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Greyson and Loubani: Civic courage encounters yellow journalism

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John Greyson

For the past seven weeks the plight of filmmaker John Greyson and medical doctor Tarek Loubani, who were jailed without charges in an Egyptian prison, have been a source of concern to many Canadians.

On Saturday, it seemed that what was rapidly becoming a tense situation between Canadian and Egyptian governments (both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had personally intervened, urging the Egyptian government to release the men) was drawing to a conclusion with the abrupt release of both men from jail, and the expectation that they would soon be returning to Canada.

Now it appears as if the inane standoff may simply have entered a new phase given that the men were stopped from leaving Egypt on Sunday, and CBC News reports that the pair may have to wait until the investigation against all 600 other Egyptians who were arrested at the same time has been completed, a process that could clearly take a very long time indeed, given the chaotic current state of Egyptian civil administration and the prosecution services.

What has been clear from the outset is that Greyson and Loubani have been innocent of wrongdoing. Their presence on Cairo on August 16 was accidental. Both men were en route to Gaza; Loubani to volunteer his services as an emergency-room physician at the Al-Shifa Hospital; Greyson, a filmmaker, was accompanying him in the course of shooting a short documentary about Loubani's work there. They had arrived in Cairo with transit visas to proceed to Gaza, but found themselves stranded in Egypt because of events related to the coup and the consequent closing of the Rafah border crossing.

As their statement of September 28 makes clear, while stuck in Cairo they were observing peaceful protests in Ramses Square when violence began and wounded people  began appearing. Loubani, an emergency physician, began administering aid to the stricken and Greyson began documenting the events unfolding around them. Between them they witnessed the deaths of over 50 Egyptians, of all ages and walks of life, all of them unarmed. Later, en route back to their hotel and unable to find a way through a police cordon, they stopped to ask for assistance at a checkpoint, at which point they were arrested and their 51-day detention began.

In any civil and democratic society, what Loubani and Greyson did would be regarded as responsible and courageous: tending to the mortally wounded and documenting what was clearly an unfolding tragedy. These are the actions that responsible citizens would undertake in aid of their fellow human beings, the more laudable because Loubani and Greyson clearly found themselves in a very dangerous situation.

Canadians of all walks of life -- including the Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, MP Marc Garneau; an enormous number of friends and colleagues of both men [Greyson is a professor at York University; Loubani is an emergency room physician and professor at Western University]; organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, PEN Canada, faculty associations and administrations at the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, University of Manitoba, McGill University, Concordia University, York University, Brock University, Western University, Laurentian University, Wilfred Laurier University, the Ontario College of Art and Design, the University of Prince Edward Island, Queens University, Ryerson University, Sheridan College, the Ontario Arts Council, the United Church of Canada, the Registered Nurses of Ontario, the World Medical Association, Education International, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sundance Film Institute, the Berlin International Film Festival, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Director's Guild of Canada, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Canadian Doctors for Medicare, the Ontario Medical Association, Mayor Rob Ford and the Toronto City Council, and many other organizations; hundreds of prominent Canadians, and almost 150,000 citizens who have signed a petition -- have recognized the courageous actions of Loubani and Greyson and have spoken out in support of them, calling on the Egyptian government for their immediate release.

You would think that all of this would make it unequivocally clear that their detention was unjust. That this huge groundswell of support would underscore the imperative of having them released. You would think that no one would want to drop flies in this ointment. You would think that all journalists would wish to recognize Loubani and Greyson for their courage and compassion. And you would be wrong. For evidently all of this is not sufficient to convince Ezra Levant and Margaret Wente.

Here's what Ezra Levant wrote in the Toronto Sun:

"So, sure, [Loubani's] a doctor. But he’s also a professional protester, an extremist activist. Who went to Egypt in August. Who would go there in the middle of a civil war? A trouble seeker, of course. He says he was trying to go to the Gaza Strip, a little piece of land ruled by Hamas, the terrorist group that is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s why he was arrested by Egyptian police. They’re at war with the Muslim Brotherhood right now."

And:

"Greyson is obsessed with sex. He makes movies about his obsessions, with titles like Urinal and After the Bath. He explores his sexual feelings about Pierre Trudeau. Of course he’s a professor at York University."

It's difficult to find words for how execrably bad such 'journalism' is. It's so riddled with errors, political inanity, fallacious reasoning, and empty rhetorical posturing that it's like Swiss cheese without the cheese -- completely vacuous. Levant's article is grist for flogging something that he calls "The Media Party," of which he says, "You just can’t trust the Media Party to give you the straight facts, can you?" I'll let readers decide how much they can trust Levant to deliver anything factual whatsoever.

Both Greyson and Loubani have been publicly critical of Israel and have taken part in actions and movements critical of the Israeli government. All Canadians clearly have the right and prerogative to have political convictions and express them. Why then, in her article, "Freed Canadians are radical grandstanders" would Margaret Wente consider their activities as "grandstanding"?  The definition of grandstanding is, "to perform ostentatiously so as to impress an audience." Isn't "grandstanding" a much closer description of this example of Wente's journalism?

Ms. Wente continues:

"My read is that these two were troublemakers who knowingly stepped into a volatile situation. They've gotten a lot of mileage out of their incarceration. That doesn't mean they deserved to be in jail, or that the government shouldn't have intervened on their behalf. Its job is to advocate for any citizen who is denied due process by a foreign government -- no matter how foolish, reckless or disagreeable that citizen may be."

How emergency room medicine and documentary filmmaking can be understood as "troublemaking" completely baffles me, and the sheer crassness of imagining that 51 days of incarceration in an over-crowded, filthy, Egyptian jail cell can be imagined as giving someone a lot of "mileage" (by the same reasoning, Malala Yousafzai would have received even greater "mileage" by being shot in the head and hence being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) leaves me gobsmacked.

Does any of this have any significance? Perhaps not. Levant and Wente's articles are so out of touch with reality that no one, save those already addled or deluded, will believe a word.

For over a century newspapers have practiced yellow journalism ["A type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism."], and indeed the Sun newspapers would appear to cultivate this approach as their forte. One might imagine that the Globe and Mail would strive for a higher standard.

However, such tactics foment controversy and sell newspapers, and we all know that the chief business of corporate media is to sell readers and viewers to advertisers (editorial content being the loss-leader that baits consumers into paying attention to the advertising) so how can they resist the temptation? That is, I grant you, a rather jaundiced view of journalism, however there appear to be every more, and ever more egregious, examples of it in our brave new world.

What gets lost in such journalism is that at the foundation of democracy and civil society is respect for the individual, respect for the human and civil rights of one and all, respect for freedom of expression, respect for the right of every person not to be unlawfully detained, and if detained to be treated with dignity and respect and either charged with a recognizable offense or released forthwith. And that these rights are not contingent upon whether people are "foolish, reckless or disagreeable." Or whether or not you happen to agree with their political or sexual views. They are inalienable, universal human rights. This is what Egyptian -- and Canadian -- citizens have been struggling to achieve, and Greyson and Loubani's detention is a slap in the face of such aspirations in both nations. It's too bad that the exponents of yellow journalism don't get it.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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