By SAHAR FATIMA
Threats and intimidation are a regular part of the job for journalists working in the ethnic media, a prominent editor from the Toronto-area Punjabi community said during Ryerson University’s recent conference on press freedom in Canada.
“For ethnic media, there is nothing called freedom. All we know is that either you are on (the side of extremists) or you are facing them,” Jagdish Grewal, editor and publisher of the Punjabi-language daily newspaper Canadian Punjabi Post, said during a panel discussion of press freedom in the age of terror.
“For hard cores, to reach out to the community, ethnic media is their tool.”
To illustrate the extent to which fear undermines press freedom, he cited the example of an event in Brampton on Feb. 1, 2009 where a group of Sikhs trampled over the Indian national flag during Republic Day celebrations.
“Many among ethnic media did not even report this for fear of being targeted,” Grewal said.
During the panel he also talked about how he was physically attacked in the parking lot outside his Brampton newsroom in October, 2009. A group of at least three people wearing masks beat Grewal with a baton, pointed a gun to his head and smashed his car windows as they attempted to drag him towards a van. Grewal managed to honk his car horn, alerting another Punjabi Post employee and the attackers fled.
No one has been charged in the incident, which Grewal says may have occurred because of his criticism of the violence used by Sikh separatists.
Community members with extremist ideologies, he said, target ethnic journalists who fail to support them.
Grewal said mainstream media can also create problems for ethnic media journalists. “We are often interviewed by them because we are the most visible faces of the community,” he said. “The next day, you find that you have been quoted out of context, thus exposing you to a huge danger.”
Mainstream newspapers need to balance their critical coverage with more positive stories about ethnic communities, he said.
“It’s a good thing to cover the negative aspects as well, but there are a lot of positive things that are happening too. Quote us in the positive stories where we can say, ‘Yes, we’re not only talking negatively about our community.’”
The other members of the panel – Toronto Star national security reporter Michelle Shephard and lawyer Marlys Edwardh – said mainstream news media face other kinds of challenges when reporting on stories relating to terrorism.
“Two of the most frustrating countries or places I’ve had to report have been Canada and Guantanamo Bay,” Shephard said. “Our government tends to be incredibly closed when it comes to national security issues and it’s often impossible to get answers.
“Even getting a ‘No comment’ from some departments takes all day and needs approval.”
Shephard was banned from Guantanamo Bay, an offshore U.S. detention and interrogation facility in Cuba, when she reported the name of an interrogator, even though he was well known to the public and had gone on record with her in the past.
“It was an example of trying to control the information in the name of national security when it had nothing to do with national security,” Shephard said. “It’s that climate of intimidation.”
Edwardh, who represented Maher Arar, said government attempts to control the release of information on national security grounds can affect an accused’s right to a fair trial and the news media’s right to cover the proceedings. She pointed to the case of Arar – a Canadian citizen wrongly accused by the U.S. government of having links to terrorism and deported to Syria – as an example.
The commission of inquiry ordered by the Canadian government to investigate Arar’s rendition and torture in Syria began with a series of secret meetings that were off limits to Edwardh, Arar, and journalists. During these meetings, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service presented information alleging Arar’s guilt, but there was no opportunity for cross-examination by the defence.
“That gets embedded in court process with the court having little or no opportunity to have the evidence tested in a process that you or I would even find remotely acceptable,” Edwardh said.
The absence of the press means reporters are not present to evaluate witnesses’ reliability with respect to their composure, behaviour, or credentials: “As a member of the press…you have nothing of that kind to convey to the community other than a factual assertion that, ‘You did this’ – no source.”
Ryerson journalism professor Paul Knox, who moderated the panel, suggested that it’s unrealistic for journalists to think they can obtain information without running into obstacles.
“I expect people who have either something to hide or a certain spin they want to put on a story to resist my attempts to overcome that,” Knox said. “Why is it not sort of part of our DNA anymore to simply come into work in the morning expecting people to give us a hard time?”
Shephard said reporters expect to work to get the information they need but that “the overall system is designed in a way that it becomes almost impossible to get past it.”
“That doesn’t excuse us,” she said. “I think we have to just keep pushing for more.”