After Criticizing Israel, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Fights for Survival

CJFE’s Kevin Metcalf tells The Real News he was placed on paid leave after he drafted a statement condemning Israel’s Land Day killings

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Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for the Real News Network from [Montreal, Canada.] Israeli military’s killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza has exposed the lengths to which prominent members of Canada’s corporate media are prepared to go to shield Israel from criticism. On March 30, which is known to Palestinians as Land Day, Israeli snipers killed 15 unarmed Palestinians and wounded over 1000 others, including numerous journalists. On April 2, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, or CJFE, issued a statement in which it expressed its grave concern over the killings. C JFE also called on Canada’s Trudeau government, which has been silent about the Gaza killings even as it has issued strong statements about a gas attack in Syria, to condemn the IDF’s Gaza killings and to use diplomatic, economic, and political means to ensure an independent and transparent investigation into the killings.

CJFE was founded in 1981. On its website it states that it works to defend and protect the right to free expression in Canada and around the world. It describes its mission in the following terms: “CJFE monitors, defends, and reports on free expression and access to information in Canada and abroad. Rooted in the field of journalism, we promote a free media as essential to a fair and open society. CJFE boldly champions the free expression rights of all people and encourages and supports individuals and groups in the protection of their own and others’ free expression rights.” Shortly after CJFE issued its statement on April 2, it came under withering attack from prominent journalists in Canada’s corporate media.

Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail launched the first broadside in a tweet, stating: Am I 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 CJFE realize how such politicking can damage our reputation and thus freedom? Not long after this tweet from Doug Saunders, columnist Jonathan Kay, a contributor to the right wing and staunchly pro-Israel National Post, tweeted that it was an embarrassment that the word ‘journalist’ is part of the CJFE’s name and that the group doesn’t even pretend to advocate for neutral journalism. Those are his words. Other tweets condemning the CJFE stance came from the highly controversial Ezra Levant of Rebel Media, as well as David Akin, chief political correspondent for Global News, and former National Post and Maclean’s editor Ken White, who says that CJEF, quote, “needs to be disbanded or totally restaff. It’s no longer about journalism. It just uses journalism to raise money to pursue its political causes,” close quote.

Within days of these attacks the CJFE removed the April 2 statement from its website. Then on April 9, the Canadian Jewish News reported the CJFE was backtracking on what it described as its pro-Palestinian statement, and that it might be forced to shut down altogether. Canadian Jewish News quoted CJFE board member Tom Henheffer, who according to the Canadian Jewish News stated that CJFE’s board achieved consensus that the statement should be pulled down and that CJFE is in financial trouble, and that its executive would meet in an emergency meeting on the evening of April 10 to explore whether the statement was within the group’s mandate, whether an apology for it should be issued, and how the vetting of statements should be handled in the future.

Now here to discuss all of this with us is Kevin Metcalf. Kevin is the promotions and communications coordinator for CJFE, and is presently on leave from the organization. In his spare time he advocates for responsible national security environmental policy, tracks hate groups and researches the rise of the radical right in North America. He lives and works in Toronto. Thanks very much for joining us today, Kevin.

KEVIN METCALF: Thanks so much, Dimitri.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Kevin, I’d like to start with a statement issued within the last two to three hours by CJFE. You brought it to my attention before we began the interview today. And I’m going to quote from it at some length because I think its precise wording is quite significant. And it says as follows: “Last week CJFE issued a statement condemning attacks on protesters and journalists by the IDF. The statement was published without being vetted by the board of CJFE and went beyond the organization’s mandate. Several concerns were raised over this statement. The board decided to remove the statement from the CJFE website and to review the matter.” And the board says it met on April 10 to review it. But it goes on to say that the board has decided to amend its communications policy. All public statements will now require approval. And CJFE defends, and these are the critical words, I would say, “CJFE defends and promotes freedom of expression here and abroad in relation to the events that took place on March 30. The board condemns in the strongest terms any attacks on journalists or peaceful groups expressing their rights to free expression. We condemn the Israeli Defense Force’s use of deadly force on journalists and protesters. We call on the government of Israel for a full transparent and independent investigation into the death, in particular, of photographer Yasser Murtaja, and the wounding of six other journalists on April 6. We also ask the Canadian government to echo this call.”

So, Kevin, after reading this statement that you alerted me to I managed to reach Tom Henheffer of the board of CJFE and asked him, because the statement doesn’t indicate this, how exactly the April 8 statement went beyond the mandate of the organization. And I pointed out to him that this new statement issued within the last few hours condemns the Israeli government in the strongest possible terms, and also calls on the Canadian government to echo CJFE’s calling for an independent investigation. And Mr. Henheffer indicated that the initial statement went too far in terms of the force of the language, and in calling for specific measures from the Canadian government.

So, Kevin, sorry for the long-winded background to all of this, but what do you make of all this? What is what is going on here?

KEVIN METCALF: Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. I read the statement fully expecting, and it’s sort of, was thrown to me in advance that the organization planned to distance itself from the original statement, that they planned to announce a form of a restructuring, a reformatting of the organization, to reconsider its mandate over the next several months.

I was surprised to see that it included a paragraph reiterating the concerns of the original statement, albeit in a softer tone and with a far less direct task of Canadian politicians. That really is the core difference that I see between what was published originally, and what came out today.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And do you anticipate that this statement that was emailed to the media is going to be put on the website and prominently displayed to the public? Is it your understanding that’s the intention here?

KEVIN METCALF: Right before this interview I checked. It still wasn’t up online. There are some technical processes behind updating the website, and that’s actually something that I, that I normally do. So whether or not it’s going to appear on the website, whether or not it’s going to feature graphic or just the organization’s logo, I’m not sure at this point. I imagine they will try to get it into the hands of all those folks relevant to the conversation, and since the conversation has included the public, I reckon they’ll try to get this into the hands of the public as well.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And could you tell us about the role that you played personally in the issuance of the April 8 statement, if any, and how all of this has affected your position at CJFE?

KEVIN METCALF: I was responsible for drafting the original statements, and it was passed to the acting executive director at the time, and he did review it. The edits we made the piece in the end constituted fact checking of the numbers of persons killed and wounded in the, the incidents on the Gaza border. As far as, sorry?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And how this has affected you personally.

KEVIN METCALF: So, I was put in a position where I could keep my job, likely, and remain quiet about the decision to remove the piece from the websites or speak up publicly about that. So I’ve chosen to do the latter. I think it’s very important people know that these decisions are being made. When it comes down to my personal situation, I’m currently on paid leave from the organization with a giant question mark on my future. I’m unsure what will happen for me next, but I do know that there have been resignations within the organization, and the way I see it things, things aren’t going well, despite today’s statement reiterating, sort of, an intent to move forward.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, in the past I understand that CJFE has issued statements condemning foreign governments for their complicity in attacks on journalists. Could you tell us about a couple of those instances, and, and also tell us whether people like Doug Saunders and Jonathan Kay took exception to CJFE’s condemnation of foreign governments, other foreign governments than Israel, in instances where journalists came under attack?

KEVIN METCALF: For sure. And just to be clear, I mean, we do more than just condemn attacks on journalists. CJFE speaks out on all sorts of press freedom issues, including censorship, human rights violations, arrests of activists. It has a long history of doing that. When I started at the organization in 2016, September of 2016 we were in the process of launching a campaign around the issue of impunity, targeting China. And that campaign was widely promoted. It featured a number of written pieces, alerts specific to the position of journalists in China were activists in China. And a letter writing campaign where we asked the public to send letters to Trudeau, calling on him to include human rights dialogue with China in free trade negotiations that were beginning at that time.

So certainly there is the clear use of a policy handle, free trade with China. Recommending the government take a specific action with respect to their relationship with that country, and being done with the best possible intention of upholding and promoting free expression in Canada and abroad. We issued a similar statement a few months ago in the case of Iran, protests in Iran. Antigovernment protests sweeping the country and a certain level of repression associated with those protests caused us to speak out. We launched a very successful petition, got several hundred signatures, and we had board members in the street at Iranian community protests getting people to sign physical copies of the petition. There was that much support.

And no, at no point did pundits on the left or the right speak out in condemnation of those, those actions. And frankly, I fail to see a fundamental difference between those positions that the organization took, which were supported and widely lauded, and this particular statement condemning the woundings of up to six journalists and killings of many, many protesters and woundings of hundreds more.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: You indicated earlier you published a statement on your Facebook page which I’ve had the benefit of reading, and in it you made some comments that were critical of the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, and the role that some people at that organisation may have played in all this. Could you enlighten us about what your concerns are with respect to the involvement of some CBC personnel in all of this?

KEVIN METCALF: CJFE is a journalist rights organization. It is connected very closely to folks in the industry. A lot of major outlets support the organization at its annual gala, and specifically the CBC has a long history of not just supporting, but helping to create the organization. It bears mentioning that senior members of the organization had a fundamental role both in creating CJFE and they have a history of working with or at the CBC.

So when we released the statements there was some controversy, I haven’t been actually apprised fully the details. What I understand is that a prominent CBC employee withdrew their support from the organization’s gala fund raising committee as sort of a protest over the content of the statement. That triggered a chain reaction. Many other folks resigned from that committee, and it ultimately culminated in, I’m told, the resignation of the executive director and president of the board.

So from, from what I can see there was a pretty effort to, if not silence, to express disapproval for the organization’s position, the position that at least the staff had taken releasing that statement. And it isn’t the first time that happened. There was a cataclysmic falling out with CBC when the organization decided to tackle the very, very necessary national security campaign around Bill C-51 in 2015. It was felt at that time that that action was too partisan. Two federal parties in Canada voted for it, and CBC wasn’t willing to support an organization at that time which was taking a political stand on a national security issue. They since came back to the table. We continued that campaign. So it’s not the first time it’s happened, and this just seemed like more of the same political maneuver. Which is, it’s endemic to an industry that’s funding-driven. Major funders do have control, unfortunately, over how and when organizations can speak. Even organizations dedicated to helping others speak.

Right. Well, this has been the Real News speaking to Kevin Metcalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression about a controversy surrounding a statement from the organization condemning Israel’s Land Day massacre. Thank you very much for joining us today, Kevin.

KEVIN METCALF: Thanks so much for having me, Dimitri.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News from Montreal, Canada.