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Jooneed Khan has been reporting on international affairs in the French-language Quebec daily La Presse for just over 30 years. Khan has done extensive on-the-ground reporting, from Iraq to Haiti, and while his work is little-known outside of Quebec, he has gained an extensive following in the neighbourhoods of Montreal. The Dominion spoke to him in his home in Montreal. The interview will be published as a series of excerpts, of which this is the first.
D: There doesn’t seem to be anyone else who is doing anything remotely critical of Canadian foreign policy, and certainly not doing it on a regular basis for a major publication--your position seems to me to be totally singular in the Canadian media landscape. When they do cover foreign affairs, the Globe or the Star’s coverage seems to be very much in lockstep with the broad assumptions of Canadian foreign policy. What makes your situation different, and do you think that’s a result of working in a Francophone milieu?
JK: I think that there are like-minded journalists in Canada, and I read them with great interest. I can think of Haroon Siddiqui at the Toronto Star.... Siddiqui still writes, and he’s very critical of Canadian Foreign Policy, and he seems to come from the same viewpoint that I do; he’s a man of the south. He sees official Canadian foreign policy as being a vision of the north.
I have found that Rick Salutin is extremely critical--he’s a bit of a token dissident voice at the Globe and Mail, in the way you could say that I am a token dissident voice at La Presse, and there was Heather Mallick at the Globe, who I found extremely critical--very trenchant... she had this great vision to go straight to the point without beating around the bush.
D: What strikes me about your coverage is that you don’t have to excuse it in any way--you write straight news stories, and they have the legitimacy of reporting. Why do you think La Presse of all places would choose to have somebody like that writing regularly?
JK: It’s a very good point you make. All the people I mentioned are opinion writers. I have tried to avoid being an opinion writer. I’ve never even wanted to be on the editorial team who was writing editorials--all of them have been journalists. My concern has always been that before one can form an opinion, one needs facts--as wide a spectrum of facts as possible. I’ve found that mainstream media selects the facts to bring people to think and look in a certain way; and that was not only incomplete, but a disservice to the reader, and that the reader needed what one could call the other side of the coin. I’ve tried to bring those facts which were selected out, and put them together in a coherent way. I’ve done it constantly for almost 30 years. Trusting the reader--telling him or her that these are the facts... I’ll tell you a very recent example is Lebanon. The hue and cry in the western media of what Lebanon is today--that Hezbollah is radical, that it’s a proxy for Syria and Iran, that it’s threatening Israel, threatening Lebanese democracy. The statements that I’ve heard out of the White House, from Ottawa and Paris constantly reiterate democracy, democracy. I thought, this is a totally artificial debate, which can have dangerous consequences, so I did a piece last week, called the “Democractic Deficit in Lebanon.” I just brought the facts to show that when you have a dictated arrangement--dictated by the US and Saudi Arabia--on the Tyre Agreement, where they have allotted 64 seats to Muslims, 64 seats to Christians on a sectarian basis and you haven’t had a census in the country for 75 years... everyone who has done estimates based on the official figures has come to the conclusion that the Christians today are about 35 per cent of the population. Even the sectarian democracy that they’ve imposed does not reflect the true sectarian makeup of the society. These are just facts and figures.
D: Those facts have some embarrassing implications for the owners of the newspaper you work for--what kind of response do you get to those facts?
JK: I joined La Presse in ‘74, and shifted to the International Affairs section in ‘76. I always made it a point to be rigorous on my facts and I was bringing a lot of facts that were not mentioned in mainstream reporting, and I think people appreciated that. Over the years, I think I’ve built that credibility...
D: With the audience.
JK: Yeah. And from my editors. I try my very best not to allow any kind of sloppiness, so that I couldn’t be attacked on the basis of my facts. So that earned me credibility from my own bosses. For the period that I’ve been writing, from ‘75 onwards, there has been a growing influx of immigrants into Quebec, from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America.
Also, Quebec itself has had this longstanding tradition, I suppose, of looking critically at English power in Canada--therefore, being doubtful of English Canadian jargon and concepts and all that. So all that I think came together and allowed me to continue to do my work.
D: I’m assuming you’ve come under pressure from both inside the paper and outside the paper. Can you give any examples? How did that play out?
Initially, I can be sure that my articles are not appreciated by the Israeli lobby. There’s no doubt about that. But I wrote about Palestinian rights and Palestinian suffering at the same time as I wrote about South African Apartheid, and the legitimate rights of the South African majority. I suppose the South African consulate in those days did call my editors once in a while, but since I could not be silenced on my facts, what the paper did was allow colleagues of mine to peddle the official line. So on one page--mostly in the business section--articles that were praising the [apartheid] system as a free economy and a bulwark against Communism and an outpost of the free world. And other colleagues were invited by the South Africa Foundation and other organizations just to peddle that line. But I was writing about the Freedom Charter, I was writing about exclusion, which was also part of the reality. So you had in the same paper the two views. And I appreciate that. I think newspapers in a free society should reflect the diversity of views.
D: It seems that that diversity of views can be seen less and less in Canadian newspapers. Have you noticed a decline in that kind of diversity of reporting? It seems that La Presse has to some extent resisted that, so I’m wondering if you see a trend?
JK: As you say, [La Presse] seems to have held out, but I would say that over the past fifteen years, La Presse has also converged with the rest of the dominant media. I think there is less and less of a relaxed attitude about my writing, for example. You know, you feel it in intuition--
D: But there nothing tangible? There’s no anecdote that you could point to and say...
Well, the one story is my article from Iraq. In April of 2003, when the American troops moved into Baghdad and toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein, I was right there. I experienced it all, and saw it with my own eyes. I was in a small hotel behind the Palestine Hotel, belonging to an Iraqi family. The owner had brought his entire family into the hotel for the duration of the bombing. He had even brought neighbours, so there were Muslims and Christians and Kurds and Arabs, all in that little hotel. They watched all of this on TV, and I talked to them, and there was no joy. There was a great feeling of humiliation. One young man told me, “We are happy that this statue is toppled, but we are humiliated that it was not done by Iraqis.” The following day, while Rumsfeld was crowing about the Iraqi people “receiving us as liberators” et cetera, the checkpoints started going up around the Palestine Hotel, and jeeps with machine guns and soldiers patrolling. And suddenly, you feel that this distrust between the Iraqis and the US troops was very, very thick. I wrote a piece to, in a way, debunk the operation of the statue and to say that the real war begins now. I think it was a 1200-word story. I was there and had no way to check what was being printed; I was sending stories every day. When I got back, I gathered articles and saw that that particular piece had been cut down to about 300 words, and the language had been changed completely, to the point that it was saying the opposite of what I was trying to say.
That’s one specific example, and there’s no doubt that people in charge, the editors, my immediate boss, were watching all of this on CNN and realized that what I was writing from there was exactly the opposite of what CNN was telling them.
To me that is a very good example of the kind of changes that are taking place. In 30 years of journalism, it has never happened to me and it seems to me that there is more and more convergence, that there is a kind of uniform thinking in the West and it’s also due to the fact that Quebec, over the past 25 years, has native bourgeoisie, which I don’t think it had, in all manner of speaking, before ‘75. That was the coming of the Parti Quebecois.
[Continued in Part II, to be published in issue #44]
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.