Toronto Star one-year interns share a table at the 14th annual gala hosted by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Clockwise from front-left: Liam Casey, Jennifer Pagliaro, Anita Li, Alyshah Hasham, Niamh Scallan, Laura Stone, Michael Woods, Stephanie Findlay, Josh Tapper.
By Vidya Kauri
The recent assaults on Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy at the hands of Egyptian police brings home to all of us that journalism can be, and is, a dangerous profession. On November 24 at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression met for its 14th annual gala to honour journalists around the world facing repression and abuse for practicing their profession.
The event included a stirring presentation of Canadian photojournalists' coverage of the Arab Spring featuring photographs from Toronto Star journalists Michelle Shephard and Jim Rankin, and New York Times freelancer Ed Ou. We observed a minute's silence to honour fellow journalists killed for doing their job. During this minute, names of journalists who had been killed in various countries appeared on a screen. The list of journalists who had died in Mexico was particularly long and elicited a collective gasp from the hundreds of people in attendance.
The CJFE recognized Integrity Award winners, scientists Dr. Shiv Chopra, Dr. Margaret Haydon and Dr. Gerard Lambert who had been whistleblowers at Health Canada. Just like journalists, government whistleblowers need legal protection against reprisals.
The Vox Libera award was given posthumously to legendary Canadian journalist Ron Haggart (May 11, 1927 - Aug. 27, 2011). Haggart was a long-time champion of investigative journalism, press freedom, and government transparency, throughout his career at the Toronto Telegram and at the CBC where he collaborated on the Fifth Estate, Face Off and counterSpin. His award was picked up by his daughter, Kelly.
Finally, the CJFE honoured Mohamed Abdelfattah of Egypt for his heroic coverage of the historic events in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Khaled Al-Hammadi of Yemen who still continues to risk harassment and state kidnapping for his work covering the pro-democracy movement in his country.
Host Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC's The Current told the gathering that by recognizing the important work being done by Abdelfattah and Al-Hammadi, we are letting the world know we are watching these two journalists closely and that "we've got their backs." We were, in effect, giving "the despots and tyrants yet another bad day," said Tremonti. International awards and international recognition for heroic journalists make it difficult for authoritarian governments to suppress and disappear them.
At times, it seemed a little unreal sitting in the comfortable surroundings of the Fairmont Royal York, enjoying wine and conversation with fellow journalists while discussing the arrest, torture and execution of other journalists around the world. I recalled the experiences of the 'Free Press 4' group of journalists during the G20 summit in Toronto last year. Amy Miller, Daniel McIsaac, Jesse Rosenfeld and Lisa Walter filed complaints with the Office of Independent Police Review Director, Ontario’s police watchdog. The four reporters said, at the time, that they did not break any laws and that police knew they were journalists.
I also remembered how journalists were trapped behind a razor wire fence erected by the Canadian Armed Forces during the Oka Crisis of 1990, a land dispute between the Mohawks and the town of Oka, Que. Not only did police bar the supply of notebooks, tapes and batteries into the perimeter, but they also limited the flow of food and other essential supplies thereby endangering the journalists’ health. The Canadian Association of Journalists described the censorship as “one of the worst attacks ever on the Canadian public’s right to know."
Tremonti brought up the case of Tara Singh Hayer, a journalist murdered in 1998 in his B.C. home for his work in connection with the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182. His killers have not yet been caught.
Working conditions for journalists in Canada are nowhere near as violent and dangerous as they are in many other parts of the world, but our country is not without its share of problems. Canadian journalists and whistleblowers have taken major personal and professional risks to expose truths. Just a few years before his death, Haggart said,
"It's not time to worry, but it is time to watch what is happening in this country to journalism. It's time to watch, and it's time to watch out.”
Vidya Kauri is an intern at the Toronto Star. She works in the Radio Room.