A motion to hold a referendum on defunding the Manitoban briefly appeared in the package sent to UMSU councillors in preparation for council’s Feb. 1 meeting, before being withdrawn little more than a day after it provoked an outpouring of support for the student-run weekly.
The motion was moved by Commerce Students’ Association representative Cole Parsons and called for a referendum, to be held at the same time as the upcoming 2018 UMSU general election, asking students if they “want to continue funding the Manitoban, at a cost of $12.19 per student?”
The motion further asked that the referendum question be included “notwithstanding the UMSU Governing Documents requirement for such motions to be presented by the Executive Committee.” The motion did not cite a reason for bypassing the regular process for holding a referendum.
Parson’s motion mentioned a recent editorial published in the Manitoban, the migration of news from print to digital platforms, and what it called a failure of the paper to act as an “impartial campus media outlet” as reasons for the referendum.
The editorial in question, “UMSU plebiscite is politics made petty,” appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of the paper and questioned the motivations behind a plebiscite asking students if they “believe UMSU should remain a member of the Canadian Federation of Students, at a cost of $14.98 per student per year?” In the plebiscite, 64 per cent of ballots cast indicated support to remain affiliated with CFS.
The Jan. 31 UMSU press release announcing that the motion to defund the 104-year-old news organization had been withdrawn stated that Parsons’ “original intention was to start a dialogue.”
“I thought perhaps students wanted an opportunity to re-evaluate this service that they pay for, but since putting it forward it’s clear that the Manitoban is an important service to many students,” Parsons is quoted as saying.
Parsons did not respond to a request for comment.
Garett Williams, editor-in-chief of the Manitoban, said “To threaten the Manitoban’s funding through council is to threaten the paper’s independence. By explicitly citing an editorial critical of student union activities, the motion cannot be understood as anything other than an attack on the paper’s fundamental freedom to report and comment on UMSU – a body that represents 25,000 undergraduates.”
The levy currently paid by students to support the Manitoban largely goes to equipment and salaries, since the print edition of the paper – one of the largest student papers in western Canada – pays for itself through advertising revenues.
“Outpouring of support”
The same day the motion became public knowledge, the University of Manitoba Board of Governors approved the closing of the Gradzette, with the graduate student levy used to support it being re-directed to the Manitoban.
Carl Neumann, president of the University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association, speaking to the importance of what he called “independent media,” said “we wanted to not just eliminate that fee, but just sort of transfer it over to, you know, actual support – direct support for the Manitoban instead.”
The short space of time between the motion to defund becoming known to the public and being withdrawn saw what Malak Abas, managing editor of the Manitoban, described as an “outpouring of support.”
This outpouring included an editorial in the University of Winnipeg’s student paper, the Uniter, a flurry of supportive tweets from current and former students of the U of M, and coverage by the Winnipeg Free Press, the Winnipeg Sun, CTV News, and Global News.
UMSU president Tanjit Nagra, speaking to Global News on her experience with editorials in the student paper, observed that “they’re opinion pieces and I think sometimes it’s tough for some folks to be able to understand that.”
Williams echoed Nagra’s sentiment: “If someone disagrees with an editorial or comment piece published by the Manitoban they are welcome to submit an op-ed challenging the position. A healthy newspaper fosters debate within its pages and the Mantioban strives to meet that standard.”