THE NATIONAL Union of Journalists has said it will oppose any plans by Strabane District Council to restrict press attendance from its weekly committee meetings.
It emerged yesterday that low level discussions have already begun that could see local journalists prohibited from sitting in on certain meetings.
However the council yesterday denied that the plans will amount to a restriction on press coverage. It said rather than lessen the amount of information available to the press and public, the move would actually increase transparency in council business. Officials also stressed that no decisions had yet been taken on the matter.
Once a week elected representatives meet to hear reports from heads of departments including Economic Development, Environmental Health and Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is these meetings that council is considering holding behind closed doors.
The move would exclude the press from hearing any open debate on important environmental health, waste or economic issues directly affecting Strabane’s ratepayers. Instead they would only be able to access one single ‘full council meeting’ per month.
Reacting to the plans, the President of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Barry McCall, said the move would not go ahead unchallenged. He described any attempt to exclude the press from council matters as “an attack on democracy” and vowed to take it up with Strabane District Council’s chief executive, Danny McSorley, as a matter of urgency.
Mr McCall said, “Any plans to ban the press from local council committee meetings would be a direct attack on democracy and an attack on press freedom.
“Any efforts to ban the press are repugnant to an open and democratic society and will be strongly resisted by the NUJ. The union will raise its concerns with the District Council immediately.”
‘OPENNESS AND TRANSPARENCY’
Responding to concerns raised, interim chief executive of Strabane District Council, Danny McSorley said that any change in committee proceedings of council would lead to more openness and transparency. He also stressed that no decision had yet been taken.
Mr McSorley said, “Officials have been tasked to examine a range of options with the objective of creating more effective committee meetings and creating more openness and transparency in council business. Among the options being considered is a reduction of the extent of business which is transacted confidentially during council committee meetings.”
He added, “If this option were to be adopted, it would increase the availability of reports and minutes to the press in advance of the ‘full council’ meeting, beyond what is provided currently,” added Mr McSorley.