During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Russian government disseminated false stories that exacerbated division in the American electorate.
This malwarelike campaign was extremely effective because of the high concentration of news consumption on Facebook and Twitter and because the supposed AI filters, the sentries on these megaplatforms, were powerless to stop the incoming tides of misinformation.
The ongoing Russian collusion investigation is providing a trailer into a potentially dystopic future for the media industry. But this problem of kompromat corrupting our news cycle is not confined only to the new brave world of digitized media.
If the recent six week pile-on of two-dimensional "Khalistan terror" coverage across Canada is to teach us anything, it is that legacy media and traditional newsrooms are also vulnerable to false allegations getting past the checkpoints and that once inside our highly concentrated media industry, these can spread rapidly with devastating effect.
While in the U.S., the public has been reading about how clandestine agencies like the IRA (Internet Research Agency) planted stories on Facebook about how Hillary Clinton worships Satan, hates puppies, or other such nonsense, Canadians over the past six weeks have been exposed to fevered coverage in their mainstream news outlets, about how there is a "revival of Khalistan terror", or how Canadian Sikhs are engaged in "blood hatreds", or—and my favourite—how Sikh martyrs, like ISIS jihadis, "are promised a place in paradise". (The reporter on this piece was unclear, however, how many virgins Sikh shaheeds get to bed.)
While the recent Canadian coverage of the Sikh separatist storyline does not cross into Infowars X-files–type territory, it is also not without its problems. The most glaring being that the main premise underlying the coverage is just not true: violent Khalistani terror activity is not making a comeback. There is no reunion tour.
And almost nobody, save a sliver-thin fringe of this community’s truthers, and wayward-minded, still wax on about armed struggle, selectively overlooking the misery it wrought in the 1980s.
And for the thousands of Sikh devotees who attend Dasmesh Darbar temple in Surrey on a weekly basis, their indifference to posters of Talwinder Parmar, erected at the edge of the parking lot, reflect their indifference to temple politics. It does not make them violent extremists.
Are there Sikhs in Canada (and other countries) who sympathize with the idea of a separate homeland? Yes there are (and yes this is the comparable to the romantic notion of an independent country many Quebeckers carry in their hearts).
Are they within their rights to do so and express their beliefs in a nonviolent way? Yes they are. And are there extremists holed up in Canada’s anodyne suburbs like Surrey, Malton, or Calgary Northeast, apparently plotting attacks and raising funds for terror attacks? Umm, well no.
It has been 33 years since Khalistan terrorists targeted Air India Flight 182, and it has been over two decades since there has been any credible reports of terror activity in India linked to the creation of an independent Sikh homeland carved out of Punjab, India.
While this blitzkrieg of Khalistan content was not part of a malevolent conspiracy to recast one of Canada’s religious communities from being perceived as a fully integrated model minority into a suspicious group of violent extremists, that has inevitably been the outcome.
It has also badly damaged, in political terms, Canada’s first nonwhite and Sikh leader of a federal party, Jagmeet Singh, though some of his wounds were clearly self-inflicted.
For some of the commentators pushing the separatist narrative, this was likely one of the motivating factors, or at least an added bonus since the storyline was at first intended to smear the Liberal Trudeau government.
So then how do Canadian Sikhs explain to their neighbours and coworkers the reasons behind all this radicalized coverage? The taint of suspicion from the 1980s has returned.
As someone who has some years of experience in the media industry, I view the hysteria as partly being the consequence of the manner by which legacy media cover ethnic communities and also in how, some three decades since Air India, that is still the defining narrative through which Sikhs in Canada are reported on.
This storyline intensified in fury thanks to a couple of key developments that kept it on the front pages, but it was also aided by a pliant Canadian media that often seemed uninterested in digging a little deeper, or was callous about omitting details that would have significantly muffled its impact.
The highly concentrated structure of Canada's media industry had a significant role to play, including amplifying the coverage exponentially once this story got into the system.
Most cigarettes tossed on the side of a highway do not lead to blazing forest fires—it takes certain conditions to make that happen.
This narrative was fuelled with the oxygen it needed to keep escalating each step along the way.
Rumours and allegations
The spark that ignited this Canadian media storm came from India.
The Indian government was again alleging that Canada was soft on its "Sikh separatists".
This claim was made in 2012 when then prime minister Stephen Harper visited India. And it was made again recently in February when Justin Trudeau visited the subcontinent.
Only now, Indian media were all jumping on this separatist claim and churning out story after story on the return of the Khalistan terror threat.
But there was also another twist this time: not only were there Sikh separatists in Canada, India’s BJP government alleged, but, and more critically, there were Sikh separatists in the Trudeau cabinet. The Indian government was referring to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development.
The chief minister of the state of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, levelled the same allegation against Sajjan last year when he visited India, refusing to meet the decorated Canadian soldier because he is a "Khalistani".
Sajjan, Bains, and none of Trudeau’s other ministers of Sikh background have ever made statements in support of an independent Sikh homeland. Those allegations were false.
It turns out the one voice of sanity in this story was the former prime minister, Harper, who managed to avoid being engulfed into the trap of controversy.
In 2012, Harper responded to the Indian government’s allegations by stating there is a clear distinction between participating in a terror activity and believing in self-determination. And that was the end of it.
This subtle but critical point has been repeatedly trampled on by the news reports in these past weeks. Instead Canadian mainstream media has ran with the official version according to the Indian government, letting through unfiltered the statements being reported in Indian media about how “a new real threat of Khalistani terror” has emerged.
According to Indian media, this threat has arisen due to support from Sikh temples patronized by unwitting "liberal white politicians", like Trudeau.
Canadian newsrooms, meanwhile, have generally glossed over the Indian government’s own shoddy record of making spurious terror allegations against its critics, these ranging from Bollywood actors to political opponents.
As National Observer writer Sandy Garossino explains in this excellent piece, accusing its critics of being terrorist sympathizers is the trishula of choice for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This dubious record, which is easily searchable online, should have been included in the initial reporting on the Indian government’s claims.
When India’s Modi government issued a similar allegation of radicalization among British Sikhs in 2015, the claim was refuted by the UK Centre for Research on Evidence and Security Threats (CREST).
The BJP government is as "alt-right" as it gets for a political party. It governs India—a country in which Khalistan is just one of a number of hanging-by-a-thread secessionist movements—by encouraging violence against its own minorities, including turning a blind eye toward gautankwad—terrorism in the name of the holy cow. Yes there is such a thing.
In the past, this sort of hackneyed and politically motivated allegation would have flamed out of the news on its own, as it did in 2012. But this time it didn’t.
Canada’s highly concentrated media industry, filled with hollowed-out and nondiverse newsrooms, aided in this "story" building up a powerful indraft.
Lack of Diversity
In late 1998, when the publisher of a Punjabi language newspaper, Tara Singh Hayer, was shot and killed in Surrey, B.C., the Vancouver Sun and Province employed packed newsrooms of approximately 200 journalists.
Despite Vancouver’s diversity, and that Air India was still an active storyline, not a single reporter in those Canwest (now Postmedia) newsrooms could read Punjabi. (There are about 250,000 Punjabi-speaking residents in the Lower Mainland today).
So I was called in for the translation job and figuring two heads are better than one, I hunted down the office cleaner on a hunch he would be a Punjabi immigrant. The two of us worked over Hayer’s writing that afternoon to meet the tight 2 p.m. deadline.
For me, fresh out of university at the time, the scenario that the only person in the largest newsrooms in Vancouver who could read Punjabi was the janitor seemed absurd. Yet nearly two decades later not much has changed. There is still a glaring shortage of reporters with language skills in mainstream newsrooms, all despite the rapidly changing demographics of Canada’s urban centres.
When it comes to mainstream media, diversity has not been its strength.
To be clear, diversity does not refer to outward appearance so that a newsroom looks representative of our population the way a political cabinet may. It refers to the ability to communicate in another language such as Chinese, Punjabi, Tagalog, and others such that a reporter can penetrate the cultural shell of diverse communities and take an active part in their conversations and read their media. And no this does not require the reporter to actually be from the community they are covering.
This chronic dearth of language dexterity has given rise to a special type of reporter, perhaps unique only to Canada: the "ethno-beat" journalist, for lack of a better term. And despite their lack of language skills, they become the "experts" on their assigned communities.
This practice began in the 1980s, after the Air India bombing. At the time, there was little coverage on the Indian community. That was no longer tenable after 329 people, many of them Canadians, were killed in the terror attack.
To report on this critical and painful story was no easy assignment for the journalists who first added it their beats. Those on the reporting frontlines did so, at times, at their own risk and were understandably personally affected by what they experienced.
But once these reporters became embedded into these beats, they tended to stay on them—the learning curve for an outsider trying to report on another ethnicity is sharp, and again new reporters would still often lack the language skills.
The result of these ongoing legacy assignments is not totally unexpected and consistent with the major criticism levelled against the reporting—"it feels like we are suddenly back in the 1980s." Even though the Air India trial ended in 2005, it has continued to live on because it has become the lens through which these reporters still relate to "their communities".
This stagnation in ethno-reporting by mainstream media is one of the reasons why, in Vancouver at least, the circulations of the major dailies has stagnated since the late '90s, despite the steady growth in population in the region since that time.
New immigrants and readers in ethnic communities have tuned out in droves and found alternatives elsewhere in their own ethnic print publications and new multicultural radio and broadcast stations. Where multicultural media, including print, has grown in readership, mainstream has atrophied.
Not that "size" is an accurate measure of readership, but the weekend Sun and Province edition combined together, on even their best ad days, will still be half the weight and thickness of either a Sing Tao or Ming Pao newspaper, the leading Chinese dailies in the Lower Mainland. The optics are telling.
So when the Vancouver Sun's "Sikh community ethno-reporter" broke the story of a "Khalistani terrorist", Jaspal Atwal, attending a Canadian diplomatic event on the recent Liberal government trip to India, it entered the news cycle stamped with her seal of credibility.
It was quickly followed by a similar story by the CBC's "Sikh community ethno-reporter". This provided a green light for other Canadian reporters to repackage the story, cut in a small edit here or there, and then submit it for repeated publication along their media chains.
For deadline-pressed journalists, such low-hanging fruit is too tempting not to pick and for Canada’s tight-margined media conglomerates, such low-cost copy is also too tempting not to use.
After all, Atwal seemed like the smoking gun. Here was a real living breathing terrorist. Here was the proof that the Trudeau government was in league with Khalistanis.
Every Canadian news outlet ran with the story, making it seem that Sikh terrorism was a thriving enterprise across Canada.
What had been a marginal roadside brushfire about "Sikh separatists" in Canada now became a raging forest fire.
There was little consideration given to the question of how Atwal, a man who was convicted of trying to kill an Indian official in B.C. in 1986, was given permission to enter India. As it turned out—and was reported much later once the storm had moved on—Atwal had visited the country on multiple occasions over the past decade and was considered reformed and welcome in his Indian homeland.
As Atwal would stress, or at least his lawyer would at his unconventional news conference back on Canadian soil, he had reconciled with India, and regretted his past.
But the real irony is that in 2006, the Vancouver South riding office of then Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh assisted Atwal in obtaining a visa to travel to India by passing his file along to another Liberal MP, Don Bell in North Vancouver.
At the time, Atwal was a resident of Surrey and not living in Dosanjh’s riding of Vancouver South.
Dosanjh has been the most cited and vocal critic of the Trudeau government’s infiltration by supposed Sikh separatists and of Atwal’s presence at this Canadian diplomatic event in Mumbai in February.
"What is India to make of it and what are Canadians to make of it? I just have no words," Dosanjh told CTV News when news broke of Atwal attending the Liberal government hosted function.
The fact that Atwal had disavowed Khalistan, travelled multiple times to India, was considered reformed by the Indian government, and that it was the office of then MP Ujjal Dosanjh that provided assistance in helping him get his first visa back to India in 2006 were facts that were all omitted from the coverage.
Atwal was also charged but acquitted in the brutal assault of Dosanjh in 1985 which left him with 84 stitches.
It raises questions why Dosanjh’s office would assist the man who was accused of beating Dosanjh with a metal pipe to get a visa to go back to a country against which Atwal had committed a terrorist attack.
Inclusion of these facts would have certainly muddied the story and dampened the impact of the angle that media ran with: Khalistani terrorist dines with the Trudeaus.
These overlooked facts would have also undermined the constant stream of criticism coming from Dosanjh.
Just as there is a lack of language diversity in Canadian newsrooms, and a limited number of "ethno-specialist" reporters, so is there a lack of diversity in the sources they regularly cite in their stories.
Dosanjh is an ex-politician with a very complex background. Yet he is the go-to contact for all of the "ethno-beat" journalists and all other Canadian reporters who report on any storyline with a Sikh angle. Dosanjh’s comments—or those from others within his circle of influence—have informed the majority of stories written over these past six weeks in Canada, allowing the former Liberal cabinet minister to remotely drive his narrative that the Liberal Trudeau government is infiltrated by "Sikh separatists".
It is rare to witness such public Liberal-on-Liberal criticism. But then again using the Khalistani slur against political opponents has never been confined to just India. It is regularly used by politicians of South Asian background here in Canada to undermine or dismiss their opponents.
This flippant usage of the term "Sikh separatist" or "Khalistani" (absent the second implied word "terrorist") is a key reason why the Khalistan narrative lives on, even when the actual militants and the militancy movement died off two decades ago.
In Trudeau’s government, the World Sikh Organization, a group that once did advocate for the Khalistan state, forms the inner circle around the PM, at the exclusion of other Sikh political factions, including the one backed by Dosanjh.
In 2014 the Liberal nomination process for the riding of Vancouver South was shut down when "star candidate" Sajjan was parachuted in by Trudeau.
The acrimony from the Trudeau betrayal against allowing an open election in Vancouver South lingers to this day.
While Dosanjh, as B.C.’s former premier and a political insider, does have insight and a perspective to offer, it is unbalanced and even lazy journalism to resort to him as the default commentator on all things Sikh related.
But then again so is excluding any Sikh voices from the TV and radio panel discussions that covered this issue over these past weeks. In a #DearWhitePeople type of moment, younger Canadian Sikhs have generated a new hashtag in response to their collective frustration of having to listen to "experts" whitesplain the Khalistan controversy to them.
#AskCanadianSikhs is a much-needed and long-overdue call-to-action from a younger generation that is tired of being spoken about in the third person while they are clearly visible in the room and able to speak for themselves.
It is the voice of this younger generation that has been sorely missed these past weeks. Where in a once thriving media industry these younger Sikh Canadians who, having grown up in this country, would have become the junior reporters and new blood in newsrooms, today they are marginalized because newsrooms are shrinking.
But even in the years after the death of Tara Singh Hayer in the late '90s when newsrooms were still growing, the benefits of diversifying a news team were never really appreciated, and hence acted upon, by mainstream outlets.
Had #AskCanadianSikhs been given a voice sooner into this narrative, it would have become apparent that supporting self-determination is not a radical act of terror—an idea that mainstream outlets are finally starting to articulate.
This younger generation would have been able to explain the shift in the Khalistan narrative and how it pivoted away from violence to redefine itself as a human rights movement. That pivot would have helped explain how a the image Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale poster can take on new layers of meaning as a symbol of resistance, much like the iconic image of Che Guevara.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s presence at rallies and Sikh community workshops, where he spoke on human rights issues and justice on behalf of the thousands of those killed in the October 1984 Delhi mass killings, would not have been viewed with such suspicion.
And critically, these younger second- and third-generation Sikhs may have also acted as voices of reason to push for Singh to make an unequivocal statement sooner about the pain invoked by the lionization of Talwinder Parmar posters.
Yes, being held to account for the actions of other Sikhs from 30 years ago is still an unfair double standard given that other Canadian politicians, like Andrew Scheer, are not asked to condemn the discriminatory beliefs of fellow Catholics or his association with white supremacists. But being the leader of the NDP requires that Singh speak for all Canadians, not just Sikhs.
And perhaps having more balanced coverage on this issue would have deterred the Conservative party, and its misguided Calgary MP Deepak Oberoi, from reverting back into the barbaric-practices snitch line mindset when they temporarily introduced and then backed away from a bill in Parliament that divisively singled out a nonexistent Sikh terror movement.
But then again, that last one may be hoping too much.
Because of the current atrophic state of newsrooms, all of this subtlety and subtext was marginalized in the Khalistan coverage.
This flattened shallow reporting alienates diverse communities, who are fast becoming the new mainstream, and it comes at considerable cost to all Canadian news consumers. It also tears at our country’s social fabric, inviting suspicion, and fragmenting communities.
Take a tour through Twitter’s #khalistan or #jagmeetsingh threads to read the extreme opinions from overseas trolls as well as from local Canadians.
Where there has been balance and depth in the coverage of this issue, it has come from smaller independent media outlets like the Georgia Straight, National Observer, Canadaland, and iPolitics. They have either been ahead of the curve and or opening space to reporters actively involved in the Sikh community.
The opinions of those reporters and commentators have diverged from the mainstream on the most part.
That a dead issue like Khalistan terror became transmogrified into a six-week media storm—one that could return in a few weeks time when Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi—suggests that as a country we could be better served by reversing the trend of media convergence.
The current and inescapable decline of legacy media offers such an opportunity. Coverage of diverse communities can alas be liberated from the opinion of a small number of ethno-reporters who, in holding all the levers of media power, can drive a narrative in any direction of their choosing, or as according to the agendas of a small number of sources they have selected to work with.
One emerging vision of a new media industry that counters this convergence trend, and that has found appeal among grassroots media activists, is to create an "independent digital public interest journalism sector". David Beers, the founder of the Tyee online publication, has even put forward a plan by which the Canadian government could assist smaller, and more locally focused digital media enterprises fill the vacuum left behind by emptying newsrooms.
Given the lessons to be learned from this recent Khalistan narrative, creating an ecosystem of independent media operations may be the best option going forward to improve the quality and depth of reporting on diverse communities.
Such a media structure would probably still not filter out the army of digital trolls operated by foreign governments like India’s BJP, and stop them from spreading propaganda in our social media feeds. But by giving Canadians access to more media choices and more in-depth coverage that provides access to the subtext we seek in online forums, we may manage to reduce some of our exposure to such meddling trolls and online bullies.
And this new media environment could also finally neutralize the perception that hard-hitting journalism is synonymous with hard-hating, an opinion that has persisted for too long in this country’s Sikh community.