Plans by a council to bar journalists from its weekly committee meetings have been branded an “attack on democracy”.
Strabane District Council has begun low-level discussions which could see reporters prevented from attending its regular committee meetings, where councillors meet to hear reports from heads of departments on issues such as economic development, environmental health and leisure.
But Barry McCall, president of the National Union of Journalists, said the union would oppose any such plans by the authority, which would mean reporters could only attend one full council meeting each month.
He said such a move would be “strongly resisted” by the union and it would contact the council with its concerns.
Barry told the Strabane Chronicle: “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.”
Strabane Chronicle reporter Conor Sharkey said the paper had not submitted an objection at this stage but would probably do so.
He told HTFP: “It would be a big deal for ourselves as a newspaper but I think it would be a bigger deal for the ratepayers.
“The issues that are being discussed are not national security, it is bread and butter issues such as waste management and leisure.
“It is ordinary issues that affect the men and women in the street. I think the ratepayers have a right to know about them. It is a huge concern to us. We pick up a lot of news stories from these meetings.”
Currently only eight local authorities on Northern Ireland are believed to restrict access to such committee meetings.
The council said that no decisions has yet been made but denied that the plans would restrict press coverage because more reports and minutes would be available to the media.
Interim chief executive Danny 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.
“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.”
The plans are the latest in a string of incidents affecting access by journalists to council meetings.
Last week, the Oxford Mail was prevented from attending a standards committee meeting held by Oxford City Council which investigated the conduct of a Lord Mayor.
And in December, Norwich Evening News journalist Tom Bristow was barred from a meeting of Hellesdon Parish Council in which councillors discussed a policy which prevented a five-year-old diabetic girl from attending a Christmas party.