Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has admitted that it was “overreaching,” when it asked Canada to condemn Israel over its handling of the protests in Gaza.
After days of white-hot debate in the media on whether a journalists’ association should ask a government to take a side on a geopolitical issue, CJFE conceded that its statement on Israel “went beyond the organization’s mandate.” But it still condemned Israeli soldiers for using “deadly force” against journalists and demonstrators.
The original statement, which referenced a “Good Friday massacre” by Israeli soldiers on March 30, was published on the group’s website on April 2.
It was pulled a few days later, after several prominent journalists took to social media to slam the CJFE for breaching standards of neutrality by openly advocating a position on the Middle East conflict.
In its original statement on the current violence on the Israel-Gaza border, which was forwarded to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Israel’s consulate in Toronto, the CJFE said 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 [sic] and transparent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the massacre.”
Some columnists and observers called for the group to be disbanded. Others argued that the Palestinians who engaged in non-violent protests were exercising their right to free expression, which falls within the CJFE’s mandate.
In its defence, the CJFE said it has, in the past, asked Canada to condemn foreign actions related to human rights, digital security and the right to protest, in countries such as Iran, Russia, China and the United States.
On April 11, following an emergency meeting the evening before, the group changed its tone, but stopped short of issuing an apology.
CJFE president Philip Tunley said the statement on Israel had been published without being vetted by the organization’s board. After a review, “we decided that the statement was overreaching,” he said.
As a result, the board decided to amend its communications policy.
“All public statements will now require approval from a volunteer panel of board members, to ensure they are consistent with our mandate,” which is to defend and promote freedom of expression here and abroad, Tunley added.
As for the shooting deaths of Palestinian demonstrators and journalists on March 30, the CJFE’s board “condemns, in the strongest terms, any attacks on journalists or peaceful groups expressing their rights to free expression,” the group said in a statement.
We decided that the statement was overreaching.
– Philip Tunley
It went on to condemn the Israeli Defence Force’s use of “deadly force on journalists and protesters. We call on the government of Israel for a full, transparent, independent investigation into what happened on Friday March 30 and into the death of photographer Yasser Murtaja and the wounding of six other journalists on April 6.”
It asked the Canadian government “to echo this call.”
Tunley said the organization also needs to secure “adequate funding” and will take the next few months to “review” and “refocus” its work.
In an earlier email to The CJN, Duncan Pike, co-director of the CJFE, said his group’s statement on Israel was “consistent” with its mandate.
Pike told The CJN he has submitted his resignation, effective April 20.
“Recent events, compounded by the financial challenges facing the organization, made it clear to me that it was time to move on,” he said.
In a lengthy Facebook post after the statement was scrubbed from the Internet, Kevin Metcalf, the CJFE’s promotions and communications co-ordinator, said he expected to be fired and accused the organization of censorship.
We call on the government of Israel for a full, transparent, independent investigation into what happened.
Metcalf’s employment “is under review,” Tom Henheffer, a member of the CJFE board, told The CJN.
“Unfortunately, I can’t say anything else because it’s a confidential human resources issue,” he added.
Metcalf told The CJN that he has been advised by Pike that he is on paid leave until further notice.
“I have no frame of reference as to what may constitute further notice,” Metcalf said.
In its own statement, media watchdog Honest Reporting Canada said the CJFE failed to acknowledge in its first statement that Palestinians shot at IDF soldiers, threw firebombs, grenades, Molotov cocktails and rocks, “along with placing improvised explosive devices, igniting tires and trying to infiltrate into Israel – actions which would have put thousands of Israeli civilians at great risk.”