Who’s a journalist? P.E.I. human rights case may have some answers

By Eric Mark Do

A human rights complaint in Prince Edward Island may define who is considered a journalist — or at least who is allowed in the P.E.I. legislative press gallery.

By Eric Mark Do

A human rights complaint in Prince Edward Island may define who is considered a journalist — or at least who is allowed in the P.E.I. legislative press gallery.

In October 2009, Stephen Pate, a local blogger and disability advocate was kicked out of the press gallery by a vote of 11-2. He filed a complaint against the legislative press gallery a year later alleging that it was an act of discrimination based on his disability. Pate has post-polio syndrome and he says he’s confined to a wheelchair for much of the time. The discrimination allegations have not been proven in court or before a human rights panel.

The circumstances leading up to Pate’s removal from the gallery bring into question what a member of the press is allowed to do.

Pate is the leader of Disability Alert, a group that advocates for rights of the disabled. That group’s blog is now a part of Pate’s NJN Network, a blogging site. He is a director for both organizations.

It seems that the press gallery sees him as an advocate and not a journalist. But Pate argues that advocating for disabled rights is not a conflict for a member of the press gallery. Pate cites former broadcaster and current lieutenant governor of Ontario David Onley, who also has post-polio syndrome, as an example of a journalist who advocated for disabled rights.

When Pate was a member of the press gallery in September 2009, he published a fake press release on his site and sent it to media outlets around P.E.I. stating the Government of P.E.I. formed a six-figure public private partnership to help disabled individuals have better access at a local library. Pate contends it was a satirical piece; the current online version has disclaimers at the beginning and end, but one member of the gallery said there were no disclaimers when it was first published. Less than a month later Pate’s press pass was taken away.

Wayne Thibodeau, press gallery president and a reporter for the Guardian, says he doesn’t agree with Pate that he is a journalist and expressed concern that his actions jeopardized the independence and freedom of the press in P.E.I.

“We were going to have someone there who was going to start tainting the media corps and was going to hamper the ability of journalists whether they're working for traditional media or new media,” he says. “So that's why we took the action that we did. Other bodies will determine whether or not we made the right decision."

Thibodeau is named in the human rights complaint, along with another Guardian reporter, Teresa Wright, and a CBC producer, Donna Allen, all members of the press gallery.

Pate’s complaint was initially dismissed as “without merit” by the executive director of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission, but later overturned upon appeal by the chairperson. Alan Parish, who is the lawyer for the press gallery members named in the complaint, has filed an application to the Supreme Court of P.E.I. for a judicial review of the chair’s decision."

“The matter is now in the hands of the panel and they will decide whether to put the hearing on hold, pending the appeal,or to continue with the panel process,” Anne Nicholson, chair of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission said in an email to J-Source.

Pate says he hasn’t returned to the legislature since he lost his press pass because the area reserved for the public is steep and he can’t walk there.

“Of all the people who are journalists in P.E.I., I'm the only one with this disability and I'm the only one who's not allowed to use the tools of journalism,” says Pate.

The next step in the proceeding, Parish explains, is the commission has to put together the record to be filed with the court . “That hasn't happened yet and the ball is in the commission's court.”

First image courtesy of Stephen Pate.

Second image taken by Brian Simpson, provincial photographer, in 2012 and courtesy of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island. It shows the public gallery overhead with the media gallery just underneath.