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04/13/2018 11:47 EDT | Updated 04/16/2018 09:39 EDT

CJFE Has Failed In Its Mission To Fight For Journalists

The journalists that pressured the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression into censorship should be ashamed of jeopardizing their work.

The Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE,) a non-profit organization, recently removed a statement from its website, without offering any explanation for days. In doing so, the CJFE betrayed its mission.

The statement, published on April 2, focused on Israel's latest violent crackdown on unarmed Palestinian protesters, which began on March 30. At the time of publication, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed 15 Palestinians, and injured more than 1,000 others, including 10 journalists.

The statement's author, CJFE's promotions and communications co-ordinator Kevin Metcalf, wrote that the Canadian government "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."

In the following days, a clique of centrist to right-wing journalists publicly expressed outrage with the statement, claiming the CJFE should have remained "neutral." During that same period of time, at least 15 more Palestinians were killed, and 1,600 injured. This included seven journalists, one of whom was killed by an Israeli sniper while wearing the internationally recognized "PRESS" jacket.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The funeral ceremony for Yaser Murtaja, a Palestinian reporter killed by the Israel Defense Forces while covering a rally on the Gaza border, is held in Gaza on April 7, 2018.

On April 8, the statement suddenly disappeared from the CJFE's website. Then, silence until three days later, when the CJFE issued another statement, from their new president Philip Tunley. This statement, which is supposed to explain the act of censorship, offers no coherent reasoning.

Tunley's letter notes that the CJFE's process for issuing statements will be changed going forward, implying that Metcalf, and co-director Duncan Pike, who approved the statement, broke no rules, which CJFE vice-president, Tom Henheffer, confirmed.

Tunley goes on to claim Metcalf's statement "went beyond the organization's mandate." Yet according to Henheffer, who spoke to Canadaland for an April 10 article, calling out foreign governments through statements and petitions is within the organization's mandate, and has been done before. In an April 12 podcast on Canadaland, he mentioned Russia, Iran and China as examples.

The difference here is that these states have been demonized by the Canadian government, while Israel receives uncritical support. The issue, then, is not that the CJFE went beyond its mandate, or suddenly transformed from being neutral to partisan, but that it issued a statement not in line with the Canadian government's foreign policy.

This is not justifiable cause for censorship. Doing so undermines the CJFE's independence, and thereby its ability to achieve its core mandate.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Tom Henheffer, then executive director of the Canadian Journalist for Free Expression during a demonstration on Feb. 27, 2014 in Toronto calling for the release of Al Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt.

Tunley later writes that the CJFE's board, which removed the statement, decided it was "overreaching." He didn't offer any rationale for this conclusion, and it's difficult to see how an organization dedicated to fighting for free expression calling for action against a government that kills unarmed protesters and members of the press is "overreaching."

To make matters more confusing, later in the statement Tunley writes that the CJFE condemns the IDF's violence, calls on the Israeli government to investigate what happened and urges the Canadian government to push for the same, making the new statement similar to the old statement in this regard, although Henheffer later told Canadaland he and the board felt the original statement was "incorrect in tone."

As such, the question remains: why was the statement really censored? A possible answer, based on the publicly available facts, is money.

Henheffer, speaking to Canadian Jewish News, said the CJFE is in "financial trouble." Speaking to Canadaland for an April 10 article, he reiterated the organization's money problems, and said they're having trouble getting sponsorships. He added, "Unfortunately, the political climate is such that taking any kind of advocacy stance on almost anything is incredibly fraught these days."

Metcalf, meanwhile, issued a public statement on his personal Facebook page on April 8, where he explained that he's currently on paid leave and expects to be terminated from his position. (Update: Metcalf has since been fired.)

Within that post, he states that the group is facing an ongoing "fundraising crunch." Metcalf also mentions the resignations of "CBC employees who were powerful contributing members of the Gala fundraising committee" as a reason for the weakening of the organization.

The fact that CJFE feels it has to choose between calling for concrete action against a government that is killing and injuring members of the press, and their 'core mandate,' is a disgrace

Two days later, CBC's "As It Happens" host Carol Off told reporter Sean Craig that she stepped down to avoid a conflict of interest, which she has done before, as she covers Gaza regularly. Off added that she "began to feel embarrassed" by the CJFE's actions.

A more realistic reason the statement was removed, is that, at the very least, the CJFE was worried about losing funding, so the board decided to censor the statement to stay alive and do work they deem to be more worthy (and much of the work they've done, and are doing, is absolutely worthy).

This is hinted at by Tunley, who wrote that over the next few months the CJFE will "focus its efforts on its core mandate and on securing adequate funding to carry on its work." It's unclear why releasing short statements on international issues every so often would prevent the CJFE from also working toward "securing adequate funding," unless these statements turned off existing, or potential, donors.

AFP/Getty Images
People take part in a protest on April 11 in Istanbul, against the killing of a fellow journalist, Palestinian Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli forces

The fact that CJFE feels it has to choose between calling for concrete action against a government that is killing and injuring members of the press, and their "core mandate" — or that the two things are different in the first place — is a disgrace. The CJFE board members' decision has tarnished the organization's legacy.

The journalists, editors and possibly donors that pressured and condemned the CJFE should also be ashamed, as they've jeopardized the organization's ability to do good work, while citing journalistic ethics as the cause for their outrage.

For example, The Globe and Mail international affairs columnist, Doug Saunders, told Canadaland, "By making us appear to be political activists with a priori stances rather than professional fact-gatherers who reach conclusions after assembling reliable information, [CJFE tarnishes] our credibility and make[s] it more difficult and dangerous for us to operate in politically complex environments such as Gaza."

This makes it seem like the CJFE's statement was a lie. In fact, the CJFE's original statement was based on reliable reporting on the ground, none of which has been disputed. If Saunders doesn't like the conclusion the CJFE came to as a result of this process, that's too bad, but he shouldn't try to portray it as a journalistic failure.

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The idea that the CJFE has put Saunders in danger is ridiculous, yet the unwillingness of Israel's allies to condemn the IDF's violence certainly helps put the lives of Palestinian journalists at continued risk. Palestinian journalists' lives matter, and they should to CJFE as well. After all, the organization is called Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, not Canadian Journalists for Free Expression of Canadian Journalists.

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