CanWest huffs and puffs while free speech burns

by Carel Moiseiwitsch and Gordon Murray, Georgia Straight

VANCOUVER - In June 2007, the Palestine Media Collective produced a newspaper parody of the Vancouver Sun that satirized CanWest’s anti-Palestinian bias with articles such as “Study Shows Truth Biased Against Israel” by Cyn Sorsheep. Six months later, CanWest Mediaworks Publications Inc. launched a lawsuit against those “conspiring” to produce and distribute the parody. The original writ named Mordecai Briemberg, Horizon Publications, and six Jane and John Does.

Recently, CanWest added our names to the writ. We hereby state publicly that we two are the Palestine Media Collective and were solely responsible for producing the newspaper parody. We maintain that the parody was the exercise of the “fundamental freedom” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”.

We decided to create the satirical publication after a November 2006 trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territories to assist Palestinian families trying to harvest olives on their ancestral lands. Some of the olive groves had been untended for more than five years because of killings of Palestinian farmers or other violent intimidation from Israeli settlers and soldiers.

One morning, we could not reach a nearby village to help pick olives because the road was blocked by Israeli military vehicles attacking El Ein refugee camp. We witnessed, and videotaped, Israeli soldiers abducting two Palestinian medical volunteers and holding them hostage in their armoured vehicle. The Israeli invasion killed a young Palestinian man that morning, and their tanks wantonly destroyed vehicles and buildings in the densely populated and impoverished refugee camp.

When we returned home to Vancouver, we were appalled by CanWest’s one-sided coverage of the situation we had just witnessed in the Middle East. In CanWest publications, Israelis are almost always portrayed as innocent victims and Palestinians as inhuman terrorists. We read nothing of the peaceful Palestinian families who shared their lunch with us in the shade of gnarled olive trees. Nor of the violent gangs of Israeli settler youth that stoned, kicked, and injured international volunteers and Palestinian farmers while Israeli soldiers stood by.

CanWest’s pro-Israeli bias was explicitly acknowledged by founder Israel Asper, who told the Jerusalem Post in 2003, “In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position….We are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.” But a study released in 2006 by the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation of Canada has quantified the shocking bias we perceived in CanWest news. The study found that during 2004, CanWest’s flagship National Post was 83.3 times more likely to report an Israeli child’s death than a Palestinian child’s death in its news articles’ headlines or first paragraphs.

In other words, the CanWest “news coverage” made it appear that Israeli kids were killed at a rate four times higher than Palestinian children during 2004 when, in fact, 22 Palestinian children were killed for every Israeli child that year, according to the Israeli human-rights group B’tselem. As a March 3, 2008, Post editorial noted, “in any war, it is the child casualties that attract the greatest sympathy and anguish.” According to the study, the Post’s reporting on this issue was at least 10 times more distorted than that in the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail.

In Vancouver, CanWest dominates the news market through ownership of the Vancouver Sun, the Province, the National Post, Global TV, the Vancouver Courier, the North Shore News, and the Now community newspaper chain. With so few news sources to provide alternative views, we concluded that a newspaper parody would be the best method to point out CanWest’s extreme anti-Palestinian bias.

CanWest newspapers have recently spent many column inches huffing and puffing about free speech. But while CanWest is wrapping itself in the mantle of free-speech defender with one hand, it is using the courts to attack freedom of speech for those who disagree with its position on Palestine and Israel with the other.

On May 26, 2008, a National Post editorial intoned about a protest in England: “the principles of free expression have to be guarded stringently in a liberal democracy.” And the National Post approvingly quoted Canadian Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie on June 28, 2008, regarding a defamation suit: “When controversies erupt, statements of claim often follow as night follows day, not only in serious claims but in actions launched simply for the purpose of intimidation.…chilling debate on matters of legitimate public interest.”

A July 2, 2008, Province editorial worried that “free speech is significantly endangered” by human-rights commissions “driven by political agendas”. But, in CanWest’s view, free speech is not endangered by Canada’s largest media corporation suing political satirists who challenge its anti-Palestinian political agenda.

Vancouver Sun publisher Kevin Bent tried to explain away the double standard in a June 6 internal memo to employees. “Some have tried to portray this action as an attack on free speech….we believe this argument is a red herring….Throughout Canada, when the voice of others has been stifled, CanWest has funded lawsuits to protect the right to free speech.” The true red herring is his argument that defence of free speech elsewhere means CanWest couldn’t be attacking it in our case.

CanWest claims this lawsuit is about trademarks. But the Trade Marks Act is intended to adjudicate disputes between competing commercial interests, not to pass judgment on political debates, nor to constrain free speech on issues of public interest. CanWest’s writ reveals the political nature of its suit by referring to the alleged political positions of the defendants five times but only twice mentioning the Trade Marks Act.

Prominent Canadian freedom-of-information organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Quebec’s Ligue des droits et libertés (LDL), and the Canadian Library Association, disagree with Bent’s view and have called on CanWest to drop its lawsuit.

A BCCLA April 23 open letter to CanWest stated that “the BCCLA views the CanWest lawsuit to be an ill-advised attempt by CanWest to use the courts to silence satirical criticism and constrain fair comment.” In another open letter, on June 26, to CanWest, the LDL said: “We consider that CanWest’s suit is an attempt to crush dissenting opinion through legal proceedings.…This abuse of the judicial system is what is known as a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP).”

CanWest’s attack must also be seen in the context of the larger campaign to restrict free public debate on Palestine and Israel. Recent examples include McMaster University’s administration’s campus ban of the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” during 2008’s international Israeli Apartheid Week and last year’s cancellation, by the president of Minneapolis’s University of St. Thomas, of Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu’s speech to the justice and peace studies program.

Canadians need to hear from eminent statesmen such as Archbishop Tutu—after a recent visit to Gaza, he called the humanitarian situation of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians trapped by the Israeli siege an “abomination”. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter labelled it “one of the greatest human-rights crimes on Earth”.

Instead, CanWest continues to crank up the anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

After a five-day period in February and March 2008 when the Israeli military killed 25 Palestinian children (including two babies) in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a National Post editorial declared that “Israel is blameless.” According to CanWest, the “arithmetic” of how many Palestinian children are killed by Israeli missiles and tanks is overridden by the “moral calculus” of the “Palestinian people as one collective suicide bomber”.

A healthy democracy requires a full and open debate of contentious issues, and values the contribution political satire makes to that debate. As Justice Binnie wrote: “the law must accommodate commentators such as the satirist or the cartoonist who.…exercise a democratic right to poke fun at those who huff and puff in the public arena.”

article originally published at http://www.straight.com/article-153833/canwest-huffs-and-puffs-free-speech-burns.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey