There is more freedom of speech regarding Palestine in Israel than there is in the Canadian press.
For years, Canadian journalists reporting on international affairs have had a heavy cross to bear, with the question hanging over every story pitch – what’s the Canadian angle?
Honestly, there often just isn’t one. But now we have our very own ‘Canadian angle’ when it comes to a certain regional hotspot in the Middle East: Palestine. Although, I should warn you, don’t actually utter the word on air on our national broadcaster, or you may have to issue a public apology for being “biased.”
Yes, that’s right. Just like First Nations reporter Duncan McCue was forced to do after he used the term whilst interviewing renowned graphic novelist Joe Sacco, who authored a work called, “Palestine.”
After a right-wing pro-Israel group called “Honest Reporting” complained — as they do every time a Canadian journalist dares to write almost anything on the region they deem “biased” or “anti-Semitic” — McCue was obliged to apologise on air, and the word “Palestine” was dutifully expunged from subsequent broadcasts.
While most have heard of the high profile case of AP reporter Emily Wilder, who was fired last month after right-wing conservatives like Senator Tom Cotton and commentator Ben Shapiro called her out for a pro-Palestinian tweet from her college days, there are even more egregious examples of such harassment in Canada.
Not only is it now forbidden by CBC/Radio-Canada to say the word “Palestine” on air, but in an Orwellian twist, CBC journalists have also been told not to even speak the word “Palestine” to each other.
This is apparently to reduce the risk that someone might “accidentally write or say it in something that is published or broadcast,” as reported recently in the Intercept.
But the witch-hunt doesn’t stop there.
CBC reporters working on a story about Canada’s former ambassador to Israel working for Black Cube, a controversial private sector company composed of ex-members of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies, were smeared as “anti-Semites,” as they bravely related in their recent report.
Additionally, after over 2,000 Canadian journalists signed an open letter to Canadian media outlets asking for fair and balanced coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict during last month’s bombing of Gaza (as opposed to this month’s – I know, it’s hard to keep track), two CBC journalists who were signatories have been told they can no longer cover the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many others were called before their management and questioned, and several continue to fear further reprisals.
Sadly, this is not new. For decades, Canadian media has been cowed by a particularly powerful pro-Israel lobby that makes life hell for anyone who dares mention the war.
As a young reporter, I remember being called into my editor’s office in the late 90s in the midst of a rather monochromatic newsroom and given the chilling warning, “We’ve been getting calls in about you.”
Having been in the job – one that would end a few months later after a season of racist epithets playing on my Lebanese ancestry interspersed with nicknames like “Pocahontas” – only 3 weeks, I wondered what it might have been about. When I asked, all he said was “it’s about your obsession with the Middle East.”
Apparently, a story about a Lebanese-Canadian priest’s retirement party had upset the applecart.
Coincidentally, the last story I ever wrote for the paper was about a women’s centre in Gaza that I filed mere minutes before being called into that same editor’s office and unceremoniously dismissed, because “it wasn’t a good fit.”
While I managed to utter the word “Palestine” in a CBC Radio documentary I produced on Palestinian Christians in 2006, another commissioned feature on activists in Bethlehem was axed because I used the forbidden word “wall” to describe the, well, wall, that encircles the birthplace of Christ, rather than “security barrier.”
While for years, white Jewish men who had never been to the Middle East were given national editorial space to write about Israel and Palestine, the fact that I had Christian Syrian great grandparents who fled to Canada in Ottoman times somehow made me an unreliable narrator, as it were, even though I’d actually lived in Jerusalem where I wrote for one of the first post-Oslo Accord joint Israeli/Palestinian magazines. Plus ça change.
Now, racialised women reporters like Iraqi-Canadian Nadine Yousif have voiced concerns that they will be singled out for signing the letter asking for fairer coverage on Israel-Palestine and accused of “bias.”
But just as the dinosaurs who police Canadian media looking for furtive signs of Palestine are at odds with a new generation of activists like Independent Jewish Voices, so too are Canadian media and government out of step with popular national opinion on Palestine.
One would hope that in addition to the harassment faced by reporters in Canada covering indigenous and environmental issues, the plight of journalists covering Israel-Palestine can also be noted in upcoming country reports of professional bodies like Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the CAJ, which until now have remained perplexingly silent on the issue.
If Canadian media outlets continue to be cowed into Orwellian compromises by the likes of Honest Reporting and their ilk, the “Canadian angle” on the Middle East will be an increasingly limited one, not to mention a national embarrassment.
How is it that Israeli media enjoys more freedom of speech when it comes to Palestine than their Canadian counterparts?
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