By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor
Parliamentary Press Gallery members are still trying to figure out what proposed new security measures will mean for them.
On Feb. 24, CBC reported that the House of Commons administrative committee had recommended new screening measures for access to parliamentary buildings, which may apply to any journalist looking to obtain a Parliament Building access pass. The proposed measures include “fingerprinting for criminal record checks.”
Heather Bradley, director of communications for the Office of the Speaker at the House of Commons, told J-Source in an email that an independent security assessment and internal audit of physical access to the Parliament buildings, both done in 2015, concluded that “mandatory site access security screening should be conducted for all individuals who regularly access buildings within the Parliamentary Precinct.”
“In response to these findings, the Board of Internal Economy directed the House Administration in June 2016 to develop a full program proposal and implementation plan for changes to the mandatory site access security screening process.”
Tonda MacCharles, the recently appointed president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and parliamentary reporter at the Toronto Star, told J-Source that Ottawa journalists only became aware of recommendations early during the week of Feb. 24.
“We don’t have that audit. We don’t know what it reported, but it recommended this increased screening for everybody—so here we are,” she said.
The assessment and audit are not publicly available for security reasons, said Bradley.
Since a 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill, the RCMP has taken over operational command of all security.
MacCharles said the Toronto Star has requested access to the documents. However, the House Speaker’s office and House of Commons administration are not subject to the Access to Information Act, so the audit cannot be accessed through a freedom of information request.
She added that there is still a lack of clarity about how these new screenings will work and if they will apply equally to all people who require access passes to the Parliament buildings. For example, she wonders what would be deemed grounds to bar someone from getting an access pass.
“We’ve seen in Quebec that police have been very overzealous in dealing with the freedoms that journalists are supposed to enjoy in a democracy,” she said. “Our awareness is very heightened and we are concerned that this proposal be a warranted one. We want to know, what is the basis for it? What is the threat they’ve perceived?”
MacCharles pointed out that journalists have never been considered a security threat in Ottawa, and many were also in the line of fire during the 2014 terrorist attack on Parliament Hill. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the shooter, was a member of the public when he entered the Centre Block building on Oct. 22, 2014. Currently people without permanent access passes for the Parliament Hill buildings have to go through a physical security screening, similar to what you would go through at an airport.
With so many questions, it’s hard to predict the impact this could have on the press. MacCharles said that while a reporter could probably get by without full access if necessary, access to MPs and their staff is very important to do value added reporting. “It would have a huge impact on their reporting if they could not have access when they need it,” she said.
She is however buoyed by the fact that House of Commons staff have been open to discussion on the matter. Bradley said discussions and consultations are currently underway regarding the security screening process.