Huffing and puffing to silence criticism of Israel

In June 2007, the Palestine Media Collective produced a newspaper parody of The Vancouver Sun that satirized the anti-Palestinian bias of CanWest, the largest media conglomerate in Canada. One example was an article entitled “Study Shows Truth Biased Against Israel” by Cyn Sorsheep. Six months later, CanWest launched a lawsuit against those who “conspired” to produce and distribute the parody. The original writ named Mordecai Briemberg, Horizon Publications (the printer), and six Jane and John Does.

CanWest Mediaworks Publications is the parent company of the Global television network, ten large market and national daily newspapers, 25 community newspapers, and 20 specialty television channels. Canwest bought Canada’s largest newspaper chain from Conrad Black in 2000 and in 2007 purchased Alliance Atlantis, one of Canada’s largest specialty television operators.

We stated publicly that the two of us were solely responsible for producing the newspaper parody, and CanWest has added our names to the lawsuit. 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.” Although we have confirmed that Mordecai Briemberg was not involved in producing the parody, Canwest has refused to drop its suit against him.

We decided to create the satirical publication after a November 2006 trip to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) 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 Palestinian farmers were killed or due to 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 al-Ein refugee camp. We witnessed Israeli soldiers abducting two Palestinian medical volunteers and holding them hostage in their armored 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 OPT. In CanWest publications, Israelis are almost always portrayed as innocent victims and Palestinians as inhuman terrorists. We saw no reflection of our experiences with the Palestinian families who shared their lunch with us in the shade of gnarled olive trees, nor of the violent gangs of Israeli settler youth who stoned and kicked international volunteers and Palestinian farmers while Israeli soldiers stood by.

A study released in 2006 by Toronto’s Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation quantified the shocking bias of CanWest news. It determined that during 2004, CanWest’s flagship National Post was 89 times more likely to report an Israeli child’s death than that of a Palestinian child 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 almost 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 3 March 2008 Post editorial noted, “in any war, it is the child casualties that attract the greatest sympathy and anguish.”

In Vancouver, CanWest dominates the news market through ownership of The Vancouver Sun, The Province, The National Post, and 12 community newspapers, as well as Global TV. Media researcher Marc Edge has called Vancouver the most concentrated metropolitan media market in any G8 country. With so few alternative news sources, we concluded that a newspaper parody would be the best method to point out CanWest’s extreme bias.

CanWest newspapers have recently devoted significant space to pontificating about free speech. But while CanWest defends of free speech with one hand, it uses the courts to attack freedom of speech for those who disagree with its position on Palestine and Israel with the other.

A 26 May 2008 National Post editorial worried about a case involving Scientology protests in England: “the principles of free expression have to be guarded stringently in a liberal democracy.” The National Post approvingly quoted Canadian Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie on 28 June 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 2 July 2008 Province editorial worried that “free speech is significantly endangered” by human rights commissions “driven by political agendas.” However, 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.

The Vancouver Sun publisher Kevin Bent tried to explain away the double standard in a 6 June 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 CanWest’s defense of free speech elsewhere means it can’t be attacking it in our case.

CanWest claims this lawsuit is about trademarks. But the Trade-Marks Act is intended to adjudicate between competing commercial interests, not to pass judgment on political debates. CanWest’s original writ reveals the political nature of the 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 British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), and Quebec’s Ligue des droits et libertes, disagree with Bent’s view and have called on CanWest to drop its lawsuit. A BCCLA 23 April open letter to CanWest stated “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.” The Ligue des droits et libertes 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 in Canada. 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.

The world needs 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.” In addition, former United States President Jimmy Carter labeled 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 when the Israeli military killed 25 Palestinian children in Gaza (according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights), a 3 March 2008 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 Canadian Supreme Court Justice Binnie wrote in June 2008: “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.”

Carel Moiseiwitsch is a Vancouver activist and visual artist who has exhibited internationally. She was a freelance editorial illustrator for The Vancouver Sun and Province for over a decade. Gordon Murray is an activist and information technologist who was involved in alternative publishing for many years. Both have worked to support indigenous rights in Canada and around the world for more than 20 years.

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