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Media question restrictions apply only to Alberta premier, cabinet ministers say

Three Alberta cabinet ministers say the government’s new question restriction policy for media applies only to Premier Danielle Smith.

Three Alberta cabinet ministers say the government’s new question restriction policy for media applies only to Premier Danielle Smith.

Kaycee Madu, Adriana LaGrange and Demetrios Nicolaides took multiple questions at news conferences Monday and said the limits apply only to queries made of the premier.

The trio defended Smith’s decision to begin limiting questions from reporters and news outlets from now through the May election campaign. They said they agree with Smith that it’s a busy period and they want to make sure more news outlets get a chance to ask the premier questions.

They said it’s not about Smith trying to evade accountability.

“I don’t believe that to be true at all,” said LaGrange, the education minister, speaking to reporters in Calgary. “I’ve seen the premier answer many questions and very difficult questions.

“The premier simply is wanting to reach as many outlets and as many reporters and interviewers.

“As the election ramps up, that’s going to be more and more.”

The election begins with a writ drop in two weeks, followed by polling day May 29.

Smith rolled out the policy Friday minutes before a government news conference. She announced she would take one question from each reporter to answer more questions. Shetook six questions and other reporterswere left standing in the question queue and on the phone line.

Journalists are traditionally given two questions or sometimes more if necessary to drill down and fill gaps or clarify positions.

Smith broadened the restriction Saturday, saying she will not take more than one question at a news conference from any single news outlet.

Smith’s office did not respond Monday to questions about how the policy will work and if news outlets would be defined by their corporate parents or as subgroups, such as national versus regional news bureaus, bureaus within the same company in different cities or those that serve different linguistic groups, such as English and French services for CBC.

Reporters from larger news outlets often have more than one reporter call in or attend Smith’s news conferences to ask questions on diverse topics unique to their beats or to stories they are working on.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the United Conservative Party premier’s plan to limit questions to elicit more answers is nonsensical.

“The way to answer more questions is to take more questions,” Notley told reporters in Calgary.

“If that takes a bit longer, because there’s more folks that show up … then so be it. It’s an election campaign, and that’s what people would expect.

“And obviously you need a second question, because sometimes the (initial) questions aren’t answered fully. Sometimes additional questions arise. Sometimes it’s a complicated issue.”

Notley said Smith’s handlers are seeking to keep her away from questions to avoid further embarrassing reversals and clarifications, as voters begin deciding on who will lead them for the next four years.

In recent days, Smith has given different reasons for why she spoke to an accused prior to his criminal trial related to COVID-19 protests. In a recorded call with the man, Smith is heard offering to make inquiries on the his behalf while sharing details and disagreements over Crown case strategy. Smith is now under an investigation by the ethics commissioner over that conversation.

Smith has also been criticized for giving varied explanations on who she spoke to and what she said to Justice officials relating to COVID-19 prosecutions. She has said she didn’t understand how Canada’s justice system worked and that premiers are not free to grant pardons.

“Albertans deserve a premier who is competent enough in her record, in her plan, in her capacity to answer questions for mainstream media and, through that, to be held accountable to the citizens of the province,” said Notley.

Smith’s UCP, meanwhile, accused Notley of hypocrisy for chastising Smith while the NDP leader refused to take queries from the Western Standard news website at a Monday event.

Notley said she respects media and differing political viewpoints among media but cannot dignify an organization that she says, through its editorial policy, ignores human rights and dignity by promoting discrimination and hatred, particularly toward the LGBTQ community and members of Notley’s caucus.

Smith said until the Western Standard retracts and apologizes for past stories, “I simply cannot engage in any sort of normalization of that kind of conversation. It is a breach of our human rights code.”

Western Standard publisher Derek Fildebrandt responded in a statement.

“Rachel Notley is entitled to decide who she will take question from and how many, however hypocritical,” said Fildebrandt.

“She is not entitled to decide who is media and who is not. The Western Standard will never retract a story that contains no errors other than offending her sensitivities.”