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Were Canadian Journalists For Free Expression Wrong?

Last week the Canadian Journalists For Free Expression (CJFE) issued a statement (reproduced in full below) that said that Canada “must condemn the one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza, must immediately call for a cessation of these brutal practices and must use all available diplomatic, political and economic channels to pressure Israel to initiate a fulsome and transparent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the massacre.”

On the face of it, this seems hard to disagree with, though rest assured people found a way, including some prominent Canadian journalists.

The statement addressed Israel’s use of live ammunition against protesters, a minority of whom were violent, in Gaza on March 30, killings which it should be noted have continued since then, putting the death toll at least 31 with several hundred injured including several journalists. “Massacre” might seem strong, but that’s quibbling when over thirty unarmed people were shot dead and hundreds more put in the hospital. This was not the first time CJFE had taken a stand like this; they have also recently expressed concerns and criticisms of Iran, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Doug Saunders, popular Foreign Affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail, who did not take issue with CJFE’s other statements mentioned above, took umbrage when Israel was the country whose actions were being questioned. He sent out a tweet wondering whether he was “the only one disturbed that an organization called Canadian Journalists for Free expression is lobbying the Canadian government to take a specific position on Israel? Does (the CJFE) realize how such politicking can damage our reputation, and thus freedom?”

Saunders added that he was speaking as someone who had written a piece for the Globe that was critical of Israel’s actions on the Gaza border. “I don’t want a press-freedom group pushing for anti-Israel policy,” he tweeted. “I want them defending any colleagues who take the opposite view. How can they do that now?”

Robyn Urback, a former National Post columnist who’s now with the CBC, wrote that he approved of the statement, “as long as the CJFE changes its name to ‘A Select Group of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and A Bunch of Somewhat Related Things.’

Former National Post and Maclean’s editor Ken Whyte said that the CJFE “needs to be disbanded or totally restaffed. It’s no longer about journalism. It just uses journalism to raise money to pursue its political causes.” Because, you know, there’s lots of money to be made in criticising Israel (permit an eye-roll).

I find the criticism of CFJE hard to understand. It’s well known by now that there were members of Hamas among the protesters and that some were violent; it is also hopefully well known that that doesn’t allow Israel to pick them off with snipers. Israel also shot many unarmed protesters, several of whom died, some of whom have been clearly captured on video unarmed and running away from the border, or as in the case of Yasser Murtaja, who died of his injuries from Israeli sniper fire, were journalists wearing a press vest and taking pictures.

The CJFE cannot be accused of singling out Israel, and their statement also contains little that is controversial, at least to other press freedom and human rights groups. The American based Committee for the Protection of Journalists released a statement of concern about journalists being shot, and CJFE’s concern has been echoed in statements using similar language by Human Rights Watch, the ICC, and many others around the world.

On the face of it it’s hard to understand why Saunders would think that a statement criticising Israel for using live fire against unarmed protesters and journalists would be construed as in some way being an obstacle to the freedom of Canadian journalists to defend Israel in the press. It seems like what Saunders is saying is that if journalists are too critical of Israel their freedoms might be curtailed (by who? The Canadian government?) or that journalists will be less likely to write favorably of Israel if it is known that CFJE is critical of Israeli policy. Neither worry seems coherent to me.

Israel’s behaviour has thus resulted in very widespread criticism and many justified calls for investigation. Amidst the chorus of voices raised in protest, consternation, and condemnation, CJFE’s does not come across as particularly harsh.

Perhaps it would have been wise for CFJE to include a mention of their being violent actors amidst the protesters, but CJFE’s mandate is to defend the right of people to protest and the press to report on it. Both of those freedoms were clearly under attack by Israel, and CJFE responded to that as is their job.

Their job is not to issue pronouncements on the larger contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they didn’t. Can one imagine a parallel situation where amidst an Iranian protest some people were violent and the police responded by shooting hundreds of them, including people we know were unarmed, including journalists, and the CFJE protested only to be met with criticism from Saunders et al? That’s hard to imagine to me.

The only thing to take issue with in CJFE’s statement is their description of the protesters as “disorderly and boisterous.” That is surely an understatement, and may reflect bias, but it is also a minor issue in the more essential context of criticising the unneccesary use of fatal force by a state against civilians.

Suanne Kelman, a retired Ryerson University journalism professor, told the Canadian Jewish News it would be “short-sighted and inappropriate” for the CJFE to take a position on any specific conflict, “but that isn’t exactly what it’s doing here.” The group’s statement is a defence of free expression for journalists and protesters, Kelman said, “so CJFE is not violating its mandate.”

“This statement has been completely misconstrued and conflated, and it’s ridiculous. I’m curious if people talking about it online have even read the damn thing,” Vice President of CFJE Henheffer originally told Canadaland. “It’s well within our mandate. We’ve done it historically. We’ve called on the Canadian government to pressure Iran for better treatment of journalists. Same with Croatia, Turkey, Egypt, all of these things. Look at our work on Mohamed Fahmy. Everything we were putting out was calling on the Canadian government. We were very critical of Stephen Harper for not intervening when he should have.”

Be that as it may, the CFJE has rescinded their statement and removed it from their website. The writer of the statement, Kevin Metcalf, is on paid leave.

On Wednesday afternoon, CJFE’s board issued a new statement, which said that the earlier statement concerning Israel’s actions in Gaza “went beyond the organization’s mandate.” It also said that the organization still condemns the IDF’s “use of deadly force on journalists and protesters,” and called for an independent investigation into the events of March 30 and the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja on April 6.

In an interview recorded for Thursday’s episode of CANADALAND Short Cuts, Henheffer reportedly describes the earlier statement as having been “over-broad in focus” and “incorrect in tone.”

Original statement from CJFE sent April 2 at 5:45 p.m. EDT:

CJFE is gravely concerned by attacks on demonstrators and media in Gaza

CJFE is gravely concerned by the extrajudicial killings of demonstrators which occurred on March 30, 2018 in Gaza. It has been reported that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) used sniper fire, tank rounds and “less lethal” munitions like tear gas during a civil order event on the militarized border between Israel and Gaza. The United Nations reported that 15 Gazans were killed and more than 1000 were wounded. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms has stated that among those wounded in the massacre are many journalists.

We acknowledge the fact, as Israeli authorities have stated, that border demonstrations at the “March of Return” in commemoration of Palestinian “Land Day” were disorderly and boisterous in nature. We also recognize that the use of lethal force to respond to boisterous demonstration or civil disorder is an anathema to the principles of democracy, freedom and justice. Similar incidents have occurred in Tunisia, Syria and Ukraine. If similar incidents transpired in 2018, in any other country, the condemnation from the international community would be swift and clear.

Canada is recognized internationally as a close ally of the Israeli state. It is incongruous to profess support for democracy, human rights or press freedom while ignoring the deleterious effect that this repression by an allied state has on these values. Failure to condemn the IDF’s brutality will undermine Canada’s moral authority when condemning similar acts by any other nation-state. Targeted attacks against demonstrators and journalists must be condemned wherever they occur. Canada must speak out to defend universal principles of human rights, democracy and press freedom.

The Government of Canada must condemn the one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza, must immediately call for a cessation of these brutal practices, and must use all available diplomatic, political and economic channels to pressure Israel to initiate a fulsome and transparent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the massacre, which left 15 dead, and more than 1000 wounded.

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