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Debate commission drops appeal of court injunction forcing it to accredit Rebel Media, True North

Debate commission drops appeal of court injunction forcing it to accredit Rebel Media, True North
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OTTAWA — The commission that organized two leaders’ debates in the 2019 election has decided not to appeal a Federal Court injunction that forced it to give media accreditation to two right-wing online outlets, Rebel Media and the True North Centre.

Both outlets were rejected for accreditation — which allows them to cover the debate on site and put questions to the leaders in person afterward —  three days before the Oct. 7 English-language debate. A Federal Court judge granted an injunction on the afternoon of Oct. 7 allowing them accreditation.

The outlets are still seeking a full judicial review of whether the commission’s rejections were unreasonable and procedurally unfair, but the case was put on pause after the commission filed notice to appeal the injunction. With the appeal now dropped, the case proceeds again toward a full hearing, which may be many months away.

The Liberal government created the leaders’ debate commission on Oct. 30, 2018, as an independent body to organize two official election debates, and appointed former governor general David Johnston to lead it.

When the commission rejected Rebel and True North for accreditation, the only reason provided to the outlets was they were “actively involved in advocacy.”

Justice Russel Zinn, in granting the injunction, said it was unclear where the line was drawn on what counts as advocacy. He noted some of the accredited news organizations seemed to also engage in advocacy, citing the example of newspapers that “previously endorsed specific candidates and parties in general elections.”

“Absent any explanation as to the meaning to be given to the term ‘advocacy’ and given that the Commission accredited some organizations that have engaged in advocacy, I am at a loss to understand why the Commission reached the decisions it did with respect to the Applicants,” Zinn wrote.

“In short, the process adopted by the Commission left the Applicants in the dark as to the basis on which accreditation might be denied, and in making the decision on the last possible day, entailed that they would have no opportunity to respond.”

He ultimately granted the injunction, writing that the Rebel and True North appeared likely to succeed in their judicial review.

I am at a loss to understand why the Commission reached the decisions it did

However, the case was paused due to the commission filing notice to appeal the injunction on Oct. 17 (the notice was likely only filed to comply with a ten-day deadline). After reviewing the full written reasons released Nov. 13, the commission told the Federal Court of Appeal it was dropping the appeal.

“Our client is pleased that the unmeritorious appeal was discontinued and looks forward to proceeding forward with its judicial review application,” said a statement from lawyer Aaron Rosenberg, representing Rebel Media.

True North has retained the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms to carry its case forward. “At this point, the parties are working out a timeline for the exchange of documentation and affidavits over the next couple of months,” said lawyer Lisa Bildy.

A commission spokesperson declined to comment on why it dropped the appeal, but noted the commission will soon be filing a full report for tabling in Parliament. That report would have initially gone to the Minister of Democratic Institutions, but that position no longer exists in the new cabinet; instead it will go to Dominic Leblanc in his role as President of the Queen’s Privy Council.

The commission’s appointments last until Mar. 31, 2020. Leblanc and the federal cabinet will have to decide on next steps for the commission after that.

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