CJFE reviewing mandate after statement that led to several departures

By Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – A Canadian media group that advocates for journalists around the world says it is reviewing its mandate after a recent statement on the conflict in the Middle East that led to the resignation of several key staff members.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression says it was clear a refocus was necessary after the controversy that erupted when it released a statement asking the government to condemn Israel for what it described as “one-sided use of military force against civilian demonstrators and media in Gaza.”

The CJFE almost immediately faced internal and external criticism from Canadian journalists who said the organization was being too partisan in its stance, and several staff and committee members resigned.

CJFE says the April 2 statement, which it says was not vetted by the board, was “overreaching” and went beyond its mandate.

In announcing its planned review and efforts to refocus, it issued a softened statement calling on Israel to investigate the alleged attacks on journalists and protesters and asking the Canadian government to echo that call.

“This recent event at CJFE has made it clear that the board needs to review its governance processes, but most importantly, it needs to focus its efforts on its core mandate and on securing adequate funding to carry on its work,” CJFE President Philip Tunley said in a release issued Wednesday.

“CJFE is a crucial organization for the protection of journalists and free expression rights of all people in Canada and abroad, and we will take the next few months to review, refocus, and ensure CJFE is an organization that continues long into the future.”

CJFE said part of its review has already involved an overhaul of its communications strategy, adding future statements will now be vetted by a panel of board members. It also reaffirmed its commitment to promoting “freedom of expression here and abroad.”

Wednesday’s announcement thwarted the expectations of CJFE’s communications co-ordinator, who had predicted the organization’s demise and his own termination in a Facebook post over the weekend.

Kevin Metcalf, who said he crafted the statement on the situation in Gaza, said he has been placed on paid leave until further notice, saying that leaves the organization virtually without long-term, full-time staff.

Metcalf said he was not surprised to learn of the mandate review and expressed disappointment that the organization was distancing itself from last week’s statement, which triggered several departures.

Executive Director Duncan Pike said he tendered his resignation last week, saying “recent events compounded by the financial challenges facing the organization made it clear … that it was time to move on.” Pike said Now Magazine publisher Alice Klein also resigned as CJFE president around the same time, but indicated she is still serving as a board member.

Several members of the organizing committee for CJFE’s annual gala, a high-profile industry event, also stepped down, including CBC host Carol Off, who was committee chair.

Off said the Gaza statement put her in a conflict of interest.

“It was a strong and political statement on a story that I was covering that very day and ongoing into the following days,” Off said in an email. “I stepped down so that I could do my job in an impartial fashion.”

Off also said she had told the CJFE executive several months ago that she thought the organization was losing focus as an advocacy group for journalists.

“We have to find a fine line in everything we do and say, especially if the job is high profile,” she said. “The CJFE also struggles with that line, so it can allow people like myself to work there. We don’t have that balance right now. But I’m hopeful we can find it again.”

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