OTTAWA—Journalists who want access to Parliament Hill may soon have to undergo fingerprinting and criminal background checks by the RCMP.
The move, revealed Friday, has sparked concern among journalists who fear it will give too much power to police and parliamentary staff to screen reporters assigned to cover activities on the Hill.
“The idea that the RCMP would vet journalists . . . doesn’t work for us,” said Tonda MacCharles, president of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery and an Ottawa-based reporter with the Toronto Star.
“They don’t get to decide who we are as journalists. They don’t get to decide who can and can’t have access for their job in our view,” she said.
Security has been overhauled on Parliament Hill since Oct. 22, 2014, when a gunman shot dead a soldier standing guard at the National War Memorial, then stormed the centre block of Parliament where he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with RCMP and security staff.
According to a House of Commons document, this most recent proposal has its roots in a 2015 internal audit that concluded that security screening should be done on all individuals who have regular access to parliamentary buildings. That audit has not been made public.
Last year, the Board of Internal Economy, the all-party committee that oversees the administration of the House of Commons, directed staff to implement mandatory screening for all new members of the press gallery, along with new employees, contractors, interns and volunteers who work in parliamentary offices.
The committee is hoping to have the new screening in place by summer.
Under the system, journalists would have to undergo a criminal record check done by the RCMP by having their fingerprints verified against a database.
“This will determine whether they match those of anyone convicted of a criminal offence,” the documents states.
The results of that check would highlight “any potential security concerns” and any “adverse information” could be grounds to deny a journalist access.
That decision would be made by parliament’s corporate security access office which would weigh the seriousness of the criminal convictions and factors such as the age at the time of the offence and “degree of rehabilitation.”
Denial of access could be appealed to the Clerk of the House of Commons and the Speaker for review.
At a press gallery meeting on Friday, journalists raised concerns about the proposal, notably the demand for fingerprints. As well, the House of Commons has not said what type of past criminal convictions might bar a journalist from getting access to the Hill.
“We’re opposed in principle that they would do it and, in the second instance, the mechanism around it,” she said.
As well, MacCharles said that parliamentary officials have yet to lay out their rationale for introducing security screening of journalists.
“There’s never been an incident where a journalist has posed a security threat so what’s this about. What’s its justification,” she said.
The parliamentary press gallery currently oversees the granting of temporary and yearly media passes to journalists who have been vouched for by their media outlets.
Heather Bradley, a spokesperson for Commons’ Speaker Geoff Regan, said that the screening plan has yet to be finalized.
“Discussions and consultations are currently underway regarding the security screening process, in order to strike an appropriate balance between safety and access to Parliamentary sites. The security of all is the top priority,” Bradley said in an email.
Such security screening of journalists is not in place at Queen’s Park, where the Legislative Press Gallery oversees the distribution of media passes, said gallery president Allison Jones, a reporter with Canadian Press.
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