Standing up to the corporate media bully

Last year, peace activist Mordecai Briemberg was served with a lawsuit by CanWest. The charge? Producing a fake edition of CanWest's Vancouver Sun, and infringing upon the company's trade-mark related rights in the process. The four-page parody, produced by a group calling itself the "Palestine Media Collective," focused on what they perceived to be biased media coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict in the Vancouver newspaper.

Briemberg maintains he was not involved in the fake edition's "imagining or creation or publication or production," but merely in distributing free copies he found. The activist has nevertheless been tied to the parody, due in no small part to his outspoken views on Palestine.

According to CanWest's writ, Briemberg and six other unnamed "John/Jane Doe" defendants, have been involved in "anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian media activities," and have written or spoken "harshly critical of the State of Israel and of the plaintiff and anyone who publishes articles or views which the defendants perceive to be contrary to their own views." The co-founder of the Canada-Palestine Support Network, Briemberg has long been an advocate for Palestinian self-determination.

Briemberg spoke with Alex Samur in Vancouver.

Alex Samur: Congratulations on winning the YMCA's Power of Peace award.

Mordecai Briemberg: Well that's very kind, I was very thrilled ... beyond the question of personal satisfaction for me it marks the continuing shift of public opinion on the question of Palestinian rights and the recognition of these from people moving away from reflexive support of Israel towards an acknowledgment of injustices to the Palestinian people, so I think the award by the YMCA shows they too are quite prepared to acknowledge peace work that's being done on behalf of Palestinian peoples' human, national and democratic rights.

It must be very encouraging that your efforts as a long-time activist are being recognized. I guess being served a writ by CanWest is a form of recognition for you as well!

Well I think the CanWest writ grows out of exactly the same thing I mentioned. Namely, opinion is shifting and however much they try to advocate and propagandize for reflexive support of Israeli state policies and practices they recognize themselves that they're less and less successful with that one note beat and they're frightened by the fact that however intense and huge they are people are disengaging from that mantra and so their alternative to acknowledging an open debate or having an open discussion because they fear is to try to attack, silence, chill, intimidate people who have a critical perspective based on upholding international law, based on upholding human rights law, based on upholding major United Nations resolutions on return of refugees etc. They try to silence that voice as much as they can however small that voice may appear in respect to their own huge power âe" but power doesn't always command authority. That is, it doesn't always command confidence among those it lords itself over.

Over the years students at SFU and UBC have also created parodies of the Vancouver Sun but were never sued for trade-mark infringement. Why is this latest parody so contentious?

Yes, there have been parodies created but usually when people create the parody [they] modify, in one small way or another, the name 'Vancouver Sun' or 'Globe and Mail,' which has been done as well as a parody. This listed 'Vancouver Sun' exactly as it is on the newspaper, but you'd have to be very, very obtuse to not recognize immediately that this was a spoof and not the authentic Vancouver Sun.

So CanWest is claiming that it is a deception, it's a fake. But this was four pages, it had names of authors which were like "P. Rupa Ghanda" and "Cyn Shorsheep" or plays on those names which were immediately evident and the articles were clearly a parody. So laughter would be your first response rather than to take it as authentic. What's interesting to me is that in the writ that they brought to the court to bring the suit against me and the other unnamed people is that most of it deals with political accusations of our views about Israel and about Palestine. It's more like a political diatribe than it is a factual documentation of a case around commercial abuse of trade-mark.

I understand there was a preliminary evidence gathering session yesterday? What did that involve?

I'm not at liberty to speak at this point about the examination for discovery.

What happens next with the case?

Well what happens next is that they will proceed with further examination of discovery. We may call to examine them etc. and then the case can go to court. But what I think is very important for people to understand is not just the court process or the legal process because this is a political case and suppression of freedom of ideas, freedom of expression.

It's a SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] suit, an attempt to chill people, these kind of mechanisms that corporations use to silence criticism of the policies and practices that they engage in [are] very dangerous and increasingly used across the country and it's really necessary to fight against this in a public campaign and that's why we formed a committee called to get as many people from a breadth of constituencies to be involved in seeing the dangers posed by monopolization leading to a singular, homogenized view on contentious issues, leading to these attacks on dissenting views, not being allowed space, an attempt to financially break people and to try to scare them into dropping the activities that are entirely legitimate in any democratic culture.

So, in that regard there are people who have given their names to the committee to join as honorary members who are really highly respected and who understand the stakes. People like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, Joy Kogawa, writers, musicians âe" Anton Kuerti âe" an Order of Canada pianist, etc. It's not a single area that these people come from. They recognize comprehensively, they want a democratic culture where discussion can take place away from intimidation, silencing, and censorship. And that is what this is about and the fate of the issue will be determined much more by what happens outside the court than what happens inside the court.

Yours isn't the only suit CanWest is currently pursuing; the local B.C. website, The Tyee, also has a CanWest suit on their hands. What impact do you think suits like these will have, if any, on free speech in Canada?

I think that depends on whether people rally together to oppose these efforts of silencing or whether they try and duck their heads and that's really the issue. The effort of CanWest is to intimidate and scare people, and surely they're powerful and it's costly to resist these kinds of efforts, but it is also important to recognize that when we resist we're fighting a corporation which is itself frightened by what's happening in public opinion.

So if public opinion changes and recognizes the rights of Palestinian people in this case or on environmental questions or on any question you want to pick that's contentious. As people recognize that their opinions have popular support then in fact we can broaden the area for public debate. We can reverse the trend from silencing to actually giving more play, more attention to these issues. In a way CanWest is drawing more attention both to itself and to the suppression of the diversity of views on the question of Israel and Palestine. And that's exactly what they don't want to do. They would rather people didn't think there are diverse views. In a way their strategy can backfire on them if people have the resolve to not be intimidated.

As the first daughter born in Canada to my Palestinian father I was told to keep my head down and my mouth shut on Palestine. In effect your lawsuit reinforces exactly what my dad warned me about growing up. How has this suit affected your activism and do you have any encouraging words for activists engaged in fighting for justice on issues like Palestine?

I really share the sorrow of your father that he felt that the environment and attitudes of people were so prejudicial that the best way to deal with it was to keep your head low. I remember when my father immigrated to Canada from Poland and his brothers had immigrated before him, they had anglicized their name as a way of trying [to lessen] their vulnerability to anti-Semitism. So I grew up with an anglicized name and when I was a young adult I changed my name back to my father's original Jewish name, Briemberg, and I did that as an act of affirmation that it's necessary to have the necessary self-respect and dignity to be self-confident enough to confront the bigotry that did exist in this society at that time.

Certainly the bigotry against Palestinian people, against Arab people and Muslim people at large is far more an issue in this society than anti-Jewish sentiment is, but my encouraging words are if in fact we recognize some confidence that people, Canadians at large, can come to a more realistic and just understanding of what has happened to the Palestinian people and what their situation is and the rights that their being denied and that they deserve to enjoy. If we can have a vision of some confidence that Canadians at large can come to appreciate that then we can encourage that change by being dignified in our own identity and in confronting the bigotry that comes from the mass media and from the government voices and put our confidence in Canadians.

How can more people get informed and support your cause?

The best way is to go to the website where they will find some background on the issue, there's a petition that people can sign and a number of other suggestions of ways they can support it.

There will be a public meeting on the case and on media censorship and concentration on May 14, at 7:30 p.m., at Vancouver's Simon Fraser Harbour Centre campus, featuring talks by Murray Dobbin and Briemberg's lawyer, Leo McGrady.

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