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We silence foreign-trained journalists at our peril

Thank you for having me. It is indeed an honor to speak about freedom of expression on such a memorable occasion.

I came to Canada six years ago. I’ve done everything to make ends meet and stay in the career path that I’ve built since my youth. I was an established journalist in Ethiopia, where I enjoyed both life and work to the fullest.

I currently am a freelance journalist. I work for Radio and I also provide services as a studio and EFP camera operator, as well as a video editor. It might sound like I’ve landed great opportunities in my profession– however please don’t jump to that conclusion. The struggle continues, as I don’t know what the future holds.

When I was asked to prepare a speech, I had no clue what to say or where to start. But after a couple of email exchanges with my Journalists in Exile (JEX) colleagues, I thought it would be worth mentioning the hurdles and obstacles faced by foreign-trained journalists here in Canada. Because we are celebrating freedom, I thought this would be a good occasion to talk about this subject.

This morning, I flipped through a dictionary to look up the meaning of a journalist. I just wanted to be sure that I understood the meaning correctly. Guess what? It has two meanings,

One: a person who practices the occupation or profession of journalism.
Two: a person who keeps a journal, diary, or other record of daily events.

Accordingly, I should consider myself a journalist. However, I still have the dilemma of whether I really am a journalist in this country. This is mind-boggling! Because when we look at how journalists are identified by the Canadian media, I find myself nowhere. With my accent, my lack of “Canadian experience,” I simply do not fit the Canadian definition of a journalist.

Officially launched in 2000, Journalists in Exile (JEX) brings together a small group of journalists who were forced to flee their homelands due to the harassment and persecution they endured while practicing their profession. Seeking a refuge in Canada, these courageous individuals – who come from such countries as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Iran, Nigeria, Peru, Romania, Sri Lanka, Sudan and many more – have started a new life with the support of an organization called the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). Bringing with them a wealth of experience as reporters, broadcasters and editors, members of JEX wish to devote their energy and intelligence to resuming their journalism careers in Canada. They want to do that in order to ensure that their voices are heard and skills are used in their adopted homeland.

I want to make it clear that most journalists in exile are here because they were forced to leave countries where they had no free expression. And now they are here in Canada, a country that celebrates free expression. And yet, they still don’t have a voice.

Providing the definition of a journalist was to point out that members of JEX were, once upon a time, professional journalists. So, you might ask, whose fault is it that these people can’t pursue their professions here? I think the answer is a combination of factors. Certainly, we need to adapt to the challenges of working in a new country – and we need to learn about that new country. At the same time, we need the Canadian media to open their doors to us. We are not asking for a lifetime job contract. But we ask for solidarity from our colleagues, especially those who believe in freedom of expression.

I also believe that the Canadian media needs our expertise. It is not a must. But it gives colour to your stories and newsrooms. In this new digital age of instantaneous information, a tiny piece of information can build or ruin a nation. Media is a reflection of society, or, in some cases, vice versa – at least in my belief. In this global era, it is inadequate to rely on academics that have never set foot in other parts of the world, but know how to present google-searched information as if they were there.

I have observed false reporting in the Canadian media. This could be a result of shallow understanding, a lack of cultural context, sensationalism, ignorance, or a belief that no one will know the difference if they get the facts wrong. When you get your facts wrong about a story on Sudbury, you know that you’ll have angry readers writing in to the newspaper. The attitude in Canada seems to be: if you get a story wrong about a country like Ethiopia, who will care?

I want to give you an example of the kind of expertise that I possess that would be useful to the Canadian media, a perspective that could add to Canadians’ understanding of a world issue.

Most media in North America explained the conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia as a war between Christians and Muslims. According to the North American media, the Christian country Ethiopia invaded the Muslim country Somalia. Some “experts” went so far as to say that Christian Ethiopia had invaded Somalia on Christmas Eve, 2006.

When I read this, I couldn’t believe that nobody had taken the 10 minutes needed to dig up the facts about the situation.

First, Ethiopia is not a Christian country. We have all kinds of religions. It is true that Ethiopia was the first country to accept Christianity as its national religion. But times have changed, and now Muslim and Christian populations are 50-50.

Second, Western Christmas on December 25 is not Ethiopia’s Christmas. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7. So to say that a war that started on December 24 was related to Christmas makes absolutely no sense in the Ethiopian context.

In a country like Canada, where you can find Christians, Muslims, Ethiopians and Somalians, careless media reporting could have led to hate and conflict. Thank God the animosity didn’t surface as expected, but there were certainly some tense moments for Ethiopians and Somalians in North America. The Canadian media probably never even realized what they had done.

Had the media turned to professionals who spent years in the region, this mistake could have been avoided. And this example is not limited to Ethiopia or Somalia. Professionals who are a part of JEX are from almost every corner in the world. Couldn’t the knowledge of these professionals add great depth and perspective to the Canadian media? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the diversity of this great multicultural country was more truly represented in the faces I see on the television news or in the by-lines of our national papers?

There are some new initiatives that hold promise. For instance, the Hamilton Spectator has made real progress in working with Journalists in Exile. The newspaper has hired some of the group’s members to get their perspectives into print.

This initiative is promising, but I am no longer as young as I once was – and I hope you will forgive me for my impatience when I say: “I want to use my knowledge, my experience, my skills as a journalist (in the first definition of the word) now!!” And I want to use them in my adopted country – Canada.

Thank you!

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