Retired SFU professor recounts Orwellian tale of media censorship
BURNABY—Mordecai Briemberg was expecting to receive the laptop he had ordered when, one day in December 2007, he opened his front door and a stranger asked him to sign his name to receive a package.
The stranger was not a courier, it turned out, but a process server. Along with documents he was delivering a writ of summons for Briemberg to appear in BC Supreme Court: CanWest/Global was accusing the retired Simon Fraser University professor of conspiring to produce a fake issue of the Vancouver Sun in order to deliberately deceive the public. Briemberg, a locally known left-wing activist, suddenly found himself in the crosshairs of Canada’s largest media conglomerate.
Briemberg recounted his legal battle with CanWest, and discussed the larger issue of media censorship, during a luncheon address on the final day of CUPE’s Western Library Workers Conference. His story, “CanWest: Media Bully”, was a chilling example of how corporate news organizations can wield their power over ordinary citizens.
Is it ‘fake’ or is it parody?
Six months before being served by CanWest’s lawyers, Briemberg told delegates, he was visiting the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch one day when he found copies of a four-page broadsheet whose layout and graphics were identical to those of the Vancouver Sun. The screaming front-page headline, however, was a dead giveaway that what he was reading was not the real thing: “CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF CIVILISING THE WEST BANK.”
As a piece of guerilla media lampooning CanWest’s explicit support of Israel, Briemberg said, the satirical broadsheet seemed a brilliant parody. He recalled being so impressed that he scooped up 40 copies and distributed them outside the Skytrain station near his home. But that was the extent of his involvement with the mock newspaper.
“I hold myself accountable for the things that I do,” he said, “but I don’t hold myself accountable for things that I don’t do. I had no part in its conception, writing, design, or financing.” (In fact, he added, he would not learn who the real creators were until two of the other co-defendants in the suit came forward to prevent a witch-hunt against him.)
Briemberg said that within 20 minutes of the process server arriving at his doorstep, his phone rang and the person at the other end identified himself as a Vancouver Sun reporter.
“He said ‘I want to know what your response is to the summons you’ve just been served’,” he recalls. “I put the phone down and thought ‘Now that’s a funny way to do journalism. Is this a reporter or an agent of the employer?’”
No room for dissent
Briemberg was being targeted with a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (“SLAPP”), a lawsuit—usually launched by a large corporation—designed to intimidate, bully, or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they cease their criticism or opposition. Briemberg said he was singled out by name because he was the most prominent local activist whose views on the Middle East were most opposed to the position held by the Asper family, which owns CanWest.
During the examination for discovery, Briemberg recalled, there were echoes of McCarthyism and Orwell in the questions he was asked. CanWest’s lawyers wanted to know about the Seriously Free Speech Committee, of which Briemberg was a member.
“They asked me, ‘Who are the members? What are their addresses? Where are the minutes of all the meetings?’”
He refused to answer.
One media conglomerate, two standards
Briemberg noted several contradictions in CanWest’s dogged pursuit of its claim against him.
“CanWest wants to know every person I’ve spoken with about the suit they’ve launched against me. Meanwhile, CanWest is also in court defending their journalists’ right not to reveal sources,” he said, adding there’s another irony in the media giant’s challenge of federal laws that prohibit advertisements of prescription drugs in Canada.
“They see the right to advertise prescription drugs as a matter of free speech, but they don’t see a four-page satire about one of their newspapers as a matter of free speech.”
Briemberg called on delegates to support the Seriously Free Speech Committee, write to CanWest urging them to drop the suit, and contribute financially to help defray the legal costs.
He received the only standing ovation at the conference.
Contact: Dan Gawthrop, CUPE Communications, 604-291-1940 (258)