Raising a voice
In Canada, they're the `invisible' press. They hope to change that with a new online journal, writes Nicholas Keung
May 27, 2006. 03:25 AM
Mohsin Abbas discovered his destiny in Pakistan at age 8, when he found himself near a roadside tea shop watching with fascination as a crowd of people — some illiterate, others too poor to buy a newspaper — debated a column in Mashriq, the main daily in the industrial border city of Sialkot.
"I saw men beating their wives, and kids working as child labour, and I always wondered: Who's responsible for all these problems?" recalls Abbas, now 32. "Then I was at this tea shop looking at these people talking about these stories in the newspaper, and I knew I could use words as a tool to express myself and expose these injustices I saw."
Under a regime often criticized for its restrictions on press freedom, Abbas started freelancing as a journalist while still in high school, served as a stringer for Associated Press and Reuters in war-torn Kashmir, and as a staff writer at the Urdu-language Daily Pakistan, where he worked from 1993 until 2002.
He never shied away from writing about sensitive issues — even police violence, the politically risky topic that ultimately forced him to flee in 2002.
The irony is that Abbas, like many other journalists living in exile in Canada, has been muzzled again in a land that prides itself on freedom of speech. So much so that members of the organization Journalists in Exile, sharing Abbas' frustration, this month launched their own online magazine — at http://www.jexcanada.com
— to create a place to be heard again.
"I don't have any fear in Canada and I feel free to write about anything that I like," says Abbas, who has worked in sales, in factories and freelancing for BBC news online while awaiting a decision on his refugee claim. "The problem is there's no outlets for our voices to be heard, because the Canadian media would not take a chance on us. I took up the profession for my passion. It makes me crazy that I don't even have a voice now."
Back in Pakistan, Abbas quit only when his life was at stake. He broke a story in February 2002 alleging police involvement in the murders of two journalists, including a Daily Pakistan colleague who had been writing a book about the press and the police.
"The police took my father for questions twice, and my five sisters were begging me to leave the country."
Abbas spent several months wandering through Dubai, London and the United States in dim hopes of returning.
But when Pakistan passed a "defamation ordinance" in October 2002, further tightening censorship, he knew there was no going back. That's when he contacted exiled journalist advocacy groups in Canada.
Like Abbas, most exiled journalists are toiling in two or more "survival jobs" to make ends meet, often while separated from families half a world away. Yet members feel compelled to contribute to the magazine in their free time, to have a forum for issues important to their ethnic communities — issues they feel are neglected in the mainstream media.
They are contributing columns, articles and cartoons, and the website includes links to individual blogs and a special area where journalists can pitch story ideas for the perusal of Canadian media outlets.
Maryam Aghvami, president of the six-year-old exile group, notes that these journalists are often sought-after sources for Canadian media.
"You spend two hours on the phone with a (Canadian) journalist to brief them on issues and get them contacts in the community. As much as I love them, you don't hear from them till their next story," laments the former Reuters reporter from Iran.
"They don't always have the expertise in these communities, and we want to help them so they don't screw up stories. But for us, this is another form of exploitation."
Earlier this year, Aghvami represented the Ethnic Media Press Council of Canada at a federal government news conference in Mississauga on immigration, and found herself passed over when an organizer found out she was with "the ethnic press."
"I asked him after the news conference why I didn't get to ask my questions, and he explained to me that the Q&A was for local and national media only," says Aghvami. "It's shocking and frustrating when others treat journalists like myself with such disrespect, that we're less than others."
Among her group's 70 members across Canada, none has landed a permanent mainstream media job, even though some had previous experience in international English-language media. While a few find freelance work, most volunteer for shoestring community publications to "keep their skills fresh."
"I guess our motivation is to get our self-confidence and self-esteem back, so we can still pick up a pen and write again," says Aghvami, who left Iran in 2001, when political reformists there lost ground to religious conservatives and she no longer felt safe as a female journalist.
She was never jailed or tortured, but when reporting for foreign media she'd get calls from government officials questioning her on her interview subjects.
She was on contract — and still occasionally freelances — as an associate producer with CBC's Fifth Estate, but she has also found bread-and-butter work in the insurance industry and for translation services.
Morteza (Mori) Abdolalian, JEX's co-founder, says the group's members, who hail from two dozen countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, reflect the rich life experiences of many new Canadians and can help local media see "the other side of the community."
"We are the invisible journalists in Canada," says the political writer, who left Iran in the 1976 to study in the Philippines. "It seems that journalists in the West don't really see us as one of them, though we're just as well trained and experienced."
A founder of the Iranian students association at Manila's University of the East, Abdolalian was critical of Iran's theocratic regime in the campus papers, Akhgar and Dawn. It was no surprise that he was greeted by intelligence officers at the Tehran airport upon his graduation in 1982.
He was imprisoned twice by authorities, leading up to his ultimate escape back to the Philippines the next year. When he began being harassed by some Iranian students and embassy staff in Manila, he moved to Japan with a Red Cross-issued refugee passport. After being stateless for five years, he arrived in Canada in 1990.
"We need to speak up for those who can't," says Abdolalian, who runs his own news Weblog at http://www.moriab.blogspot.com
. "This is in my blood because I truly believe in freedom and democracy. It all starts with a voice."
Saleem Samad, 54, an exiled journalist from Bangladesh, says the risks and threats he and many peers faced in defending press freedom are hardly fathomable to Canadians.
He was threatened many times and jailed twice over his three decades in South Asia's English-language press — once blindfolded and left in an isolated cell for five days without food or water.
But nothing could sway him from his passion for writing about conflicts and terrorism.
He fled to Canada in 2004, after a source within the intelligence services warned him his life was in danger.
"My friend just said: `You must go. Now!'
"Things are going wrong everywhere, and we need to expose them to the rest of the world. If I stopped writing about these things, I'd better retire from the profession," says Samad, a former reporter with The Bangladesh Observer and New Nation and a correspondent for Time Magazine's Asia edition.
Samad started a job as a security guard in Toronto a month ago, and hopes to see his wife of 25 years and their two children join him in Canada in September. He is a volunteer editor for JEX's magazine.
"The online magazine is an important forum for exiled journalists to get published," Samad says, "because this is the only platform that's open to us." #
Source: Toronto Star, Sat May. 27, 2006