An organization of Canadian journalists that advocates for free expression around the world is in turmoil after a statement it issued calling on the Canadian government to condemn an Israeli military crackdown on Palestinian protesters was criticized by some journalists for straying from its mandate.
An emergency board meeting of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) is scheduled for Tuesday evening as it faces plummeting support and staff turnover.
Duncan Pike, the CJFE’s co-executive director, is stepping down from his post after only six months in the role, and the organization’s promotions and communications co-ordinator, Kevin Metcalf, said late Sunday on social media that he expected to be fired and the CJFE to cease operations in the wake of the imbroglio.
“Congratulations Canada, you’ve killed free speech,” Mr. Metcalf wrote on Facebook.
Tom Henheffer, a member of the CJFE board who was its executive director until last fall, said Mr. Pike is leaving because the organization has “had a few PR issues over the last while, and felt it was best to give a re-set.” He added that it has been having financial difficulties “for quite a long time” that had recently forced it to cut staff, but that the organization is expecting to survive.
The latest controversy erupted when the CJFE issued a statement last week calling on the Canadian government to “condemn the one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza” and urged the government to “immediately call for a cessation of these brutal practices, and … 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 1,000 wounded.”
The CJFE removed the statement from its site after criticism from a number of journalists including Ken Whyte, Jonathan Kay, the CBC’s Robyn Urback and The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, who argued that the organization should not take a position on an active story. Mr. Henheffer said it would review the procedures that allowed the statement to be posted without approval by anyone on the board.
The flap comes less than three months after the CJFE was pilloried for a petition that called on federal government to bar U.S. President Donald Trump from entering Canada this June for the Group of Seven summit in Quebec. The petition was quickly pulled. “That was widely regarded as a mistake,” Mr. Henheffer said.
Both furors highlight the tension baked into an organization that is dedicated to advocacy but made up of journalists who are expected to remain objective. And it comes as newsrooms grapple with pressure from some corners to place greater emphasis on advocacy.
In a message to The Globe over Twitter, the CBC’s Carol Off wrote: “I am in the midst of covering [the Israel-Gaza story]. … I cannot be part of an organization that has taken a position on any story I’m covering.”
Ms. Off, who served for many years as the chair of the CJFE’s annual gala, enumerated some of its good deeds: “We helped to hire lawyers for journalists in jail, helped journalists escape prosecution and arrest for simply doing their jobs.”
But she left because, “it seemed to me, and others, that the CJFE was moving away from advocating on behalf of journalists and free speech, and becoming an activist organization with several causes.”
The CJFE board includes Mohamed Fahmy, the Egyptian-Canadian journalist who spent more than a year in prison in Cairo on terror charges before he was pardoned; Global Television’s Carolyn Jarvis; Karyn Pugliese of APTN; and Suzanne Legault, the former Information Commissioner of Canada.