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By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

Gail Cohen, former editor of the Law Times, kicks off the Ryerson School of Journalism’s teach-in event on March 13, 2017. (Jasmine Bala)

Journalism matters now more than ever, the media director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told journalism students and faculty during the Ryerson School of Journalism’s (RSJ) recent teach-in day.

Gail Cohen, former editor of the Law Times, said that while the news industry is struggling to adjust to digital and business challenges, the fundamental role of journalists in a democracy has not changed.

“[Journalism] changes the law and it uncovers tremendous harm,” Cohen told the crowd. “It rights wrongs by shining light on unjust and harmful behaviour by individuals, corporations and most importantly, by the government.

“These are definitely troubled times and the role of journalists – however you define that – is still tremendously important, particularly [in] protecting our democracy and fundamental freedoms.”

The RSJ cancelled classes on March 14 and instead hosted a daylong program of workshops and panels designed to help students make sense of the current news environment. These sessions were designed to equip students with the skills and knowledge to manage at a time when “journalists – and so many others – are being insulted, demeaned and dismissed,” reads the teach-in’s website.

Following Cohen’s address, working journalists delivered a series of 10-minute power pep talks. Toronto Star columnist and digital editor

Shree Paradkar said she gets a relentless stream of comments from trolls who attack her personally. “I actually don’t care about it,” she said. “I have the conviction that what I’m doing or what I’m saying is right. So when people resort to attacks that are just personal and have nothing to do with the topic on hand, then I think that’s an unravelling on their part.”

Paradkar said when her column on race and gender launched she “only expected negativity.” She therefore celebrates any positive comments that come to her and engages senders in conversation.

“It’s only when people actually come with a point and counterargument that I’m able to have a discussion,” she said.

During her power pep talk, Torontoist interim managing editor Andrea Houston said that although the line between advocacy and regular reporting is increasingly blurred, accuracy is still what defines quality journalism: “Having an opinion and having a bias doesn’t make you a bad journalist,” she said. “We’re at a place now in this new world that we’re in – reporting in an age of Trump – where [advocacy] can’t be a bad word. It has to be your motivation. It has to feed that fire in your belly.”

Interim Torontoist managing editor and RSJ lecturer Andrea Houston talks about advocacy journalism during her power pep talk. (Jasmine Bala)

Houston, who teaches a course on queer media at the RSJ, said journalists have to go back to the basics and be “frontline watchdogs.” This means challenging authority and “calling out injustice, calling out oppression and not being afraid to put your cards on the table,” she said. “We’re meant to be that person in between power and the public to filter information, but also to amplify voices … that don’t normally get amplified.”

The need for journalists to give voice to the voiceless was also a theme during the event’s workshop: “Refugee, Immigrant, Permanent Resident, Citizen: Why you need to know the difference.” Graham Hudson, an associate professor in Ryerson’s criminology department, said journalists have a responsibility to make sure the voices of non-status migrants are heard and to ensure the public understands what the migration experience really looks like.

A non-status migrant, Hudson said, is a person who has entered and remained in Canada without explicit authorization from the federal government. Terms that are synonymous with this, he adds, are “irregular migrant,” “undocumented migrant” and “migrant with precarious status.”

Using the term “illegal migrant,” on the other hand, “distorts the discourse,” Hudson said, noting that it has been used incorrectly to describe refugees crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba and Quebec.

In fact, he said, asylum seekers have a “legal right to enter a country without legal permission. It sounds weird, but that’s how the statute of Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was phrased and that’s how international law is phrased and it makes a lot of sense.

“If you’re a refugee and you’re fleeing from persecution or grave human rights abuses, you don’t have the luxury of time to wait, to apply for a visa to enter the country – you’re fleeing for your life and time is of the essence.”

Terms such as “illegal migrants” are used to frame debates and shift discussion – and media coverage – away from “what’s going on in the real world of migration,” Hudson said.

A recent study he worked on with fellow researchers Charity-Ann Hannan, Michele Manocchi and Idil Atak, for instance, concludes that Toronto is not living up to its promises of being a “sanctuary city.”

“The policy,” Hudson and his co-authors write, “directs city officials not to: 1) inquire into immigration status when providing select services, 2) deny non-status residents access to services to which they are entitled and 3) share personal or identifying information with federal authorities, unless required to do so by federal or provincial law.”

The policies are designed to ensure the children of non-status migrants go to school and that they and their families have access to healthcare and police protection. Contrary to the policy, however, the report notes that police officers do ask about immigration status and have “engaged in unsolicited sharing of personal information with the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and arrested and transferred non-status persons to the CBSA.”

Melita Kuburas, RSJ graduate, and Ryerson associate professor Graham Hudson deliver a workshop on immigration during the RSJ’s teach-in. (Jasmine Bala)

RSJ graduate Melita Kuburas, who was also part of the immigration workshop, said she and her family came to Toronto as refugees in 1993 and that a Toronto Star article about her family’s arrival influenced her career choice.

Kuburas, who is now the associate managing editor of Metro News’ entertainment and lifestyle section, said her parents kept a clipping of the story and photo in a drawer. “I always looked at the [photo] and I think – I’m sure – that symbolically, that made me want to go into journalism,” she said.

Kuburas and her family were Bosnian Muslims caught up in the civil war and conflict after the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia.

“One day, we just saw tanks coming through our little town and Serb military soldiers knocked on everyone’s doors,” she told the rapt audience. The soldiers ordered teenage boys and all grown men, including her father, to go with them, Kuburas said, but one of her youngest uncles – who was only 18 at the time – fled and hid.

“When Serbs found out that he was hiding, they came to collect him and he was killed,” she said. “We have never found his body.”

The body of her grandfather, she said, was found in a mass grave along with 200 or 300 others.

Her father was shipped to a concentration camp, where he was “starved, beaten, kept from his family for nothing more than being Muslim,” Kuburas wrote in an article about her own refugee experience following the announcement in 2015 of Canada’s plan to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Kuburas said the family was reunited with her father in December 1992 with help from the Red Cross, and a year later they came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees.

“Welcoming refugees is very generous of Canada, and of Canadians,” Kuburas wrote in her article, “but I can assure you: refugees are not freeloading.”

Watch one of the RSJ’s teach-in sessions, “Surveillance: Borders and Beyond,” below:

By ALLISON RIDGWAY and ANIA BESSONOV
Staff Reporters

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Stephen Meurice, Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston at an RJRC panel in October. (Ania Bessonov)

The Canadian Press (CP) is discussing how to update its stylebook to reflect changing language surrounding LGBTQ, Indigenous and disabled communities, CP’s editor-in-chief said during a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre panel earlier this month.

But the national news agency must keep its clients and readers in mind when contemplating such changes, said editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice.

“Clarity of language is key,” Meurice told about 90 journalism students and members of the public at the panel. “You want people to read your whole story and you want them to understand what’s going on … We do have to think about the small clients who are in areas that might be more conservative.”

Panel members discussed current language issues in news writing and reporting, including the singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Along with Meurice, the panel featured former Toronto Life editor and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston, a freelance journalist who teaches a course at the school on queer media. A video-slideshow prepared by journalism professor Joyce Smith discussed language issues that arise in the coverage of religion and security.

The CP wire service is purchased by news organization across the country, with clients that range from large metropolitan daily newspapers to smaller rural publications. It is also the publisher and editor of the Canadian Press Stylebook, a guide to journalistic conventions in Canada that is used by many news outlets and taught to journalism students.

A new edition of the style guide is expected next year, and Meurice said decisions will need to be made about what to say in the book on issues such as gender-neutral pronouns or the word “cisgender” (a term that describes people who are not transgender). While the stylebook does include an entry on the term “transgender,” it does not include an entry on the use of the singular “they.”

The singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral, third person pronoun is often used as a more inclusive pronoun, as it avoids assigning a gender to a person who does not identify as exclusively a woman or a man. Some people choose other gender-neutral pronouns, such as “xe” and “ze,” but the singular use of “they” is often the most popular.

Houston said that it is the responsibility of journalists to represent their sources respectfully.

“When you are interviewing a source and they ask for a gender-neutral pronoun, obviously don’t challenge them on this,” she said. “It’s not up to you, as a journalist, to have this debate – to debate someone’s identity. It’s up to you to respect them and represent them with compassion and honesty, as they want to be represented.”

Meurice, who said CP may well incorporate the use of “they” as standard practice in the styleguide, said the wire service does take the wishes of sources into account: “We would never intentionally use the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ if someone had specifically asked us not to,” he said of CP’s policy.

Journalists, however, do not always receive support from their editors on these issues, Houston warned.

“I have had situations where I have been overruled by an editor when a gender neutral pronoun was put into a story, and that’s really unfortunate when that happens.”

Reader confusion can be avoided, Houston said, if news organizations include a brief explanation of why the singular “they” was used in a text.

“Words change and language changes and it’s fantastic to educate [readers],” she added.

The panelists also discussed language sensitivities and judgment calls related to covering religion and disability.

Trumper, who is on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation, said that perception surrounding disability is just as important – if not more so – as the language used to describe people with disabilities.

“We are the country of Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. We tend to revere the very athletic types of people with disabilities…but that’s not a true representation of all people with disabilities because not everyone has that strong upper-body strength or strong willpower,” he said. “In reality, [people with disabilities] are just ordinary people who can sometimes do extraordinary things.”

Joyce Smith, an associate professor at the School of Journalism who teaches reporting on religion, spoke on the importance of language as it relates to religion – particularly language surrounding Muslim communities.

Words like “radical,” “moderate,” “conservative” and “liberal” often come up when reporting on terrorist attacks, she said, but can demonize and stereotype religious people – particularly Muslims.

“It’s very important to think about how these words are coming to be suggested,” said Smith. “Is it the group themselves [using these words]? Is it their opponents? Is it a critic?”

A terrorist attack may be partially motivated by religious ideology, she explained, but many cases have other contributing factors as well. After Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a Canadian soldier to death at Parliament Hill in 2014, many news agencies were quick to jump on the fact that he attended mosques, identified as Muslim, and had expressed support for jihadists in the past. Later, however, it was revealed that Zehaf-Bibeau had also been mentally ill and struggled with a drug addiction, factors that his mother said led to the shooting.

“It’s really important when we’re using religious words to remember that it’s not the only way to characterize someone’s motivation or their actions,” Smith said. “Separate the action from the ideology and the motivation.”

Ugandan director Kamoga Hassan discusses his film, "Outed: The Painful Reality," with journalist and queer media instructor Andrea Houston. Photo: Jessica Ross

Ugandan director Kamoga Hassan discusses his film, “Outed: The Painful Reality,” with journalist and queer media instructor Andrea Houston. Photo: Jessica Ross

BY JESSICA ROSS
Special to the RJRC

Queer Ugandan filmmaker Kamoga Hassan lives in fear for his life, but says he is determined to keep telling stories from one of the most dangerous countries in the world for people who are part of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Hassan spoke with Andrea Houston, a freelance journalist and instructor for the Ryerson School of Journalism’s Queer Media course, following a Sept. 20 screening of his 2014 film Outed: The Painful Reality. The movie is a drama based on the true story of what happened after a Ugandan newspaper printed an article that outed the “top 200 homosexuals” in the country. The article listed photos, names and phone numbers and resulted in the arrest, exile and in some cases murder of many of those who were named.

“There are times when I’m really afraid,” said Hassan of making the film and being a queer man in Uganda. “I can seek asylum if I wanted, but if we all run away from Uganda, no one is there to tell these kinds of stories.”

His feature film recounts the true story of how one of the men identified in the newspaper story was tortured by police and killed by a mob. Hassan said he originally wanted to make a documentary about the man’s death, but the victim’s family refused to participate.

“The media is an extension of the government,” said Hassan. “The government uses the media to assert their laws and ideals.”

He said that in Uganda, homosexuality is considered a choice and that he would not want to be queer if it were a choice that he could make.

“I don’t think Canadians truly understand what it’s like to live in fear everyday. Fear for your life, fear for your friends, your lovers, your family,” Houston told students, faculty and others who attended the event organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a bill in 2014 that defined homosexual behaviour as a crime punishable by life in prison. Colloquially known as the “kill the gays bill,” the bill was the subject of international condemnation and was eventually annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court over a technicality. It nonetheless remains illegal to be gay in Uganda. Hassan said members of the LGBTQ community are often exiled by their families and friends, lose their homes and are fired from their jobs.

The government, for instance, moved quickly to halt a recent Ugandan LGBTQ Pride event. Ethics and Integrity Minister Lokodo Simon released a statement that read, “The organizers of the planned Gay Parade on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 are advised to stop their activities immediately or otherwise they will be arrested and prosecuted in the courts of law.” He said that the event is against the Ugandan Penal Code, which states that promoting homosexuality is against the law.

Hassan said he had to shoot Outed in secret because he was worried the police would realize they were making a queer film. And when it was released, he could only show the film in secret at queer-friendly venues because it was banned from being shown in public. Any film depicting homosexuality, he said, is considered an attempt at “recruiting” straight men and young people to become gay and is therefore considered a criminal act.

While his film is still banned in his homeland, Hassan has received positive feedback from the international film community. He won the Barbara Gittings International Human Rights Award in 2015 and the Best International Feature Film Award at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival.

The director said that he hopes he’ll be able to show his films in public in Uganda in the future but, for now, he’s “fighting underground.”

Hassan and his business partner, Montreal media artist and curator Karin Hazé, who also attended the RJRC screening, are starting a mentorship program for filmmakers in the 75 countries that have criminalized homosexuality. The program, called 75 Shots, will provide a platform for LGBTQ directors in those countries who want to use their films to speak out against criminalization. Hazé said they hope to start the project this year.

“The inspiration for this mentorship program is to let people tell their own stories in their own words … using film as a weapon,” said Hazé.

Hassan is also raising funds to create the first – and now only – queer film festival in Africa. The Queer Kampala International Film Festival celebrates the diversity of Kampala’s queer community and aims to spread awareness through film, he said.

Hassan said he has been arrested for his films and for his efforts to champion the film festival. Once he returns to Uganda, he said, he could go to jail for 14 years.

He hopes that a Twitter photo of himself marching in this year’s Montreal Pride parade with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will protect him. Ugandan authorities, he said, may “think that the world is looking at [him] in a certain way.” The photo could also put him in danger, however, if the authorities think that he is returning from Canada with money and foreign political connections to “recruit” straight people into “homosexual lifestyles,” a common conspiracy theory in the country.

Regardless, Hassan says that social media plays an important role in the fight for human rights and even once saved his life. He and about 300 others were arrested for marching in this year’s Ugandan Pride Parade, he said, and held by police in a very small room. They were not allowed to leave, use the washroom or use their cellphones. Many were beaten, stripped of their clothes and sexually violated.

They managed, however, to secretly Tweet what was happening and this sparked international outrage about their situation. Foreign embassies contacted the Ugandan government and managed to get Hassan and the other marchers released.

“It’s the power of speaking out,” said Hassan. “When we shared this information, people started sharing it with their friends and that’s how we got saved.”

Despite the dangers, Hassan said that he wants to tell such stories so he can “push and change things” in Uganda, rather than have to change himself and the LGBTQ community.

“When we start fighting now, we are actually making it easier for the next generation of people who are going to come [after] us,” said Hassan. “It’s a risky fight, but we cannot die in silence.”

Watch the full discussion with director Kamoga Hassan below: