As tenants have rights, so do reporters in that space, says a media lawyer

EDMONTON — Edmonton police officers searching for stolen ministry laptops entered the offices of Alberta legislature press gallery members last week, raising press freedom concerns among journalists who cover Alberta politics.
On the evening of Tuesday, April 21, an unidentified man entered the Alberta legislature and stole two laptops belonging to ministry of health staff from one of the upper floors in the legislature, Edmonton police confirmed to the National Post in an email this week.
It’s unknown how the man police are hunting for entered the building after-hours, between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. It’s also unknown how long he spent in the legislature building.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are few people in the building, with no tours, public events or general public access.
The theft of the laptops — both encrypted, the police said — was reported to police on Wednesday morning.
The laptops “cannot be accessed without the laptop owner’s password credentials” said a statement from Stephen Bull, the province’s corporate chief information officer.
“These laptops are essentially useless to whomever had stolen them,” said Bull. “Due to the device encryption, there is no risk of a privacy breach.”
On Wednesday, Edmonton police, accompanied by the Alberta sheriffs searched through the legislature. In addition to looking through the windows, they opened doors to offices in the section of the building set aside for offices occupied by members of the press gallery.
The National Post and Edmonton Journal have reporters who are members of the press gallery and have offices on site. Journalists who cover Alberta politics have occupied that space for decades.
You have rights not to be searched and not to have your privacy invaded
It’s unknown whether or not Postmedia’s offices were among those searched by police, or to what extent. Nor is it known what other areas — if any — were searched in the legislature.
“Postmedia will be seeking clarity on whether the media offices were searched by the officers, and if anything was removed,” said Lorne Motley, Postmedia’s West region vice president of editorial. “We want to be clear that we support police in their work. However, it is troubling to learn the press gallery area may have been searched without the knowledge of the media organizations.”
Doug Richardson, a media lawyer with O’Donnell, Robertson and Partners in Toronto, who does media law for Postmedia, said reporters ought to have some rights in that space — though it’s complicated, depending on whether or not the search was merely visual or if it was more extensive.
“Just as a tenant does, you have rights. You have rights not to be searched and not to have your privacy invaded,” Richardson said. “To what extent was this searched? Did they just open the door and look?”
The Alberta Legislature grounds have seen far fewer visitors and legislature tours have been cancelled as the COVID-19 coronavirus has come to Alberta, seen in Edmonton, on Friday, March 20, 2020.Ian Kucerak/Postmedia
“That might sort of be the caveat here.”
The search has raised concerns among journalists in the gallery that there could be access to offices — which sometimes contain sensitive information — without reporters knowing, or if they’re handling documents or information that the government, or police, wish not to be in journalists’ hands.
While cleaning staff enter journalists’ offices with regularity to empty the trash, this search was unprecedented search, to the knowledge of members of the press gallery.
On Friday, police refused to comment further. Jason van Rassel, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, said Alberta Sheriffs are one of the agencies responsible for the security and protection of the Legislature building and its contents. When they were notified that someone unauthorized may have entered the building, they reviewed CCTV footage and searched the building for any potentially stolen goods. They considered this a criminal matter and contacted the Edmonton Police Service for further investigation.
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