OTTAWA — A Federal Court judge will rule Wednesday on a right-wing media organization's request for an injunction after it was denied accreditation to cover this week's two official federal leaders' debates.
Rebel News Network was granted an emergency hearing Tuesday in the court after the Leaders' Debates Commission denied several of their journalists the credentials needed to fully cover Wednesday's French-language and Thursday's English-language contest between the major party leaders.
After presiding over two and half hours of oral arguments, Justice Elizabeth Heneghan said she would render a decision by Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.
That means her ruling will come hours before the first of the two debates, which is in French on Wednesday evening, broadcast from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. It will be followed a day later by the English debate Thursday night.
While the debate broadcast can be watched by anyone, journalists require accreditation so they can take part in the questioning of the leaders afterward.
Rebel, the commission and the federal attorney general filed thousands of pages of court documents between them after the commission issued its rejection just before the start of the Labour Day long weekend.
"I have read as much as I have needed to read of the motion materials filed and will read any anything else as is required," Heneghan said from St. John's, N.L., where she was presiding over the court hearing that was held via video conference.
Rebel and another organization were initially denied accreditation in the 2019 leaders' debates, but they won access after turning to the court.
Rebel alleges in court documents that the commission was capricious, unfair, unlawful and arbitrary in denying its journalists the right to fully cover the debate.
"The imposition of these standards amounts to an attempt to regulate the media industry and profession," Rebel says.
"The decision was conducted in bad faith for the sole purpose to deny Rebel News access to the debates."
The commission responded in court documents that Rebel violated the commission's conflict of interest rules because it is actively involved in campaigns related to the stories it covers.
In a letter filed in court, debates commissioner and former governor general David Johnston cites Rebel's fundraising campaigns to raise money to oppose policies, including COVID-19 vaccine passports, a federal bill to amend the Broadcasting Act, the federal government’s quarantine hotel requirements and to constitutionally challenge Saskatchewan's lockdown law.
"Based on the review of the above, Rebel News is actively involved in campaigns about stories it covers. It becomes an actor in these stories. This conduct is a conflict of interest," Johnston concluded in a letter to the organization denying them access.
The commission said in another court document that in 2019 it did not "publicly publish" the criteria for determining accreditation for media organizations.
In 2021, it updated its media accreditation criteria to explain its rationale behind what it considered "high journalistic standards," the commission said.
"In particular, the Commission has interpreted high journalistic standards to mean that journalists should not have a conflict of interest in the story that they are covering," the commission said in a court filing.
"As such, the absence of a conflict of interest is the principal criteria the Commission will use to evaluate applications for accreditation."
The commission said in the documents that it reviewed conflict of interest guidelines by the Canadian Association of Journalists.
"The Commission recognizes that media organizations, columnists or commentators may have an editorial point of view or endorse political candidates or political causes. However, a conflict of interest arises when the media organization or journalist becomes an active participant in the story that they are covering."
Ezra Levant, Rebel's founder, said in a 460-page affidavit filed with the court that the commission was unfairly targeting his organization. He accused other media organizations of engaging in advocacy.
"The manner by which the Commission has used and has relied on the statements and guidelines of the CAJ in crafting the Application Process and governing Accreditation for the Debates is deeply suspect — both in substance, purpose, and intent — is contradictory, capricious, and is tainted by logical contradictions, ethical irregularities, circular reasoning, and irrationality."
Last month, the commission denied invitations to leaders of the People's Party of Canada and the new Maverick Party because they fell short of the popular vote threshold that the commission set in new rules following the 2019 campaign.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2021.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press