On the Misrepresentations of Gaza in Canadian News Coverage

Middle East Professor Ariel Salzmann and activist Azeezah Kanji cite specific examples of how Canadian media has misrepresented the ongoing assault and how the Harper government aims to fuel this conflict to ensure high prices for Tar Sands oil

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Here at The Real News we’ve brought on guests to critique how the mainstream press in the United States is covering the conflict in Gaza. But today we’d like to focus on our neighbor to the north, Canada, and take a look at how Canadian media is covering this story.

Now joining us to get into this discussion are our two guests. Ariel Salzmann is an associate professor of Islamic and world history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She regularly comments on the Middle East for mainstream Canadian outlets.

Also joining us, by phone from Toronto, is Azeezah Kanji. She’s a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s faculty of law, and she just cowrote an open letter signed by more than 1,000 lawyers, academics, and community leaders which condemn the Canadian government for backing Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Thank you both for joining us.

ARIEL SALZMANN, ASSOC. PROF. ISLAMIC AND WORLD HISTORY, QUEEN’S UNIV.: Thank you, Jessica.

AZEEZAH KANJI, LAW GRADUATE AND ACTIVIST: Thank you, Jessica.

So, before we start unpacking all these issues, Professor Salzmann, you were recently on CTV to talk about how Hamas uses tunnels to carry out attacks against Israelis. But in the interview, you didn’t quite play along with that framework. So let’s quickly take a look at what transpired.

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CTV INTERVIEWER: So tell me why these tunnels were built in the first place.

SALZMANN: Well, before I get to that, let me just say that the Israeli defense forces and the Israeli governments know how to change the topic. I mean, they’ve been giving guided tours of the tunnels. Meanwhile, probably about 1,300 people thus far have died in a brutal assault that actually was a war of choice on the part of Israel. [snip] In changing the topic, it’s also changing the topic about the reasons why Israel began this war. This war that is to avoid a political solution.

CTV INTERVIEWER: Ms. Salzmann, listen, we–.

SALZMANN: Yes. Dr. Salzmann. Yes.

CTV INTERVIEWER: Oh, Dr. Salzmann. Well, before I let you go, I just want to clarify a few things. We appreciate you coming on and appreciate your opinion. I do take exception to you telling me to check my records. This isn’t a fight. We’re trying to enlighten our viewing audience. So thank you for your time.

SALZMANN: Yup.

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DESVARIEUX: Professor Salzmann, what actually made you decide to change the direction of the conversation? What really happened there?

SALZMANN: I don’t think I changed the direction of the conversation, because I had had a pre-interview with the story producer the day before. In fact, they called me at the last minute. And I made myself available to the press on a number of topics. And I’ve been on CTV many times, not on this topic, but, for example, last year, on Turkey. So they knew roughly the direction I was going to head in, at least the story producer did, because I told them that the tunnels were just the facade behind which a whole lot of other things were happening, particularly the siege. And so, as we discussed it, he said, well, you’re going to have to shrink that discussion down to about four minutes; you’re not going to have more than that. So I said, fine. And I got my talking points and I knew where I was going when I got on there.

And, of course, I’m an animated person, so I get upset about seeing the things that are happening in real time on the news. And whether it’s in Palestine or it’s in Egypt or some other part of the world or in Haiti, I have an emotional take. So I think the more /aɪˈbɪltu/ collected my information and my perspective and got on the news, I knew where I was going, and I knew what had to be said in the context, what was morally right and objectively right to say.

So I think they were taken aback. I don’t know why. I think there was a number of reasons, clearly, because I could muster those basic facts about the situation, which they were trying to offset with imagery, much of which I couldn’t see. But I knew that’s the way they were playing it on air. And that was also more and more disturbing, because the tunnels are a red herring. They were not at all mentioned when Israel began its onslaught. There’s been a steady migration of the reasons for carrying out this operation and who was to blame. And now we’re on the tunnels, and the tunnels still appear throughout the news, the North American news, and even on CBC’s website, which features a slide show which was clearly provided to them by the Israeli Defense Forces. So I think it was just natural that anyone with any reputation or knowledge in the field would have to take the discussion in that direction.

DESVARIEUX: Azeezah, I want to bring you into the conversation and get your take. Do you agree with that assessment? Is this how most Canadian media is really framing the conversation? And particularly I want to talk about the Canadian print media. Are they handling this in a different way?

KANJI: Certainly the hegemonic consensus on Gaza is usually not maintained as aggressively as in the interview with Prof. Salzmann, but there are definite limits on the sayable that pervade Canadian media coverage on Gaza. And I think the coverage of Gaza in The Globe and Mail is a very good example of this. For our American viewers, who are perhaps not as familiar with Canada as we are with them, The Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s two national newspapers. It’s largely regarded as the being the more liberal of the newspapers, and it’s also considered to not have such a pronounced bias on Palestine and Israel as some of our other media productions are. And yet in The Globe and Mail‘s coverage on Gaza, it is almost never mentioned that Gaza is occupied territory according to international law and has been subject to a crippling siege for the last seven years, as well as episodic military assaults, which are really aimed at mowing the lawn of Palestinian autonomy and resistance. But because this broader political, legal, and social context is largely eliminated, coverage focuses largely on Hamas’s rockets as being the first cause of violence in this latest assault, which maintains the foundational myth that the onslaught on Gaza is actually a war of self-defense on the part of Israel, even if this war is currently being excessively executed.

DESVARIEUX: And when I’m hearing all of this, I can’t help but think about the political landscape there in Canada. It has been shifting more and more to the right. Prof. Salzmann, do you think this is a reflection, what we’re seeing in the media, of what’s actually happening in the political landscape in Canada?

SALZMANN: Yes, and there’s a level of incoherence, too, because I must say might that the reaction to my interview in the end was overwhelmingly positive. So there’s an increasing disconnect between the mainstream media and Harper’s government’s politics on the international stage and what I would say most Canadians feel about the region and feel about the horror, the genuine horror they felt at Israel’s conduct in Gaza over the last month.

But in the course of my residence in Canada–I’m an American citizen who immigrated here in 2003–I’ve seen the shift. There’s been a very profound shift. I came here; Jean Chretien was the liberal prime minister; he resisted Bush and Cheney’s call to go into Iraq and sided with the Europeans. And then–and perhaps my colleague and friend Azeezah will correct me here–there are lines of continuity between the Liberals and the Conservatives, to be sure, on many topics, on the treatment of the First Nations, of indigenous populations. And the Liberals, too, signed on to the war on terror, which has resulted in the unjustifiable imprisonment of many people and the rendition, notably, of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian background who was sent to Syria to be tortured, with the knowledge of the Canadian government. So on the one level, the Liberals have maintained more of a veneer of multilateralism. And when the Conservatives came to power, they just shed that veneer entirely. And, again, for our American audiences, we can think of them as the sort of Alberta-Texas equivalent of Republicanism, but they’ve actually–on the international stage, they’ve continually taken, many times, a more extreme position and even Britain or the United States. And the question is: why? And I think part of it clearly is ideological. This is a very right-wing party. They’re not in favor of immigration. And they’ve used the Jewish vote in order to shift ridings in very important districts in Toronto. The Jewish vote is–we’re talking about 1 percent of the Canadian population.

But I think there’s a whole ‘nother economic issue as they slice and dice what’s left of the Canadian social welfare system, whether it’s the health care or whether it’s the public university system, which I’m very happy to be a part of, or whether it’s CBC, which is funded publicly.

So as they slice this and they move in this direction of downsizing the social welfare and the progressive parts of the Canadian system, including development aid, etc., we have to also remember there is an economic agenda here which is very much tied to the tar sands. And I don’t think this is emphasized quite enough. And for activists in the United States, environmental activists working on the pipeline issue, this is part of it. But it’s also the fact that the Middle East is tied in here. And the Middle East politics is tied in here [in a] very important way. Until 2003, the tar sands, which have much–the Canadians have [incompr.] have a strategic value. They’re the dirtiest, most expensive type of fossil fuel to mine and use and refine. Until 2003, they were not profitable. Conflict in the Middle East makes the tar sands profitable. And this is a very, very important point that is not emphasized enough. So the more war in the Middle East, the better for those people who are promoting the dirtiest–some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.

And so you can see all these pressures economic, political moving the agenda across the board. And, again, there isn’t a Canadian party that would break with Israel or would critique Israel, but yet the Conservatives have taken it to a degree which has never been seen before, to the extent that when Harper made arrangements for his tour, his much touted tour to Israel in early 2014, he actually invited a member of the Jewish Defense League, an organization that the Anti-Defamation League in the United States and the Southern Poverty Law Center in the United States recognizes as a racist, extremely racist, violent organization, which has now taken up residence in Canada and that the Harper government has embraced as legitimate representatives of Jews in Canada and the world.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. But at the end of the day, the Harper government–these guys are elected into office. So I know, Azeezah, you came up with this joint letter and, like I mentioned in your introduction, more than 1,000 lawyers and academics and community leaders signed this. But my question then becomes, is the Harper government reflecting the will of the Canadian people? Or do you think there’s a disconnect between the Canadian people and the way the Harper government has been so pro-Israel?

KANJI: There is most definitely a disconnect between Canadians’ public sentiment on this issue and the position of not only the Harper Conservative government, but the position of all of the federal political parties on the current violence in Gaza. And I think what is been so disconcerting to the Canadian public is the fact that almost all–that all of the federal political parties have substantively fallen into line with the Conservative government’s position on this issue. And the pillars of this position include proclamation, absolute proclamation of Israel’s right to self-defense, absolute condemnation of Hamas’s rockets, and the failure to condemn Israel’s very serious violations of international law.

Furthermore, many of many of these talking points of the Canadian government, which are also the talking points of the Israeli government, have been reproduced uncritically in Canadian media, for example the claim that Hamas has been using Palestinian civilians as human shields, which has been used to excuse if not justify the disproportionate casualties that we have seen in this onslaught on Gaza. And these reports always fail to mention, for example, that journalists and human rights organizations have found no evidence that Palestinian civilians have actually been functioning as human shields, and that even if Hamas was trying to use Palestinian civilians in this way, Israel is still bound by international law to minimize civilian casualties. And so this consensus, political media consensus on what’s happening in Gaza right now has proven extremely dismaying, disconcerting for Canadians whose political and moral sensibilities simply do not align with this justification for indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Azeezah Kenji and Prof. Salzmann, thank you both for joining us.

SALZMANN: Thank you.

KANJI: Thank you, Jessica.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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