CJFE mourns the loss of Arnold Amber, a brilliant journalist, advocate and our longest-serving president

Tuesday, September 05, 2017
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Arnold Amber, visionary journalist, labour leader, activist and humanitarian, died on Labour Day, September 4, 2017, at age 77.

Arnold was a founding member of CJFE, serving as President for 20 years until 2015, and remained as Treasurer until his death.

He was previously an executive producer at CBC; foreign correspondent for Reuters; reporter for outlets including CBC and the Toronto Star; and director of CWA Canada, which represents over 6,000 workers at the CBC and newspapers and other media companies coast to coast.

Arnold won three Gemini Awards for producing CBC news specials, negotiated the consolidation of media unions to better support employees, and in 2014 became the first person to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom, in recognition of his work helping journalists around the world.

Arnold is survived by his wife Phyllis, daughters Jeannine and Gillian, and son David.

Arnold Amber never took the well-trod path. That would be too easy.

When he was hired by Reuters, the world’s leading news service of the day, to be a foreign correspondent, Arnold Amber opted for Africa—not an easy assignment then or now, but he was always up for a challenge. As Reuters suspected, he was uncommonly bright, quick on his feet and charismatic. Seemingly strange traits in an intellectual introvert, but defining characteristics that were to influence the course of Arnold's public and private life.

In no time, Arnold became an expert on the politics, economics and social struggles of not one but many countries on the continent. As a reporter, he had many gifts; he was persistent, insightful, skeptical not cynical, and disarmingly witty. Perhaps his biggest gift, and one he was to use to great effect later as an activist and union leader, was his ability to grasp complex issues and make them seem simple.

Arnold excelled at reporting. It was demanding, creative and, more importantly, meaningful. He learned during his Reuters stint how life-defining democracy was, and how deeply it relied on a free and empowered press. He spent the rest of his life fighting for that principle.

When Arnold returned to Canada, he worked for the Toronto Star and then CBC, then as now the largest journalistic organization in the country. Over time he earned a respected senior position leading teams that broadcast provincial and federal elections.

The job demanded decisive action and leadership, and Arnold excelled at both. He was so good he was later asked to develop similar teams in countries with fledgling public broadcasters, like post-Apartheid South Africa.

Meanwhile away from work, he was becoming an outspoken advocate for the rights of journalists, promoting the need for political access, access to information, supportive legislation, and the other tools necessary to do the job properly. Most working journalists don’t speak out publicly for a variety of reasons, some good, but Arnold felt so strongly about it he couldn’t stay quiet.

To advance this work helping Canadian and international journalism, he led efforts to start several non-profit advocacy groups. More than 30 years later, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), its world-leading Journalists in Distress program, and IFEX, an international secretariat of free expression groups, continue doing respected work helping the profession. For much of this time, Arnold volunteered his time and talents as a president and chief spokesperson at CJFE and as a member of the IFEX council.

While juggling all of this, Arnold was drawn to the working condition problems within the media.  Journalists need protection in order to take risks and tackle contentious issues. In his view, the best protection was a strong negotiated agreement between the company and a union.

Arnold took that on. He became the president of the union representing five thousand CBC workers. He was the chief strategist, bargainer and architect of some of the most progressive union agreements for media workers in Canada for many years. For that he remains the most popular and respected CMG president.

Ever the visionary, before he retired, Arnold forged a unique arrangement with the powerful union that represents U.S. media workers. Joining CWA as part of CWA Canada’s media union has given the CMG the security to continue to do the work it aspires to do.

Many mere mortals would have been crushed by all this work, but Arnold did nothing by half measures. He never shirked a call, difficult decision, political fight or confrontation with management. He wore down opponents with his wit and intelligence, and in doing so inspired a generation of journalists and union activists, CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon and myself among them.

He was a unique force and a closet humanitarian—my words, not his. He was far too practical and modest to embrace the lofty humanitarian label.  

We are so grateful for the time we had with him. Thank you to Phyllis, his wife and constant companion, for loaning him to us. We are grateful to you too for doing so much extra work at home allowing Arnold the time to do so much for all of us.

Fare thee well, Arnold. You’d scoff at such sentimental fluff, but the world needs more men and women just like you.

Carmel Smyth

Journalist and former president of CMG

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  • commented 2017-09-14 20:28:20 -0400
    I highly commend Carmel Smyth’s eloquent tribute to the late Arnold Amber. In recent years two public protest occasions presented the opportunity to enjoy conversations with him. Arnold was gracious, and during our short chats it was obvious to me that I was in the presence of a modest yet tenacious giant in the field of social justice and freedom of expression.
    In recent years, I have noticed that we are losing such individuals of a certain generation, and I worry about the gaps in our cultural history unless such heroes and heroines among us (who themselves would deny such accolades) are not documented in long lasting records accessible to the wider public.
    Therefore, regarding Arnold Amber, I am making three recommendations:
    1) Create a biographical entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia, both in the print versions as well as digital ;
    2) Create a biographical entry in Wikipedia;
    3) Create an award in Arnold Amber’s name, to bequeath upon individuals who have dedicated their lives in proactively supporting freedom of expression through a free press that stands for a high standard of journalistic integrity.
    As a former freelance journalist, I witness the crisis in good journalism today as well as the trends to extremism and internet bombardment of uninformed commentary that fuels divisiveness rather than edify who we can be as human beings.
    In closing, please maintain the tribute to Arnold Amber in an archival section, permanently, so that current and younger generations always have access to know about this person’s caring tenacity to fight for the larger good.