On the afternoon of Monday, April 2, Canadian Journalists for Free Expressions put out a statement demanding that the Canadian government “condemn the one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza.”
By the following week — and as direct and indirect results of the above — the non-profit that advocates for journalists’ rights throughout the world had lost its executive director, its president, and its gala chair, with its sole remaining full-time employee fully expecting to be terminated by the board.
On Sunday evening, promotions and communications coordinator Kevin Metcalf published a personal Facebook post outlining what he described as the impending demise of the organization.
“I’ve been advised that I can expect to be terminated from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression this coming Tuesday evening and have pre-emptively been removed from my social media roles and the organization’s website back-end,” he wrote. “The cause for this termination, I have been informed, will most likely be the official cessation of the organization’s operations and its semi-permanent closure. Congratulations Canada, you’ve killed free speech.”
I've been advised that I can expect to be terminated from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression this coming Tuesday…
It was shared over 2,000 times.
“If I wasn’t [going to be terminated] before,” he tells CANADALAND on Monday, “I think the virality of the post has made that almost a guarantee. But it was represented to me that that would be the case either way.”
CJFE board member Tom Henheffer, also a past executive director of the organization, says in an interview that’s not true. “I mean, first off, he wasn’t fired. No decision to fire him had been made.” Metcalf is currently on paid leave.
“I’d say re-organization is what we’re going to be doing,” Henheffer says. “Disbanding a non-profit, it’s not like flipping a switch. That’s a hell of a process and takes quite a long time. That certainly won’t be happening [Tuesday]. We’re re-organizing, re-evaluating.”
Metcalf says that the day after they put out the Gaza statement, CJFE executive director Duncan Pike brought him into a meeting where he told Metcalf “that the organization was folding, that there would be an emergency board meeting to discuss the mechanisms for shutting down the operations, and that I should begin job-hunting immediately.”
Metcalf says Pike also informed him that he, board president Alice Klein, and half of the gala committee had or would be resigning.
“The task at hand required more time than I could devote given my other responsibilities,” Klein, the publisher of NOW Magazine, says in a statement to CANADALAND. “I remain a committed member of the board.”
Pike — who had assumed the role of co-executive director last fall, alongside Megan Drysdale — referred questions to Henheffer. Drysdale departed the organization last month.
The gala chair who resigned was Carol Off, the host of CBC’s As It Happens. She did not respond to CANADALAND’s requests for comment but told journalist Sean Craig that CJFE’s statement put her in a conflict because she has been covering the Gaza story, and that some of the organization’s other recent slip-ups have made her feel “embarrassed.” She also told Craig she had stepped aside previously, when CJFE opposed the Harper government’s Bill C-51. (Off’s spouse, former CBC reporter Linden MacIntyre, had voiced his own disapproval of CJFE’s statement in a handful of tweets.)
Defiinitely not the only one disturbed. https://t.co/5ZEsVekoul
— Linden MacIntyre (@macintyrelj) April 3, 2018
“In terms of people leaving and things like that, when CJFE has taken a strong stance on issues that a journalist who is with us volunteering is covering, they’ve stepped aside while we’re dealing with that so their objectivity doesn’t come into question,” says Henheffer. “Unfortunately, it’s a reality of balancing advocacy and journalism.”
Henheffer also says that, contrary to a suggestion in Metcalf’s posts, members of the gala committee (of whom there were two or three in all) faced no pressure from the CBC.
Several prominent Canadian journalists publicly took issue with CJFE’s Gaza statement — which has been appended in full at bottom — believing that the organization was inappropriately taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some members of CJFE’s board had their own misgivings, and a majority voted to pull it from the website Sunday evening.
Henheffer says that at Tuesday’s emergency meeting, they intend to discuss whether or not the statement was appropriate, if an apology will be issued, and how statements will be vetted in the future, as well as the organization’s struggling finances.
Metcalf says that while petitions are supposed to be vetted by the board, “statements have always traditionally been written by one staff member, usually somebody with an interest, passion, or knowledge in the subject,” who would then pass it along to the executive director and editorial coordinator, the latter function formerly fulfilled by Drysdale.
“She was pretty good at, I think, vetting pieces for tone to ensure that no board members were going to be alienated, no potential funders were gonna call irate over something we said. And that’s a skill gap currently not within the organization,” says Metcalf, who recalls that CJFE had the equivalent of five and a half full-time employees when he began working there in late 2016.
This isn’t the first time CJFE has been accused of overly politicizing its work. Earlier this year, it set up a since-withdrawn petition calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to disinvite Trump from the G7 Summit in June. Both Henheffer and Metcalf admit that the petition should never have been launched — the requirement for the board to vet petitions was instituted as a result — but still personally believe the most recent statement was appropriate.
“This statement has been completely misconstrued and conflated, and it’s ridiculous. I’m curious if people talking about it online have even read the damn thing,” says Henheffer. “It’s well within our mandate. We’ve done it historically. We’ve called on the Canadian government to pressure Iran for better treatment of journalists. Same with Croatia, Turkey, Egypt, all of these things. Look at our work on Mohamed Fahmy. Everything we were putting out was calling on the Canadian government. We were very critical of Stephen Harper for not intervening when he should have.”
Henheffer says that CFJE followed the lead of American advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists.
“It was CPJ’s reports that were the basis for our statement. They confirmed firsthand that 10 journalists were injured and at least three were shot with wide ammunition from the IDF. It was not a broad condemnation of the policies of Israel. It was condemnation of this one specific action by the IDF, and we were calling on the Canadian government to basically also — well if you read the statement, specifically — we were calling on the Canadian government to ask the Israeli government to investigate this,” says Henheffer.
“As you can see, [CJFE’s statement] does not mention or link to any documentation by the Committee to Protect Journalists,” says Globe and Mail international affairs columnist Doug Saunders in an email. “It makes a passing mention of a statement by the Ramallah-based organization MADA, which suggested that some journalists were involved in the clash. But beyond this, it is largely a general condemnation of Israeli military policy.”
“It does a great disfavour to those of us attempting to practice journalism to have an activist group taking a general political stance in our name,” he says. “This is especially true if our writing happens to be somewhat aligned with that stance. By making us appear to be political activists with a priori stances rather than professional fact-gatherers who reach conclusions after assembling reliable information, they tarnish our credibility and make it more difficult and dangerous for us to operate in politically complex environments such as Gaza.”
Metcalf says, “Having re-read the statement now, many, many times, I don’t personally have a moral difficulty with strongly condemning the woundings of journalists and protesters. That is the mandate of CJFE, and I think we did our job on that count.”
CJFE has been struggling financially over the past year. Despite individual donations increasing, Henheffer says “sponsorships have been becoming more hard to come by” because of the economy and Canadian corporations focusing their contributions more on international organizations.
“Unfortunately, the political climate is such that taking any kind of advocacy stance on almost anything is incredibly fraught these days … The political discourse has become so fragmented. Everything is so extreme, there’s no room for nuance.”
Henheffer says CJFE may release a statement Wednesday morning addressing the recent developments.
Update (April 11, 9:32 p.m. EDT): On Wednesday afternoon, CJFE’s board issued a new statement, which said that the earlier statement concerning Israel’s actions in Gaza “went beyond the organization’s mandate.” CJFE affirmed, however, that the organization still condemns the IDF’s “use of deadly force on journalists and protesters,” and called for an independent investigation into the events of March 30 and the killing of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja on April 6.
That statement, signed by new CJFE president Philip Tunley, also announced that future communications from the group “will now require approval from a volunteer panel of Board members to ensure they are consistent with our mandate.”
In an interview recorded for Thursday’s episode of CANADALAND Short Cuts, Henheffer (now the organization’s vice president) describes the earlier statement as having been “over-broad in focus” and “incorrect in tone.”
“We’re going to be undertaking, over the next few months, a full review of our mandate and our focus, and, basically, to make sure that we refocus and that we are following our core mission,” he tells host Jesse Brown. “Because we do feel over the last few months that we have drifted from that, that we’ve made mistakes. And so we’re basically issuing a mea culpa, saying yes, we screwed up. We’re sorry. We put a lot of the people who volunteer for us in a difficult position, where their objectivity could be called into question. We will never do that again. And we’re taking all the actions that we can to ensure that that never happens.”
As for Metcalf, Henheffer says, “His employment’s under review, but he’s still technically on leave, as of recording this.”
Update (9:56 p.m. EDT): Reached for a response Wednesday night, Metcalf says in a message that he has “serious questions about how a month of campaigning on impunity in China, asking for specific economic policy handles to be used to profile human rights in trade negotiations, differs from what was written regarding Israel.”
The new statement, he says, “offers condemnation with few solutions. It’s a politically corrected message.”
Top image: CJFE’s graphic for its Digital Self Defence workshop last fall.
In 2015, 2016, and 2017, CANADALAND provided CJFE with podcast advertising in exchange for tickets to its annual gala. Also, from 2013–17, Jonathan Goldsbie worked at NOW Magazine, where now-former CJFE president Alice Klein serves as editor, CEO, and publisher.
Original statement from CJFE sent April 2 at 5:45 p.m. EDT:
CJFE is gravely concerned by attacks on demonstrators and media in Gaza
CJFE is gravely concerned by the extrajudicial killings of demonstrators which occurred on March 30, 2018 in Gaza. It has been reported that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) used sniper fire, tank rounds and “less lethal” munitions like tear gas during a civil order event on the militarized border between Israel and Gaza. The United Nations reported that 15 Gazans were killed and more than 1000 were wounded. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms has stated that among those wounded in the massacre are many journalists.
We acknowledge the fact, as Israeli authorities have stated, that border demonstrations at the “March of Return” in commemoration of Palestinian “Land Day” were disorderly and boisterous in nature. We also recognize that the use of lethal force to respond to boisterous demonstration or civil disorder is an anathema to the principles of democracy, freedom and justice. Similar incidents have occurred in Tunisia, Syria and Ukraine. If similar incidents transpired in 2018, in any other country, the condemnation from the international community would be swift and clear.
Canada is recognized internationally as a close ally of the Israeli state. It is incongruous to profess support for democracy, human rights or press freedom while ignoring the deleterious effect that this repression by an allied state has on these values. Failure to condemn the IDF’s brutality will undermine Canada’s moral authority when condemning similar acts by any other nation-state. Targeted attacks against demonstrators and journalists must be condemned wherever they occur. Canada must speak out to defend universal principles of human rights, democracy and press freedom.
The Government of Canada 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, which left 15 dead, and more than 1000 wounded.
A copy of this letter was sent to the Honourable Chrystia Freeland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs for Canada and to the Consulate General of the Government of Israel in Toronto.