*Elisa Hategan is a journalist, former Neo-Nazi, hate space education and deradicalization advocate and new contributor to DeanBlundell.com:
This is ultimately a story about journalism – what it is, what it isn’t, and whether institutions should bear some modicum of responsibility for the actions of their representatives.
In May 2019, I had the rare privilege of being nominated for an RTDNA award for a story I wrote for Global News on the subject of online hate. Rubbing elbows with many of Canada’s most well-respected journalists at a lavish Sheraton Centre Toronto gala, I was both impressed to be such distinguished company and intimidated, all too aware that unlike the majority of people in that banquet room, I hadn’t gone to J-school and didn’t have a professional affiliation with any broadcaster.
If you’re a freelancer, chances are at some point or another, you’ve wondered if going to journalism school, or working for a mainstream media broadcaster, would make you a better reporter. After all, wouldn’t bastions of the profession, such as Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Journalism, ensure their grads would uphold the highest standards of their profession? Shouldn’t mainstream media outlets be responsible for ensuring that their writers and editors abide by ethical guidelines, most notably those spelled out by the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethical Guidelines?
Sadly, this no longer appears to be the case.
In a political climate increasingly fraught with polarization and misinformation, it is more critical than ever that media organizations priding themselves in being free of biases and disinformation, actually ensure that their columnists and editorial staff adhere to a greater standard of accuracy, fairness, and professionalism than one would expect of a lowly independent journalist.
But the case of Toronto lawyer Caryma Sa’d show how journalistic guidelines can easily become eschewed in favor of malicious narratives cloaked in the institutional backing of reputable organizations.
On Nov 22, 2022, Ms. Sa’d responded to a tweet posted by TMU (formerly Ryerson)’s School of Journalism, which promoted a panel about the online harassment of women journalists, an event scheduled for the following day. The victim of a vicious harassment campaign spanning close to two years and coming from a majority of anonymous online accounts, some of which appear affiliated with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN), Sa’d registered for the event and proceeded to question CAHN’s pattern of obscuring the identity of its “experts.”
It wasn’t exactly a wildly provocative question and was throttled further by the fact that Sa’d had locked down her Twitter account a day earlier. Nevertheless, it led to Sa’d becoming targeted for renewed harassment by none other than one of the panelists invited to speak about online harassment – Ottawa Hill Times columnist Erica Ifill.
Within hours of Ms. Sa’d’s tweet questioning the anonymity and qualifications of persons promoted by a School of Journalism as experts, Ms. Ifill republished and amplified defamatory statements about Sa’d on Twitter by quote-tweeting an anonymous account with a documented history of cyber-stalking and harassing Sa’d, an account arguably created for the central purpose of defaming Sa’d. Ifill captioned her retweet with the unequivocal proclamation, “Thread on Caryma’s terrible character.”
It is unknown whether Ms. Ifill was aware that the anonymous account in question belonged to someone with a history of cyber-stalking Ms. Sa’d. It is also unclear whether Ms. Ifill even cared about this distinction, despite the fact being brought to her awareness.
Seemingly not content to merely retweet insults about Ms. Sa’d, Ms. Ifill – who was not following S’ad and wouldn’t have had access to her locked account – proceeded to somehow obtain screenshots of Sa’d’s tweets questioning CAHN’s anonymity and posted them publicly, along with comments that implied Sa’d targeted other women for violence, among other defamatory statements.
The backlash against Sa’d was swift and brutal. It was made worse by the fact that Sa’d, after years of battling threats and harassment, had locked her account for personal reasons. A pile-on ensured, instigated by Ifill’s increasingly malicious and abusive comments, which culminated in the Ottawa Hill Times columnist calling Sa’d, an Indo-Palestinian, Muslim woman of color who has been targeted by racist threats and abuse, a “plant for white supremacy.”
As a practicing lawyer, Sa’d felt she had no choice but to respond to these egregious attacks on her professional and personal reputation. Having already reserved her ticket to the event before Ifill’s outburst, Sa’d attended the November 23rd event, did not interrupt the presentation or participate in the Q&A, and waited patiently for the discussion to end before approaching Ifill and attempting to serve her a letter containing a Notice of Action.
Serving legal papers can be done by hiring a process server or by delivering them in person. The process is normally straightforward, but Ms. Ifill chose to evade service by refusing to accept the letter Sa’d attempted to hand over. Sa’d eventually dropped the letter next to Ifill and left the building; the spectacle was captured on film and later reframed by Ifill and others as “harassment.”
Smelling blood and further opportunity to attack Sa’d, friends and acquaintances of Ifill joined in the fun, further amplifying Ifill’s assertions that she was being harassed for being a Black woman, that Sa’d was a promoter of white supremacy, and that “99%” of Sa’d approximately 50,000 followers were white people. Sa’d was further denounced for representing a controversial client, a move that brings to mind the abuse endured by Marie Henein after being retained to defend Jian Ghomeshi.
High-profile journalists like Global News’ Rachel Gilmore and Desmond Cole and anonymous troll accounts that had harassed Sa’d for over a year jumped on the bandwagon for good measure.
Did Rachel seriously have the fucking nerve to say that Caryma should "cool it" while she harps on every day about being harassed herself.
Holy hell the hypocrisy. 😲🤦♀️ https://t.co/JGprZXQniK
— TemporarilyUnstonedSeaWitch🇨🇦 (@stonedseawitch) December 8, 2022
When an Asian acquaintance of Sa’d’s attempted to correct Ifill by pointing out that he was not white, Ifill responded by calling him an idiot and mocking his race.
Within days, scores of Twitter accounts – some with real names attached, some operated by anonymous trolls – ramped up the hate targeting Sa’d. In what is arguably the most degrading attack, an Ifill supporter with purported Indigenous ancestry (but whose photo shows she could pass for a white woman) framed Sa’d as an aggressor “who makes a habit of targeting and harassing Black women” and made racist comments targeting her skin color, stating that Sa’d was “trying so hard to be dark-skinned. Girl, you are lighter than I am, sit down!”
Caryma who makes a habit of targeting and harassing Black women, making sure they are portrayed to her largely white neoliberal following as "vicious", "abusive" and angry, is also trying so hard to be dark skinned.
Girl, you are lighter than I am, sit down! pic.twitter.com/GuHR3TgCZC
— Joy Henderson (@Joyhenderson78) December 2, 2022
Instead of attempting to cap the abuse, Ifill gleefully added, “She’s fair-skinned,” a falsehood made instantly apparent to anyone who has ever laid eyes on Sa’d.
Caryma Sa’d made a name for herself as a boots-on-the-ground reporter covering the Freedom Convoy spectacle and other fringe conspiracy zealots’ gatherings. Her film footage has been used in mainstream press news, and she has every right to consider herself an independent journalist. But she does not have any institutional support or the backing of a news media organization like The Ottawa Hill Times. And as much as she may not wish to give her maligners the satisfaction of seeing her openly express pain, she is a human being facing an onslaught of abuse and harassment that no person, no matter how strong, could take without being negatively affected.
On Sunday, November 27, the Ottawa Hill Times distanced themselves from Ms. Ifill by sending a lawyer’s letter denying any control or responsibility over their columnist’s actions. This was a surprising move, considering that Sa’d had never served them directly, and revealed that Ms. Ifill must have provided her employer with a copy of the documents contained in Sa’d letter.
It is unclear whether she provided the contents on her initiative or if the Ottawa Hill Times requested to see them because the video of Ifill’s evading service had gone viral.
The following week, during a Carleton School of Journalism panel, presided over by CBC/Radio-Canada President and CEO Catherine Tait and in the company of Minister for Public Safety Marco Mendicino, Ms. Ifill made negative comments about her employer. When asked point-blank, “Do you feel your organization doesn’t support you, Erica?” she answered, “Right now, no.” During the same panel, a Twitter user quoted Ms. Ifill saying that “when she seeks an expert opinion, she does not talk to white men because her job is to challenge power.”
One wonders what the Ottawa Hill Times must think about Ifill’s statements referring to her employers’ lack of support, including one made just a day ago: “White men and white women who are salaried and not freelance have institutional protections that @TheHillTimes has refused to extend to me.”
Perhaps the bosses at the Hill Times headquarters thought they could distance themselves from one columnist…but two?
In a surprising turn of events, on the afternoon of December 7, 2022, a second journalist at the Ottawa Hill Times, deputy editor Chelsea Nash, openly expressed disappointment with her employers and jumped on the Caryma defamation bandwagon by framing Ifill as a victim of harassment in a series of tweets prefaced with a veiled threat:
“I’ll just say this: those harassing, threatening, and stalking @atRachelGilmore @wickdchiq @sabaeitizaz & others who cannot afford to be as vocal picked the wrong people to fuck with.”
Media institutions must do better than telling their journalists to stay off social media. That is being complicit in their silencing.
I disagree with the way The Hill Times, my employer, went about issuing that letter to Caryma. It was cold and lacked care.”
A core principle of journalism involves a commitment to truth and accuracy and taking responsibility for what your institution disseminates and spins as factual information. When several journalists working for the same publication are engaging in conduct that aims to attack and disparage a third party, the question becomes – shouldn’t an organization that employs people engaging in malicious behavior be held accountable?
If Armed Forces personnel are revealed to be neo-Nazis, anti-hate experts are quick to excoriate the military for tolerating racism among its members. Why should we absolve our media broadcasters – our society’s gatekeepers of purportedly factual and unbiased journalism – of the same responsibility?
In her work as an independent journalist,
Caryma Sa’d has demonstrated, in my view, a higher regard for truth and fair reporting than some “real” journalists employed by the Ottawa Hill Times. Perhaps the Hill Times should revisit the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Guidelines (assuming they adhere to the principles of Accuracy and Fairness).
Specifically, CAJ’s guidelines state that journalists should “make every effort to verify the identities and backgrounds of our sources, as well as “seek documentation to support the reliability of those sources and their stories” and to “distinguish between assertions and facts.”
Here is @TorontoStar journalist Saba Eitizaz alleging I have secret Twitter powers.
It is ironic to accuse me of “toxicity & obsession” while replying to an anonymous account tracking my RTs from behind a mutual block.
✅ digital surveillance
✅ smear campaign
✅ sock puppetry pic.twitter.com/YBN9IiHXwT
— Caryma Sa'd – Lawyer + Political Satirist (@CarymaRules) December 8, 2022
I refuse to root my identity in victimhood.
People come after me, and I brush it off like dirt on my shoulder. I have a wide arsenal of tactics to deal with bullies, none that are mean-spirited.
To the extent I claim victim identity, it is used as a shield not a sword.
— Caryma Sa'd – Lawyer + Political Satirist (@CarymaRules) December 8, 2022
Under its Fairness tab, the CAJ goes on to state that “We do not refer to a person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender self-identification or physical disability unless it is pertinent to the story” and “We do not allow our biases to impede fair and accurate reporting.”
With her defamatory comments, Ms. Ifill has set a high bar for herself and the Ottawa Hill Times. Soon she will have to prove how and in what capacity an Indo-Palestinian child of immigrants and staunch advocate for underprivileged and lower-income people became “a plant for white supremacy.”
This begs the question of – what makes a real journalist. Is it someone endorsed by journalism schools or someone whose only allegiance is to the truth? Is it someone committed to Accuracy and Fairness or someone working for the Ottawa Hill Times?