Home Media Action Alerts2016 Complaint Filed: CBC Produces Biased Reporting of Palestinian Olympic Swimmer

Complaint Filed: CBC Produces Biased Reporting of Palestinian Olympic Swimmer

by Mike Fegelman

HonestReporting Canada filed a complaint with CBC News editors over recent biased reports produced by CBC Mideast Bureau Chief Derek Stoffel about a Palestinian Olympic swimmer, Mary al-Atrash, as the CBC wrongly implied that she was impeded by Israel from training at an Olympic-sized swimming pool in Jerusalem.

On August 1, CBC News.ca produced a report entitled: “’It shows our strong will’: Palestinian athletes proud to take part in Rio Olympics” which saw reporter Derek. Stoffel state the following:

“When Palestinian swimmer Mary al-Atrash dives into the pool at the Summer Olympics in Rio, she’s not aiming to bring home a medal. A winning performance will mean telling the story of the Palestinian people and the difficulties they face, not only in preparing for the Games, but also living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.”

CBC Sub-Headline: “’Harder to practise’

“Most Palestinians are unable to travel into Israel, where sports facilities are larger and more modern, because of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘Because of all the difficulties that Palestinians live under … it makes it harder to practise and compete in our sports,’ said Atrash.

Beyond travel restrictions, Palestinians face checkpoints and a scarcity of services such as sanitation, and in some areas clean water.”

Likewise, reporter Stoffel produced a report that aired on CBC National on August 2 wherein he claimed the following:

Derek Stoffel: “She practices near Bethlehem in the Israeli occupied west bank. Most Palestinians are barred from entering Israel where there are larger and more modern training facilities.”

(Voice of Mary al-Atrash’s Translator): “Because of all of the difficulties that Palestinians live under it makes it harder to practice and compete in our sports.”

Meet the Palestinian swimmer taking part in the Rio Olympics

Leaving aside how there shouldn’t be a presumption of free unfettered travel between Israel and the Palestinian territories and how Palestinians themselves bear a responsibility to build necessary institutions like Olympic-sized swimming pools, HRC told the CBC that on July 20, COGAT, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, refuted claims that Ms. al-Atrash could not train in Israel due to “travel restrictions”. In fact, COGAT says she can, but she never applied for a permit in the first place which would have allowed her to train in Jerusalem!

Here’s what COGAT said via its Facebook page:

“FACT CHECK: Mary al-Atrash CAN train for the Olympics in Jerusalem, if she ever applied for a permit.

The Olympic candidate, Mary al-Atrash, claimed she cannot train for the Rio Olympics due to “Israeli Restrictions”. However, we found Mary never applied for a permit to train in Jerusalem in the first place.

Rather than investigate the truth, it’s a shame that media outlets such as Mondoweiss use these stories to paint Israel in a negative light.

We wish Mary the best of luck at the 2016 Rio Olympics and hope she will come train in Jerusalem upon her return.”

CBC.ca’s article and the CBC National report failed to quote Israeli authorities on this matter and we told the CBC that it must set the record straight on how Israel refutes claims that “travel restrictions” impeded her entry to Israel to train for the Olympics. In fact, Israel claims she was welcome to train in Jerusalem, but she never applied for a permit in the first place.

Stay tuned to this page for any updates. We await the CBC’s reply to our concerns and hearing what corrective action will be taken.

UPDATE: August 9, 2016:

On August 6, Liel Leibovitz of Tablet Magazine criticized this CBC report when stating and linking to Mr. Stoffel’s CBC Online report: “As the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympic games celebrated the spirit of competition and camaraderie that captures the hearts and eyes of millions around the world every four years, the festivities were momentarily darkened by a short and stabbing reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. And as usual, it was all Israel’s fault. Introducing the Palestinian swimmer Mary al-Atrash, media outlets were quick to note that the young athlete was challenged not only by the rigors of training for the Olympics but also by the fact that the occupation had cut off her access to a proper 50-meter-long pool, the standard Olympic size. Such stately facilities, the media informed its outraged viewers, were simply not available in Palestine.”

Leibovitz points out in Tablet of the existence of regulation-size pools in the west bank and Gaza “There’s this luxurious one in Gaza, built, maybe, with some of the leftover cement Hamas could spare after squandering billions on its terror tunnels; there’s one in Nablus; and when I called the folks over at the Murad resort in al-Atrash’s native Beit Sakhour, they assured me that their pool, too, was properly Olympically endowed. Water, water everywhere, then, and not a drop for swimming.” Photos are courtesy of the Elder of Ziyon blog. As well, the Jerusalem Post notes: “However, it turns out she had several places near her hometown where she could have trained. For example, Murad tourist resort near Bethlehem boasts of not one, but four Olympic sized pools. ‘The resort houses four Olympic-sized swimming pools equipped with four water slides designed by professional engineers, as well as a special 80 by 30 meter pool for sliding,’ Murad’s website states.”

Leibovitz’s Tablet article noted that “… plenty of athletes around the world, including here in the United States, train, like al-Atrash, in semi-Olympic 25-meter pools, and that to qualify for the Olympics, al-Atrash had to have qualified in a regulation-size pool, which makes the whole access question a rather minor one.”

As we told CBC News, the CBC failed to acknowledge that the Palestinian Authority and/or Hamas in Gaza could build swimming pools if it wanted to for the benefit of its Olympic athletes (and public) and there shouldn’t be a presumption of free unfettered travel between Israel and the Palestinian territories, not only due to obvious security concerns, but also because we’re talking about a sovereign country and a disputed territory who share borders/armistice lines.

Given how misleading, inaccurate, and unfair these reports were, we called on the CBC to take swift and public remedial action to set the record straight.

UPDATE: August 10, 2016:

Jerusalem Post: Yaakov Katz: “The hunt for an Olympic-sized pool in the West Bank”

Is there an Olympic-sized pool in the West Bank? That is the question Adam Rasgon, The Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian affairs reporter, and I set out to answer on Wednesday.

We were motivated by the online controversy sparked by a Reuters article, a Tablet magazine critique and a Post follow-up. The Reuters article in June, alongside a more recent CBC article, reported that Palestinian swimmer Mary al-Atrash’s preparations for the Rio Olympics had been hampered by the lack of an Olympic-sized pool in the West Bank.

Both articles went on to report that Atrash could not train in nearby Jerusalem, as Reuters wrote, “due to the long-standing conflict with Israel,” a claim that has already been refuted by the IDF, which said it would have approved a permit for the Palestinian swimmer. The problem was that she never asked for one.

One question remained, though. Is there an Olympic-size pool in the West Bank? In response to the various articles, Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz wrote a piece claiming that there were actually a couple of Olympic pools in the West Bank. The Post’s Internet staff then did a story on the controversy, citing Reuters and crediting Tablet.

Leibovitz called the Murad Resort near the West Bank town of Beit Sahur. “They assured me that their pool, too, was properly Olympically endowed. Water, water everywhere, then, and not a drop for swimming,” Leibovitz wrote.

The story didn’t end there. Media watchdogs launched a full onslaught on Reuters, claiming that the news agency had once again been fooled by the Palestinians’ campaign to delegitimize Israel.

So, on Wednesday, we decided to do what the critics didn’t. We went to a number of pools throughout the West Bank – in Beit Sahur near Bethlehem and just north of Ramallah, in the town of Bir Zeit.

All claimed to be the “largest in the West Bank.” All claimed to be used regularly by the Palestinian swimming federation for competitions. And all claimed to be of Olympic size. The pool at the Murad Resort, for example, is 25 meters in length, 12.5 m. in width and ranges between 1 m. and 3.5 m. in depth. It also costs NIS 40 to use.

The pool at the Beit Sahur YMCA is also 25 m. in length, 1 to 2.2 m. in depth and 12.5 m. in width. This is the pool where Atrash did most of her training. Then there is the Ain al-Hamam pool in Bir Zeit, which the Palestinian Olympic Committee told us is the biggest in the area. This pool is also 25 m. in length, with a depth ranging from 80 cm. to 2.2 m. It costs NIS 25 to enter.

But while these pools claim to be Olympic sized, are they? That is where it gets complicated. Reuters was right in its report that there are no 50-m. pools in the West Bank. The Palestinian Olympics Committee told us that it is planning on breaking ground for one in the near future and has already decided to name it for Sepp Blatter, the former head of FIFA and a friend of Jibril Rajoub, the Fatah official in charge of the Palestinian Olympics Committee.

But there are clearly several 25-m. pools in the West Bank. They are what are known as half-Olympic-sized pools. And while many professionals train in 25-m. pools around the world – even in the United States – they are not used in the Olympics or world championships. In addition, length is only one of the criteria by which to determine whether a pool is Olympic standard. There is the width, the depth, the amount of water, the width of the lanes, the number of lanes, the use of touch panels on the walls and even the water temperature.

So, can we put “Pool-Gate” to rest? I think so. But here is one point that everyone needs to remember and that unfortunately has been overlooked. Whether there is an Olympic-sized pool in the West Bank or not, in this case it has nothing to do with Israel or the so-called occupation. The Palestinians control large parts of the West Bank and can just build one.

So why haven’t they? Maybe to get stories written like the ones above.

UPDATE: August 18, 2016: 

 UPDATE: September 2, 2016:

CBC Ombudsman Review: “Fairness and balance for an Olympic swimmer

The complainant, the Executive Director of Honest Reporting, Mike Fegelman, thought a story about a Palestinian Olympic swimmer was inaccurate and lacked balance. There were no violations of policy in this report.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada, you wrote to share your concern about a report by Derek Stoffel, published August 1, 2016 on cbcnews.ca, and aired on The National the next day. You said the report on Palestinian Olympic swimmer Mary al-Atrash lacked balance and was inaccurate.

You said it was inaccurate because Mr. Stoffel stated there were no Olympic-size pools in the West Bank. You cite an article published in the Jerusalem Post on August 8th, entitled “Fact check disproves Palestinian swimmer’s claims against Israel”, as well as a blog entitled “Elder of Ziyon” and extensively from Liel Leibovitz writing in Tablet to prove that there are Olympic facilities in the West Bank. You quoted Leibovitz as saying:

As the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympic games celebrated the spirit of competition and camaraderie that captures the hearts and eyes of millions around the world every four years, the festivities were momentarily darkened by a short and stabbing reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. And as usual, it was all Israel’s fault. Introducing the Palestinian swimmer Mary al-Atrash, media outlets were quick to note that the young athlete was challenged not only by the rigors of training for the Olympics but also by the fact that the occupation had cut off her access to a proper 50-meter-long pool, the standard Olympic size. Such stately facilities, the media informed its outraged viewers, were simply not available in Palestine.

You also thought there should have been a response to Ms. al-Atrash’s statement that it was more difficult for her to practice because of the restrictions Palestinians live under, notably their ability to travel to Israel. You said that statement should have been checked with COGAT, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Had the reporter done so, you stated, he would have been told that she could have travelled to Israel, but she never applied for a permit to do so. You thought this information was essential to the balance of the story.
Finally, you thought there was a serious omission because:

The CBC failed to acknowledge that the Palestinian Authority and/or Hamas in Gaza could build swimming pools if it wanted to for the benefit of its Olympic athletes (and public) and there shouldn’t be a presumption of free unfettered travel between Israel and the Palestinian territories, not only due to obvious security concerns, but also because we are talking about a sovereign country and a disputed territory who share borders/armistice lines.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Director of New Content, Jonathan Whitten, replied to your concerns. He told you the information in the story was accurate. He said that after he received your emails, he asked the Jerusalem-based news staff to verify the contention that there was an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Palestinian territories, since you had cited three sources that stated there were such facilities in the West Bank and Gaza. His staff could not confirm that fact:

There are swimming pools at several facilities in the West Bank, including the Murad resort, in Beit Sahour and in Nablus. While some of those facilities advertise “Olympic pools”, they are not 50 metres long, which is one of the specifications for an Olympic long course training venue pool. Facility owners and a government deputy minister in Gaza told CBC News that their pools range between 17 and 25 metres in length.

He added that the day after you sent an email, another article appeared in the Jerusalem Post (August 10) entitled “The hunt for an Olympic-sided pool in the West Bank” revealed that the reporter could not find any pools that conformed to Olympic standards.

He also did not agree that it was inaccurate or inappropriate to mention the travel restrictions that Palestinians face. He explained:

Israel maintains a strict regime of restrictions on Palestinians traveling to Gaza or Israel. A series of Israeli checkpoints and a network of prohibited access roads makes travel within the West Bank difficult for Palestinians. The fact that she would have to apply for a permit (whether she did or not) is an indication of the travel difficulties Palestinians experience. Even with a permit in hand, checkpoints, road closures and the crossing between Israel and the West Bank would qualify as restricting travel.

He informed you there would be no change or addenda to the story.

REVIEW

This report focused on one participant in the Olympics, a Palestinian woman who lives near Bethlehem. Its purpose was to tell her story.

While you pointed to some sources that disagree there are no Olympic-size pools on the West Bank, fact checking by CBC staff and a reporter at one of the publications you initially cited confirm that indeed there are not. This is what Mr. Stoffel wrote:

Atrash swims in the 50-metre freestyle, but her best time of 29.91 seconds is more than four seconds slower than the 25.28 qualifying time needed to compete in the Olympics.

“It’s difficult because of the lack of resources for us here. It will be very difficult to win a medal,” Atrash said.

There is no Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Palestinian territories that Palestinians are allowed to use, so Atrash practises at the YMCA in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. The pool is 25 metres long, half the length of the facility she’ll compete in at Rio.

You further disputed the fact that no Israeli source was quoted or asked if indeed it is true that Ms. Atrash could not go to Israel to train. The article does not categorically say that she is banned. Rather, it conveys her view of the situation:

“Because of all the difficulties that Palestinians live under … it makes it harder to practise and compete in our sports,” said Atrash.

Mr. Stoffel goes on to explain, as Mr. Whitten also did, that it is not an opinion that it is difficult for Palestinians to cross into Israel and Gaza. I agree the fact that it requires a permit is a restriction.

Had this been a story about travel between the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, it would be reasonable to seek Israeli views on the reason for the need for the restrictions. However, this was an article about one Olympic swimmer and what her presence at the games meant to her. It does not exist in a vacuum. Coverage of many perspectives and aspects of life in the region and the ongoing conflict is extensive. Addressing a host of different issues in every article is not a requirement of every individual article or broadcast segment. A range of views and perspectives are required over time.

You raise a point about including criticism of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and of Hamas in Gaza for not building appropriate facilities. It was well beyond the scope of the article, but perhaps some reading it, like you, would have come to that conclusion. You are entitled to your opinion, but there is no violation in policy by its absence.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman

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