Journalism itself became the story this week, when the group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) called on Canada to condemn Israel for its “one-sided” use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza, and to press for an end to “these brutal practices.”
Respected writers and reporters took to social media to slam the CJFE for breaching journalistic standards of neutrality by openly advocating a position on the Middle East conflict.
First out of the gate was Globe and Mail writer Doug Saunders, who wondered in a tweet 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?”
The CJFE’s “obsession with Israel does not make us look good,” Saunders later tweeted. “If they take the phrase ‘Canadian journalists’ out of their name I’ll be fine with it.”
The imbroglio began with an April 2 statement from the CJFE headlined, “Good Friday massacre in Gaza sees journalists, protesters treated as military targets.”
In it, the group said it was “gravely concerned by the extrajudicial killings of demonstrators” in Gaza on March 30.
Citing the United Nations, the group claimed that 15 Gazans were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded (Human Rights Watch tallied 14 dead and hundreds injured).
Among those wounded were “many” journalists, the CJFE added, citing the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms as its source.
“Use of lethal force to respond to boisterous demonstration or civil disorder is anathema to the principles of democracy, freedom and justice,” the CJFE stated.
I don’t want a press-freedom group pushing for anti-Israel policy.
– Doug Saunders
Founded in 1981 and formerly known as the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, the CJFE says it works “to defend and protect the right to free expression in Canada and around the world.”
In its statement, which was forwarded to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Israel’s consulate in Toronto, the CJFE 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 [sic] and transparent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the massacre.”
In a tweet, columnist Jonathan Kay, a CJN contributor, said that it is an “embarrassment” that the word journalist is part of the CJFE’s name and said that the group “doesn’t even pretend to advocate for neutral journalism.”
Robyn Urback, a former National Post columnist who’s now with the CBC, archly approved of the state of affairs, “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.’ ”
Other tweets condemning the CJFE’s stance came from Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant, David Akin, chief political correspondent for Global News, and former National Post and Maclean’s editor Ken Whyte, who 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.”
Jesse Brown, publisher of the news website Canadaland, was among those who were defending the CJFE, saying it has fought successfully to protect journalists’ sources. “Every journalist who relies on sources benefits from their work,” Brown tweeted.
It just uses journalism to raise money to pursue its political causes.
– Ken Whyte
Others noted that free expression includes the right to protest.
In an email to The CJN, Duncan Pike, co-director of the CFJE, said his group’s statement is “consistent” with its mandate to “monitor, defend and report on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad” and to “champion the free expression rights of all people, and encourage and support individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others’ free expression rights.”
Pike provided examples of other instances in which the CJFE asked Canada to condemn foreign actions as they related to human rights, digital security technology and the right to protest – in Iran, Russia, China and the United States.
B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said that, “The only legitimate position for a group representing journalists to take is to ensure that freedom of the press is upheld by all sides.”
The CJFE’s statement “goes well beyond that point. It uncritically accepts all Palestinian claims, accuses Israel of carrying out a ‘massacre’ without any factual basis and fails to even mention attempts by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel under cover of the recent protests on the Gaza border.”
Suanne Kelman, a retired Ryerson University journalism professor, said 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.”
Earlier this year, the CJFE was in the news when it withdrew a petition it had launched that called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to revoke U.S. President Donald Trump’s invitation to the G7 summit in June, after several journalists complained.