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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith threatens CBC with legal action over Coutts blockade stories

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is threatening legal action against the CBC if the corporation doesn’t retract and apologize for recent reporting about the premier and COVID-19-related criminal cases related to last year’s Coutts, Alta., blockade.

In a letter addressed to CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon and verified by CBC News, lawyer Munaf Mohamed, writing on Smith’s behalf, demands the corporation retract its reporting and publish an apology online and in news broadcasts “informing readers that it has no evidence of dishonesty or direct contact between the premier (or anyone in her office) and Alberta Crown prosecutors about any specific COVID-19-related prosecutions.”

The letter, dated Sunday, gives a deadline of April 28 before Smith may take legal action under the Defamation Act. 

At an unrelated news conference on Monday, Smith read from a written statement, saying: “As you know, there’s been a great deal of inaccurate, misleading and likely defamatory reporting about my discussions with justice officials regarding amnesty for COVID prosecutions.

“I have been clear that neither I, nor anyone within my staff, have contacted any Crown prosecutors, as has been alleged.”

Asked for comment, CBC’s head of public affairs Chuck Thompson said in an email, “As we’ve said all along, we stand by our journalism on this story and, if necessary, will defend it in court.”

The letter says a March 23 article, headlined “Danielle Smith discussed COVID charges ‘almost weekly’ with justice officials, according to leaked call,” and other recent articles and broadcasts “transparently seek to sensationalize allegations already fully addressed by the premier and resuscitate a false and defamatory narrative against the premier, her office, Alberta Crown prosecutors, and the administration of justice in Alberta.” 

‘Irresponsible reporting’

The leaked call reported on in the story is a phone conversation between Smith and Artur Pawlowski, a controversial Calgary street pastor. It happened in early January, just weeks before his trial in Lethbridge, Alta., on Feb. 2.

Pawlowski faces charges of criminal mischief and an offence under Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act related to last year’s blockade in Coutts, Alta., which paralyzed Alberta’s main U.S. border crossing for more than two weeks. A judge is set to deliver a verdict in early May.

The letter to CBC also calls attention to a Jan. 19 article headlined “Alberta premier’s office contacted Crown prosecution about Coutts cases: sources,” and calls it “irresponsible reporting by the CBC, presumably to sensationalize a political narrative.” 

A number of large trucks and three people walking can be seen on a snowy road. A dump truck nearest the camera is flying large Canadian, Albertan and U.S. flags.
The last truck blocking the southbound lane moves off after a breakthrough to resolve the impasse at a protest blockade at the U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 2, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The letter says that “absent an apology, retraction and correction from the CBC,” the premier will not be commenting. 

Smith has continuously denied that she or her office engaged in any inappropriate conduct regarding COVID-related prosecutions.

“As I have previously stated, I had my staff work with the Ministry of Justice, to determine if anything could be done to grant amnesty for those charged with non-violent, non-firearms COVID-related charges,” Smith said in a tweet on March 29 that referred to reporting by CBC News.

“As also indicated previously in multiple interviews, I received a legal brief from the Ministry of Justice recommending against pursuing amnesty further, as several matters involving this issue were and still are before the courts. I have followed that advice.”