How an interview made me think twice about quoting anti-Muslim trolls in the future

This piece was originally published by Ricochet Media and appears here with the editor’s permission.

It’s rare that I ever express joy at someone else’s misfortune.

But when I heard that Kevin Johnston had lost a $2.5-million defamation lawsuit against Paramount Fine Foods owner Mohamad Fakih earlier this month, I felt more than a little elated.

Fakih’s lawsuit naturally focused on Johnston’s harassment of Fakih, his business and his family, but those following racial politics in the Greater Toronto Area have likely long been familiar with Johnston’s hateful rhetoric, aimed most often at Muslims.

This is a man who has described Muslims as “terrorist scumbags” and “rapists” and urged his followers to stock up on guns and weapons to use against “bad” Muslims. In 2017, Johnston posted a YouTube video denouncing Liberal MP Iqra Khalid for putting forth Bill M-103, which condemned Islamophobia and called for Ottawa to review ways to fight hatred towards Islam and Muslims. In the video, Johnston said he would be glad to see Khalid shot.

That same year, I got my own personal taste of Johnston’s nastiness when I decided to interview him for a story I was writing for Al Jazeera English (later published by TRT World) about the $1,000 bounty, subsequently upped to $2,500, he had offered to anyone who could provide him with a recording of Muslim students “spewing hate speech” during their Friday prayer times at public high schools.

We agreed to speak at a scheduled time. But only seconds after he picked up my call, I felt a sickening sense of dread. Something seemed odd from his end. His voice was amplified — as if he were speaking through a mic — and his tone sounded oddly grandiose, as if he were speaking to a crowd of people. Unbeknownst to me, he was recording the call (without informing me, as is common courtesy in journalistic interviews) and turning it into a guest segment for his notorious Freedom Report program.

It meant that whether I wanted it or not, our conversation — along with my name, personal phone number and email address — was being plastered across screens on a YouTube video and broadcast to potentially thousands of xenophobic hatemongers across the world.

Also, unlike other interviews with sources, our conversation began with questions from him to me, about Al Jazeera’s “Muslim” audience. How many Muslims watch Al Jazeera? he asked me. How many Christians watch it?

Afterwards, I realized that Johnston often starts interviews with journalists from mainstream media in the same way. It’s a way to assert control and set the stage, shaping the audience’s view of what they’re about to hear and discredit the reporter before they even begin to ask questions.

I refused to take the bait. I didn’t see what relevance Al Jazeera’s audience had on his bounty offer in Canada.

Al Jazeera’s audience is global, I said in response, and then dove into my questions. Namely, I wanted to know what had stirred him to offer the bounty in the first place. And had anyone actually come forward with tangible evidence that Muslims students were spreading hate?

He said he had issued the bounty because he felt public schools were “supposed to be secular. We want our schools to focus on education only.”

He added that Muslim students were “a threat” in Ontario schools. This, despite the fact that no student, parent or teacher had ever come forward to file a report to an Ontario school board or to police alleging that a student had said something hateful during Friday prayers or on school grounds generally.

But they had, supposedly, filed complaints to him. Johnston told me he had personally received over 150 complaints from parents and teachers across Peel about “Islamic hate speech” and harassment from Muslim boys.

To use his exact words: “I’ve had calls with parents about white girls being grabbed and humped in the hallways specifically from Muslim students. I’ve told them to put cameras and recording devices on [their] kids.”

Dubious as that sounded, I decided to ask him anyway: Had any of those 150 complainants come forward with evidence after his bounty offer was publicized online?

Not yet, he admitted.

The whole experience left me incredibly incensed, not because of his visceral Islamophobia but because of his blatant deceitfulness. I can understand how someone bent on gaining notoriety would want to publicize a media interview in order to amplify their views to a large audience. But to share a journalist’s personal contact details online? He was sending a clear message to his viewers to harass me.

Doxing, the practice of searching and broadcasting private information about a specific person or organization against their will, is something that urgently needs to be considered among journalists and the public alike as white nationalists gain more momentum in mainstream discourse and prompt increased news coverage of these movements. Under rising scrutiny from law enforcement and the media, doxing has become a key way for populists to disseminate their racist ideas, recruit new members and intimidate journalists into self-censorship.

Did Johnston’s tactics work in preventing me from covering and commenting on the burgeoning far-right movement? No. But the experience has made me think twice about whether to include a personal interview with an anti-Muslim troll in future stories.

I’ve always been an advocate for giving people with whom I vehemently disagree a voice in news coverage, especially when it comes to issues around race and immigration. I still do, but I’ve also recognized that with some hatemongers, it’s not about freedom of expression, or having a voice in mainstream news — it’s about knowing that hating Muslims sells, whether it’s in the form of clicks or votes or profile raising. There is a way to critique Islam and Muslims without being dehumanizing or deceptive. When the trolls figure that out, I’ll be the first to call them for comment.