen in recent weeks" before Parliament returns in April
According to Latraverse's letter, a meeting on these issues has yet to be set up.
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