On campus news, Karuhogo’s UMSU and Palestine

Dispatches from a tumultuous year at the ’Toban

What, exactly, is the point of a student newspaper?

I joined the Manitoban as an arts & culture reporter in the fall of 2022 to build my portfolio and make friends in the final hours of my mostly-remote graduate degree.

Since then, I began editing the paper’s comment section and, over time, I took on various degrees of editing in every section of the paper — all the way from news to diversions.

My opinion of local newspapers has radically evolved — as it often does for so many of the ’Toban’s alums. I thought of the paper as little more than a low-stakes training ground for future journalists, writers and researchers.

But watching the community reel, rally and react — especially to Israel’s near-ceaseless bombardment of Gaza — through the Manitoban’s pages, I realized local news is indispensable.

What’s difficult for people around the world is that what happens in Palestine, however far away the place might seem to be, has material and direct impacts on so many lives much more acutely than many other geopolitical issues. I witnessed this first-hand, as the Manitoban became “crucial” for “careful and engaged conversation” as Adele Perry and Pauline Tennent wrote for the Centre for Human Rights Research.  The landslide of articles I was charged with editing demonstrated to me just how crucial the paper was. We published almost four dozen guest opinion pieces this publishing year alone. While they weren’t all about Palestine, each article was written by a unique individual who was equal parts fearful and hopeful for bringing their writing to the public.

The ’Toban was an outlet for U of M faculty, alumni and students, U of W faculty and staff, Winnipeggers in general and even readers from around the continent, to virtually congregate and dialogue.

Editing at a campus paper while Israel tightened its stranglehold on Palestine invited a level of stress into my life I had never experienced before. Dozens of little fires ignited weekly, and I had to put them out while providing an even-handed platform to reflect the views of a community stretching far beyond the borders of the U of M campus. Palestine specifically and the paper generally have had profound impacts on the community, especially in lieu of student government execs with a spine.

Tracy Karuhogo’s UMSU has been chronically silent on the havoc Israel continues to wreak on Palestinians and the ways the genocide constantly spills into local contexts, as I’ve written about almost ad-nauseam. Her executive team, including incoming president Divya Sharma, Liam Pittman, former exec Vaibhav Varma and Christine Yasay cemented their government’s legacy by their habitual cowering in corners until they were called away for photo-ops.

Some might argue that it’s not the student union’s place to comment on geopolitics, despite their history of calling for a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East in response to the threat of nuclear war in Iran.

But even on explicitly local matters where institutions’ stances on Palestine led to them taking a stance against individuals, the ’Toban remained a humble little island for highlighting the issues. UMSU ruled Arij Al Khafagi’s motion to acknowledge and affirm students’ rights to free expression out of order. Al Khafagi’s suspension for comparing the Israel Defence Forces to Nazis was intertwined with the public’s conversation about it, particularly in the Manitoban, and UMSU failed to participate in it.

Al Khafagi’s suspension wasn’t an isolated incident. U of M student and Diversity4Palestine vice president Hussein Shoker posted a video to Instagram of a person assaulting him while he chanted at a rally for Palestine. This, alongside HonestReporting Canada’s routine of accosting absolutely anyone writing for the Manitoban in support of Palestine, testify to the ways this genocide has touched and will continue to touch the U of M community, forcing contradictions roiling just beneath the surface of our institutions’ outer coatings to the surface.

Considering Karuhogo’s administration’s cowardly, deafening silence on both Palestine and the incidents where people faced ramifications for just speaking about it, where else could the U of M community — and the Winnipeg community writ large — find representation for their views?

I was aware that part of the paper’s purpose was to place checks on student government and hold them to account. In the face of Karuhogo’s administration’s aggressively juvenile opaqueness, I’ve only come to feel the importance of that function more urgently.

The Manitoban has been requesting information from UMSU on voter turnout to UMSU elections for close to four weeks. UMSU’s designated PR goon and governance administrative co-ordinator responded just last week, saying that other things were more important to deal with, and pulling the data would take four more weeks.

Apparently being transparent with the press is too low-priority for anyone in UMSU to worry about.

In an embarrassingly sophomoric skit posted to UMSU’s Instagram, Yasay walks into a room to find a snoozing Karuhogo and asks, aghast, “Tracy, what are you doing?” Yasay reminds her shortly after that they’re late for a party.

Here’s the sickening irony, that Karuhogo and her executive team remained shut-eyed in the wake of anything from mass death abroad to encroachments on students’ freedom of speech at home, prioritizing party attendance, doing nothing and even sleeping, over doing something substantial with their time in student government. Like a narcoleptic semi-truck driver careening toward the end of her tenure — indeed, Tracy, what are you doing?

There is a need for a local venue to ask this question, to highlight the problems with student government.

Local news is critical for sustaining a healthy democracy. As civic journalism becomes more impoverished, there are dire consequences for all levels of society. And, considering that very few national outlets would take interest in reporting on sleepy union presidents or evasive local leadership, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The Manitoban is the one of a few disappearing places where these criticisms can be voiced. It, like so many other local newspapers, is the one place in our community where we can forge the connections between the local and the global when local governments fail to advocate for us. The one question that bears repeating is — where else could these stories be told?

What I’ve learned over the years, from conducting interviews to working with writers on their pieces, is that the Manitoban plays residence to stories that might otherwise never have been recorded.

A part of being a human is being part of the local. This is the first place where we get acquainted with the world around us. What’s local matters. What’s local is worthy to remember. The Manitoban matters because it is meant to serve the local, to maintain that link between the people and world.