In May, Israel bombarded Gaza for 11 days, killing 256 Palestinians, including 66 children.
In the midst of this attack, hundreds of journalists in Canada signed an open letter calling for fairer coverage of Israel and Palestine. CBC then barred reporters who signed the letter from covering the region, claiming that doing so made them appear biased.
I was one of those who signed the open letter, because I believe the media should report fairly. I also expected there’d be a backlash to the letter within newsrooms, especially at the CBC, due to my own experiences: Years before this letter was released, I was fired from my media job for writing about Israel’s killing of protesters and journalists.
With help from the state broadcaster, over the course of a few weeks in 2018 my career was destroyed and my life’s work was completely uprooted. I now work as a landscaper for a living.
Here’s my story, and what it says about Canada’s current journalism landscape.
In my twenties, when people asked me what my plans for the future were, I’d confidently tell them that by 30 I’d be working as a salaried staffer with a nonprofit organization, and be well along my way to a dream career in journalism.
After moving to Toronto for university in 2009, I spent eight years doing door to door work for charities and nonprofits. Outside of this job, I was attending meetings, committees and working groups to tackle society’s most complex issues, including spending time with Greenpeace and 350.org, and tracking proposed oil transmission pipeline projects.
In January 2015, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government introduced Bill C-51, which granted expanded powers to Canada’s spy agencies and created new legal definitions for terrorism, I was in attendance for Toronto’s first meeting of concerned civil society groups.
I also helped to establish a grassroots campaign challenging the overreaches of federal law enforcement. This led me to do the work of confronting racism, as I could see that Islamophobia and the political policing of Muslim communities was driving a security state overreaction that also risked jeopardizing the right to peaceful environmental protest and advocacy. I became well-versed on a range of topics, including civil liberties, free speech, digital privacy, hate and fascism.
In August 2016, a colleague told me Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a lauded campaigning and advocacy group founded by broadcasting veterans, was hiring someone with my specific skill set as their promotions and communications coordinator.
I was familiar with CJFE and had a high degree of respect for their advocacy and work. Even though they were a small organization, they’d joined the campaign against Bill C-51, which was widely regarded as a threat to Canadian journalism. I applied to join the team.
During my job interview, I was asked something along the lines of what I thought the “number-one free speech issue of our time” was. The first thing that came to mind was a situation I’d recently discussed with two of my colleagues on the Bill C-51 campaign, concerning a Catholic school board teacher in Mississauga, Ont., who was suspended after she spoke at a pro-Palestine rally. This was a prime example of what I would consider to be “cancel culture.” As such, I very nearly answered, “Professional censure faced by people who speak out about Palestine.”
After a moment of profuse sweating, and a self-censoring mental calculus on whether a candid admission might be too controversial, reveal me as some kind of entryist or even just a liability unsuited for the discretion and delicacy required in a communications posting, I demurred: “Access to information; definitely access to information.”
I got the job, but it always bothered me that I felt obligated to omit the truth in my interview. But in the end, it was ignoring that self-moderating impulse that got me into trouble.
For nearly two years I was gainfully employed.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected to be the president of the United States, and used a mixture of outright lies and dangerous invective to weaken media institutions. Also that year, Jordan Peterson brought ‘free speech’ into the burgeoning culture war. With a corresponding rise in far-right extremism and the proliferation of online hate and fake news, the ecosystem for a free-expression nonprofit became increasingly hostile.
It was an exhilarating but stressful time. When we began actively opposing attempts to co-opt free expression as a shield for hate speech, we received threats, and a far-right commentator even read out my office address on his livestream. The situation culminated when two members of the Jewish Defence League attacked me at an anti-Muslim rally I was covering. (They’d later be charged with assault.)
One of my main job duties was to draft protest letters, short summaries of global press freedom or free expression issues that were sent to policymakers and human rights offenders. Sometimes these alerts would also articulate a clear and concise call to action. Throughout my time at CJFE I drafted and sent alerts about issues in Iran, China, Turkey, Myanmar and many other countries.
Thousands of Canadian journalists signed open letters, petitions and public appeals from CJFE on any number of issues. None of them faced professional sanction for doing so when they focused on the sort of governments I just mentioned, or were taken off coverage of the countries, as far as I know. I soon learned that wouldn’t always be the case.
In late March 2018, Gazans marked Palestinian Land Day with a series of “Great March of Return” demonstrations along the Israeli border. Israel cracked down on these demonstrations, and over the next couple weeks killed more than 25 Palestinians and injured hundreds of others, including journalists, leaving them with gunshot and shrapnel wounds that required hospitalization.
That month, CJFE received a media release from the Palestinian Center for Media Freedom and Development, which notified us of Israel’s killings of protesters and wounding of journalists. Following procedure, I drafted an alert to decry what happened, as did other groups, such as The Committee to Protect Journalists.
The letter, released on April 2, was addressed to Chrystia Freeland, then minister of foreign affairs, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I knew that such a statement would provoke some discomfort, because it was about Israel, but it was the truth.
After the statement was released, a laundry list of Canadian journalists — including Jesse Brown, Robyn Urback, Doug Saunders, Jonathan Kay and David Akin — tweeted hostile remarks about it.
Saunders accused us of “lobbying the Canadian government to take a specific position on Israel.” Other journalists raised concerns that their CJFE membership could now supposedly prevent them from “reporting objectively.” Some Twitter personalities suggested journalists should stop supporting the organization.
This backlash led some CBC employees to withdraw their funding and support for CJFE during an already dire financial crunch for the organization. This was damaging, as the CBC was a major CJFE funder, giving the organization money through grants, and covering a portion of program costs at the annual gala. In the midst of all of this controversy, an Israeli sniper killed Palestinian videographer Yaser Murtaja, recognized internationally for his work inside Gaza.
I wasn’t privy to any internal CJFE dialogue about my alert — which would later be deleted and replaced with a watered down version — and the first indication I received that something was amiss came two days after it was released. The interim executive director called me into a meeting and told me the organization was likely to fold due to pressure over the letter. He advised me to begin job hunting, and stated that both he and the president of the board had resigned their posts. A few days later, a courier delivered a formal notice of termination to my home.
To put it plainly: I believe I was fired by a free speech organization for publishing a routine letter that criticized Israel for killing journalists. I still don’t understand why I had to go. We spoke up in the way we always did, but there was an evident double standard.
In an interview for a CBC article about the ordeal, one of the journalists who played a crucial role in generating the backlash to the letter, CBC host Carol Off, explicitly said she believes Israel should be treated differently than other countries: “I think Israel’s excesses should be treated differently than those of Saudi Arabia. Israel has democratic institutions, a free press and a claim to transparency. Saudi Arabia does not. And so I think the language is different, as it would be for the United States. Israel has pressure points. It’s possible to actually make an appeal for accountability from Israel. Whether it works is another story.”
I discovered the hard way that many other journalists agree with her.
Feeling I had no other real play to make, I put up a statement of my own on Facebook telling my side of the story plainly. It explained what happened at CJFE, and featured a photo of the fatally wounded Murtaja contrasted with a stylized drawing of an injured journalist that we’d used in our advertising campaigns.
The statement got hundreds of comments and was shared more than 2,000 times. I got interview requests from across the country, including from Canadaland and the Toronto Star. Within a week the story was on Al Jazeera, and I got a call from RT. I took the interviews, but felt a deep sense of gloom: Controversy around Israel is the kiss of death in Canadian journalism. This was also not what I’d hoped to be known for.
I did get some meaningful support. Independent Jewish Voices Canada released a statement noting they were “deeply concerned” about my firing. Writer Monia Mazigh sent me a letter of support. Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani, who was, himself, shot while administering medical aid at Gaza protests that month, asked me if there was anything he could do to help. A few hundred very friendly and supportive Palestinians followed me on social media. Prominent opinion writers like Azeezah Kanji and Davide Mastracci published thoughtful takes on what my firing meant for Canada’s media landscape.
Yet besides these examples, and some quiet assurances that I’d been hard done by, there was no mass outcry. Several thousand people did not sign a petition, or publicly condemn media bias. Journalists were smug, as though I’d deserved it. Many people I spoke to were also unsympathetic. “That’s just how it works,” said a colleague, as though a state’s censorious influence over how it’s portrayed in foreign media is just a matter of fact, and not something abhorrent to be opposed. It felt, despite my best efforts, like I was the butt of some joke.
On social media, a whole host of racist commentators crowed gleefully about my termination. A far right stalker left an ominous note outside my home reminding me that “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.”
Maybe you’ve been through a job loss during the pandemic; maybe you know someone who has. It can be jarring, uprooting. You lose your confidence and can even lose yourself.
Losing my job wasn’t just a derailment — it was a train wreck. My friendships evaporated, a relationship of two years ended and I spent a despondent summer drinking my way through my severance, trying desperately to recover the confidence I’d had.
I applied for several nonprofit jobs but nobody called me back. I pitched a few ideas, and besides Ricochet picking up a couple stories from me, I heard nothing back. My network had vanished. People and organizations that I’d actually helped to get started while at CJFE were astonishingly quick to turn their backs on me. A former friend told me I was “radioactive.”
I gave up on trying to be published, and just started blogging. When my money ran out, I took a cash job doing carpentry and landscaping for a guy who couldn’t afford to pay me. Then a demolition job for some people who could.
I’m still employed as a landscaper. I spend my days building lawns for rich people, which has a special sort of irony as I’m someone who believes we could do with altogether fewer lawns and rich people.
It’s a living, and an honest one. There’s an ethic in hard work, and I take pride in how a backbreaking 50-hour week reveals what is truly necessary in life. Besides, my stint in Canadian media prepared me well to serve the rich.
My career might be dead, but I can still write this.
A veteran Al Jazeera journalist won’t be able to use her hand for a while, as it was fractured when she was arrested last month by Israeli forces, simply for doing her job. Associated Press and Al Jazeera journalists can no longer work in their offices in Gaza City, as they were destroyed by Israeli army bombs in May. Yaser Murtaja, and many other Palestinian journalists, can’t write anything anymore, ever.
Israel’s war on truth has real casualties: Human lives, and the stories that were never told.
At CJFE we talked a lot about impunity, that is, the absence of consequences for people whose behaviour would otherwise merit them. We had a whole section of our website devoted to it.
Impunity begins when good people who have the power to speak out do nothing. My termination from the organization contributed to the culture of impunity for Israel’s war on truth. Israel couldn’t bomb the offices of media workers and violently arrest journalists if it didn’t also effectively have allies in the international press that cover up, minimize or justify its excesses.
One of the core concerns Off expressed about CJFE that keeps coming back to me is the organization’s “activist” tone. It wasn’t a newspaper; it was an advocacy organization. I know that journalists are allergic to protesting as a rule, but it has its place, including when it comes to a government killing, wounding, arresting and targeting our colleagues. When state overreaches occur, journalists and protesters have common cause in the truth. Any journalist who suggests otherwise is, frankly, doing the government’s work for them.
It saddens me that this controversy I was at the heart of ultimately robbed Canada of an organization that had been a powerful voice for resisting tyranny and helping journalists around the world. While CJFE still exists, it’s only a shell of its former self. And despite the bitterness, I do still support its mission to protect journalists. Having lived through attacks and threats myself, there are few causes I consider to be more important.
I’ve spent the last three years digging holes while the CBC and other media outlets responsible for the backlash that led to my firing have used them to double down on their bizarre pro-Israel bias. In May, on Israeli Independence Day, I found myself shoveling a giant pile of steaming dirt and manure at an Israeli diplomatic building. I did it with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Despite everything that has happened in the past three years, I thought, maybe I am cut out to be a Canadian journalist.