Saving Tesfaye Kumsa’s life may have destroyed his reason for living. In 1992, Kumsa, a documentary and features program producer for Ethiopian Television in Addis Ababa, was imprisoned in a concentration camp after refusing to abide by government imposed censorship laws. When released 11 months later, he was undeterred and organized a handful of colleagues to start Urjii, an independent weekly newspaper dedicated to honest and accurate reporting. Four years later, Kumsa and his staff were convicted of treason, and Urjii was shut down after publishing an article criticizing the Ethiopian government. Thanks to scores of letters from human rights groups around the world, Kumsa was eventually released, but the government made it clear that if he wrote another word in the country, he’d be executed. Although he was determined to resurrect Urjii, his wife was terrified, and free expression groups insisted he seek exile in Canada.
Today, Kumsa, his wife and daughter Urjii (which means star), live in a one-bedroom basement apartment in a house in Scarborough, Ontario. Unable to find a job in journalism, Kumsa first took a job as a file clerk at Big Brothers but is now studying full-time. His wife, a former bank clerk, is unemployed. “Losing my paper happened to be one of the biggest losses of my life,” says Kumsa. “Working as a journalist was what I loved and what I do, but I think I’ll have to give it up for good.” Although he’s grateful to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for helping him once he arrived in Canada he can’t help but resent his dim career prospects. Although the CJFE’s support meetings for displaced journalists help soothe his feelings of alienation, they can’t give him the Canadian background, education and job experience he needs to get a job in the media, meaning he may never regain the life for which he longs.
Kumsa’s story is just one example of the problem that has dogged the CJFE since its early days as a committee of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in the 1980s – how to be effective with limited money and volunteers. Unlike its predecessor, the CJFE has no real way to measure the success of its protest campaigns. Refugees like Kumsa often give up on journalism in Canada when their experience and help from the CJFE amounts to little more than welfare cheques and dead-end jobs.
This problem is not unique to the CJFE. The Canadian Association of Journalists, the country’s other main group for journalists, also has trouble making money and attracting and retaining members. Some think that the organization’s broad-based educational approach to improving journalism has turned the organization into a get-together for journalists just out of grad school – instead of a resource for serious journalists.
But just because the CJFE and CAJ can’t make a go of it with tight budgets and a lack of people power doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Many journalists say the CIJ did an excellent job of fulfilling its mandate of introducing more investigative journalism to Canadian newsrooms in the 1970s and 1980s. But the dismantling of the CIJ created two weak organizations with lofty aims. The CJFE and CAJ are largely ineffective in championing journalism issues due to limited resources that are stretched too thin, and that’s troubling. If journalists don’t care enough to support these organizations and their goals of promoting the value of free expression and independent media, no one else will step up to the plate, and we risk losing the values on which journalism is based.
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There was a time not too long ago when journalists felt so strongly about their craft that they jumped at the chance to join an organization dedicated to its excellence. When the Watergate scandal broke in the early 1970s, it sprayed investigative journalism with a glamour dust that brought an influx of young people into the field. Before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s groundbreaking work sent ripples through newsrooms worldwide, the odd reporter spent six months chipping away at a big story, but true investigative journalism was a foreign concept in Canada. Source-sharing was unheard of, inter-provincial communication was non-existent and cross-outlet collaboration was akin to treason.
That environment spurred longtime cbc Toronto television reporter Jock Ferguson to rally fellow reporters Henry Aubin, Nick Fillmore and Jean-Claude Leclerc to found the CIJ. The organization promoted the idea that all good reporting was investigative. They wanted to shatter the shallow reporting that filled most newspapers at the time. “Everyone, no matter what their politics, agreed that journalism was very superficial,” remembers Aubin. “No one was rocking the boat with really investigative journalism. Most people wanted their paper as warm as the cup of coffee they were drinking while reading it.”
Their rallying cry struck a chord. By 1979, more than 400 journalists had joined the CIJ’s ranks. To reach its goal, the group organized workshops across the country to help journalists make their work more investigative. They focused on a range of strategies, from how to mine public documents and company reports for information to how reporters at small regional publications could win support and funding from their editors. The CIJ was organized on a shoestring budget and depended on the work of volunteers, but Aubin says the workshops were a great success. Within five years, there were investigative units at virturally all of Canada’s major dailies.
Such a groundswell of support wouldn’t have been possible without the influx of young journalists expanding the CIJ’s membership. While they helped the CIJ achieve the critical mass required to carry weight with publishers across the country, the young crowd also turned the CIJ on its head by wanting to expand the group’s mandate. By 1981, the CIJ was involved in political matters its founders never intended to address, helping squash 1981’s Freedom of Information bill, backing the Kent Commission’s recommendations to curtail media convergence and supporting the Edmonton Journal’s Marilyn Moysa when she went on trial for refusing to disclose sources in a story about unions at the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Although working on a number of fronts pleased the CIJ’s younger membership, it didn’t go over well with the group’s founders. By 1986, Ferguson, Aubin and Leclerc had all abandoned the CIJ. “I left the CIJ board when it became apparent to me that more board members wanted to generalize the organization,” says Ferguson. “I had put a lot of energy into helping build [it] and felt it was time for others to take the lead.” The group’s identity crisis came to a head at conference in 1990, where new members out-numbered old. By that time, some of the membership had already left to work on advocacy issues with the Canadian Committee to Project Journalists, formerly the CIJ’s Latin American committee, known today as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. A sizeable contingent of remaining CIJ members wanted to expand the group’s focus beyond the promotion of investigative journalism to include advocacy and professional development, and change its name to the more inclusive-sounding Canadian Association of Journalists. “I thought keeping the name CIJ was a recipe for small membership,” says Stephen Bindman, CIJ president in 1988-89. “And there was another school of thought that all journalism was investigative anyway, so why call it the CIJ? Why include the elitist ‘investigative’?”
Although remaining founding director Nick Fillmore opposed the name change, insisting the group’s broad new focus would mean death by a thousand cuts, he lost and the CIJ became the CAJ. Having two organizations was supposed to usher in an era of heightened awareness of free expression issues by expanding the mandate and work of the CIJ. But as Fillmore predicted, neither of the CIJ’s offspring have achieved a comparable level of success and today wage an uphill battle for funding, members and relevancy.
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The CJFE has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a glorified letter-writing campaign originating in Fillmore’s basement. Today, the group employs approximately 11 staffers, most of whom have journalism and NGO backgrounds. Since 2000, it has assisted 37 journalists in hostile situations around the world. Its goals are to defend the rights of journalists and contribute to the development of free expression at home and abroad. But according to some critics, the CJFE spends too much time and money on international campaigns at the expense of domestic projects and the journalists-in-exile it brings to Canada.
Joel Ruimy, former executive director, says the CJFE’s major projects include media training in countries such as Thailand and Sierra Leone, coordinating its Journalists in Distress Fund and organizing its annual Press Freedom Awards. But the CJFE’s biggest responsibility is managing alerts from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a worldwide network of organizations that communicates freedom violations and synchronizes letter-writing campaigns via e-mail.
Financially separate from, but managed by, the CJFE, IFEX occasionally advises the CJFE where to direct its Journalists in Distress Fund. It takes up so much time and so many resources that staff have little left to do more for the journalists they rescue. Initially, exiled journalists are hooked up with emergency financial aid and granted office space to hold meetings. The CJFE organizes the odd ESL training session and meet-and-greet with Canadian media heads, but only a handful of refugees get jobs this way. When they do, it’s dead-end, short-term contract work. Many are on welfare or freelancing for low-paying, foreign-language publications while holding down jobs in restaurants and gas stations.
For Kumsa, who has been in Canada for two years now, that isn’t good enough. He says the CJFE should take greater responsibility for finding its transplanted journalists “some kind of jobs related to media, but prior to that, helping them gain Canadian experience in the form of long- and short-term training.” Barrie Zwicker, former Vision TV director and current director of the citizen-based International Inquiry into 9/11, says the CJFE does good work but needs to do more than government lobbying. “The most important role of the media in society is to wake people up,” he says. “Where does the power really lie? What does it do? People need to see the elephant in the room.” Zwicker says that timidly- phrased protest letters aren’t enough when expression violations often come from the corporate world, shadow governments and military.
Many argue the CAJ suffers from a similar problem – with a long list of goals and short list of volunteers, many of its projects are underwhelming and fail to convince journalists they should join. Since rising from the ashes of the CIJ, the CAJ’s goal has been to promote excellence in journalism by offering workshops and lectures, awarding investigative efforts, speaking out on issues like media convergence and researching topical issues such as acceptable uses of hidden cameras.
But its ongoing struggle for money and members makes critics wonder how it can ever be effective. For instance, the CAJ receives money from the cbc, which also sometimes pays employees’ ways to CAJ conferences – something the CIJ, with its position of corporate non-sponsorship, might have avoided. “The old CIJ really had balls. When CIJ voted to become the CAJ, I was disappointed,” says Zwicker. “There was a softening of its mandate. Although CAJ has done a lot of good work over the years, it started taking corporate money, and then seeking it, and you know who calls the tune: it’s he who pays the piper.”
Because of funding issues, the CAJ has a full-time staff of only one and relies on volunteers to do the rest of the work, which is problematic given how few journalists are willing to donate their time. Of Canada’s huge pool of journalists, only a fraction – about 1,500 – belong to the CAJ. And only a fraction of those actually volunteer while the majority kicks back and expects the others to keep at it. Former president Robert Cribb felt the burn in 2002, after leading the organization for two years. “Nobody ever really wants to be president of the CAJ, it’s a horrible job. It’s tons of work for no money, and you spend your weekends and weeknights on it after working 10-hour days, so there’s nothing pleasant about it.” Even the social events hosted by chapters around the country, which try to lure new members into the fold with a mix of business and pleasure, aren’t enticing.
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It’s the end of a 10-hour Thursday in October. The Elephant and Castle at Yonge and Gerrard is mad with the 7:30 dinner rush. In the balcony, 20 men and women from the CAJ’s Toronto chapter surround a line of tables, hunched over pints around a speaker at the centre of the scrum. National Post reporter Chris Wattie’s casual lecture on war reporting has drawn three times the crowd that usually shows up for the monthly pub night. Late-comers on the fringe of the group are out of luck, as Wattie’s words die on the cement walls that are the acoustic tomb of the pub. People twist toward the table, squint, strain, give up, sink deeper into their seats and drink deeper from their glasses. An hour-and-a-half later, Wattie has finished, and everyone stands for social hour. After handshakes and chatting, it’s 9:30 p.m. and most head home. When journalists hang out they often end up being competitive, insolent and slagging each other. Freelancers and journalism students might be into the “let’s-be-journalists-talking-about-being-journalists” scene, but pub night isn’t a big draw for most staffers.
Geoff Baker, a sports writer at The Toronto Star, joined the CAJ in 1994 so he could get the discounted rate for a weekend conference, but never renewed his membership. “It’s like j-school for people who haven’t been in j-school for 10 years or never went in the first place,” he says. It’s hard to learn at a conference where most people are schmoozing or learning how to write leads. Baker says if the CAJ wants to remain relevant, it needs to balance its existing activities for new writers with ones that will interest experienced writers as well.
He isn’t alone. Like many established journalists, Star media columnist Antonia Zerbisias says the CAJ has no real influence or impact in the media business in Canada. She blames its ineffectiveness on the inherent cheapness and laziness of journalists who don’t want to get involved. “It’s funny how little some seem to care about our craft; it astounds me,” she says. “During the CanWest editorial policy [debate], the [Montreal] Gazette people took a stand, and everyone else just bitched. Journalists are professional bitchers.” Zerbisias says many were too lazy or scared to say anything about the Aspers’s national editorial policy – and with good reason. When the CAJ announced its opposition, CanWest, previously a major supporter, stopped sponsoring the organization. It hurt the CAJ, but Cribb says he has no regrets. “If we’re not going to speak out on issues like that,” he says, “it’s time to fold up the tent and go home. I’d far prefer to go into debt than to shut up.”
Leaders of the CAJ and CJFE say it’s their willingness to take stands on controversial issues that individual reporters might shy away from that makes them essential and why their critics should support them, not deride them. “The more members we have, the more money we have, the more we can do,” says CAJ national director Jennifer Fowler. “The CAJ is faced with the challenge of growing itself because people have full-time lives and full-time jobs and tend to take for granted that the CAJ will keep running with or without them.” But if the CAJ wasn’t around to speak up for journalists’ rights, who would do it? Cribb says the CAJ has a long history of good work even if it can’t please everyone. He points to its recent campaign to protect journalists’ rights to protect their sources. Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill’s house was raided by the RCMP for information relating to her work on the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen deported to Syria, his birth country, by U.S. authorities while he was on a stop over in New York. Cribb also points to when the CAJ handed the Nova Scotia government its annual Code of Silence award for being the most secretive government department and having the highest freedom-of-information fees in Canada in 2002. Cribb did dozens of interviews, and the negative press led the government to ease up on access regulations. But before the CAJ brought it up, the public was unaware. Nor was it aware that journalists make only 20 per cent of all access requests; the remaining 80 per cent come from the general public itself.
The CJFE’s Ruimy says his organization does important work too, even if it goes largely unnoticed by journalists. The general public also benefitted from CJFE’s brief to Canadian government regarding Bill C-36. Its concerns over 2002’s anti-terrorism bill helped sew a sunset clause into the legislation, ensuring it would be reviewed in five years. And the CJFE changed the lives of journalists in Sierra Leone by acquiring a printing press and enforcing a code of ethics on journalists using it, thereby abolishing most of the blackmailing Sierra Leonean journalists once used to secure advertising. Ruimy says he wishes the CJFE could do more, especially for the foreign journalists it brings to Canada, but says his hands are tied because of under-funding. That’s why the CJFE doesn’t promise to line up careers for journalists-in-exile; it only promises safety.
But for refugees like Kumsa, being cut off from journalism is its own kind of death. So much so, that if he could, he would return to Ethiopia and revive Urjii. But he realizes that can’t happen, so he’s trying to make the best of his new life as a student. By all rights, the CJFE should be doing more for him, but when it is already stretched so thinly over so many projects, it isn’t possible. It’s a stark illustration of one of the CAJ’s philosophies – the organization is what its members make of it. And when there is too little money and too few people are involved, the organizations and their work appear irrelevant and ineffective when they are, in fact, essential. If journalists aren’t willing to work for the cause of free expression and against media convergence, no one else will pick up the slack. Without widespread support, organizations such as the CAJ and CJFE will disappear, taking the principles of a free press with them. If that happens, journalists will have no one to blame but themselves.