Aaron Leaf
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Shooting the Messenger

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Worried about press freedoms in Canada? Try reporting the news in Zimbabwe

My excitement about giving a presentation on the state of Canadian media to a bunch of European journalism students cooled when I discovered I was to follow the reporter from Zimbabwe. All my criticisms of corporate concentration, CanWest Global Communications Inc., the public relations industry and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of thought control in democratic societies suddenly seemed petty.

In Zimbabwe, repercussion for sedition comes not in pulled advertising dollars or strongly worded letters to the editor, my friend informed the class, but in organized campaigns of harassment, violence and assassination. He recalled his own near-death experiences courtesy of both the government and its opposition.

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The Zimbabwean journalist, whom I won’t name, is short and thin with a baffling sense of humour. Besides being a journalist, he considers himself a poet, a writer of fiction and huge fan of country music. He showed us his official Zimbabwe press card – a licensing system that allows the government to keep tabs on all published writers.

The journalist laughs when talking about his stints in jail. Once, when some colleagues had been arrested arbitrarily, he went to the police station to find out why. He was promptly beaten and thrown in jail with the rest of them. But, because he’d expected this treatment, he warned some lawyer friends ahead of time, and they were able to get him out within days.

The journalist works for a magazine affiliated with a major Christian denomination. The backing of this church means he is given more leeway than if he worked for a secular paper. Even so, what he writes has to be uncontroversial. His technique is to carefully slip in bits of dissenting information that he hopes the censors will either miss or not deem serious enough to warrant retribution. There is a grey area around what you can and cannot say in Zimbabwe, and he believes it his duty to test the limits.

For all our troubles protecting sources and maintaining editorial autonomy, Canadian journalists have had it good. Reporters Without Borders puts out an annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, ranking countries based on their level of press freedom. Out of 167 countries, Canada was ranked twenty-first in 2005.

But the Paris-based organization warns that we’re slipping. Ranked eighteenth last year, we’ve dropped several places because of decisions that have weakened source confidentiality, turning some journalists, they say, into “court auxiliaries.”

Zimbabwe, in comparison, ranks an abysmal 153rd – not far ahead of North Korea, the worst place in the world to be a journalist, according to the report. European countries hold all of the top ten spots. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland are at the top of the list.

Compared to the United States, though, Canada is doing fine. Our neighbour to the south managed to drop twenty-two spots, to forty-fourth place, in between Macedonia and Bolivia. It’s a fall blamed largely on New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s imprisonment and other “legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources.”

Another organization, the Belgian based International Federation of Journalists, released a report this year calling 2005 the worst year ever for journalists, citing 150 media staff fatalities. Eighty-nine of those were murdered in the line of duty, while the rest were killed by accidents on the job.

Iraq, unsurprisingly, is the deadliest place in the world for journalists, with thirty-five murders last year, five of them by American troops. In the Philippines, with ten media murders last year, journalists are so afraid of being targeted they’ve started arming themselves with handguns. While it’s possible that some Canadian journalists arm themselves on the job, I doubt there are many Geraldo Riveras running above the 49th parallel.

Some Canadian journalists are no strangers to death threats – Kim Bolan of the Vancouver Sun receives them regularly. Others, such as Tara Singh Hayer, have even been murdered for what they wrote. But generally, this country is known as a safe haven for journalists in exile. Organizations such as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and PEN Canada work on behalf of exiled writers by raising money and awareness. The PEN affiliated Writers in Exile Network helps refugees get placements in academic settings, integrating them into the Canadian writing community. Their catalogue includes writers from twenty-four countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, many who have faced imprisonment and torture.

Fortunately, back in class my presentation was well received – despite being upstaged – and I later became close friends with the Zimbabwean journalist. We were at school together in Holland, where he secretly took courses to improve his writing. He hoped to freelance for European publications so that his wife and two-year-old daughter back home might have some financial security. Writing under a pseudonym, he sent query letters to any publication that had even cursory coverage of Zimbabwe.

During many conversations over the semester I mentioned to the journalist the idea of emigrating from Zimbabwe. But, despite the danger, he was determined to return home. Living in exile wasn’t a possibility – not because of the risk involved in moving his family, but because he felt his life’s mission was in Zimbabwe. To leave would be giving up, something he refused to do.

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