Home Media Action Alerts2014 HRC Gives Testimony to Senate Committee for Transport and Communications

HRC Gives Testimony to Senate Committee for Transport and Communications

by Mike Fegelman

On October 28, HRC Executive Director Mike Fegelman gave testimony to the Standing Senate Committee for Transport and Communications to express our concerns about the CBC’s reporting of Israel and the Middle East and its lax enforcement of its own journalistic standards.

This Senate Committee has been conducting a study since 2013 on the challenges faced by the CBC in relation to the changing environment of broadcasting and communications. In the context of this parliamentary review, the committee invited Honest Reporting Canada to testify during its public hearings in Toronto to inform the committee’s senators about our views on the reporting produced by our public broadcaster and to hear our recommendations that serve towards improving the CBC.

What follows is HRC’s full testimony:

Thank you very much Mr. Chair and distinguished members of the committee.

I’d like to begin by thanking the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications for its important work in examining and reporting on the challenges faced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, specifically in relation to the changing environment of broadcasting and communications.

My organization, HonestReporting Canada, applauds this committee’s efforts and we encourage all of its members to carefully consider the testimony before them and join together in exploring our recommendations that serve to improve our public broadcaster.

I’d like to begin by explaining our organization’s genesis and values. HonestReporting Canada was founded in 2003 by a group of concerned Canadians who wanted to ensure fair and accurate Canadian media coverage of Israel. Frustrated by the inaccuracies and unfairness of pan-Canadian media coverage of Israel post the second intifada, and specifically, that of the CBC, HonestReporting was born. For example, when CBC National featured reporting in 2004 which gave a platform to unfounded allegations that Israeli agents played a role in the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu-Ghraib prison facility in Iraq, we were there. This instance of journalistic malpractice prompted the CBC to issue an unprecedented two on-air clarifications on prime time television. A couple years later, a CBC reporter sympathetically profiled notorious Lebanese terrorist Samir Qantar in an almost heroic light. This was a man who in cold-blood murdered an Israeli father, his two-year-old daughter, and two policemen. During that brutal attack, Qantar, then 16, dragged 32-year-old Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter, Einat, from their apartment to the nearby beach. Qantar killed Haran by shooting him in the back and then drowning him, while Einat watched. According to forensic evidence and eyewitness court testimony, Qantar then killed the girl by smashing her skull against the rocks with the butt of his rifle. Her mother, Smadar, hid with two-year-old Yael, but accidentally smothered her to death while trying to silence the toddler’s cries. This attack is considered the most brutal in Israel’s history and it’s seared on the collective Israeli consciousness. Following CBC’s sympathetic portrayal of Qantar, we (and our members) complained to the CBC and at an in-person meeting, the network conceded to us that they had dropped the ball and dispatched another journalist to do a follow-up piece that properly profiled Qantar’s true legacy of terror. Last year, this seemingly anti-Israel trend continued with the CBC giving airtime to an individual alleging that Israel used chemical weapons on Palestinian children. It was a modern-day blood libel, plain and simple.

As an independent grass-roots organization, HRC works with our 30,000 subscribers in promoting balanced and contextualized Canadian media coverage of Israel and of the Middle East at large. HRC monitors the media in both official languages, recognizes excellence and exposes inaccuracy in Canadian reporting on the region. Accordingly, HRC is dedicated to ensuring that news coverage provided by Canada’s media – whether print or electronic, and whether national, local, academic or alternative – conforms to journalistic standards. When these standards are ignored or violated, our staff and grassroots subscribers take action by contacting news agencies, drawing errors or unfairness to their attention, and requesting changes. Media outlets, correspondents, and editors are held accountable for problematic reporting and are made aware of the need for factual, impartial and fair reporting. Since 2003, HRC has prompted thousands of apologies, retractions, and revisions from Canadian news outlets.

Today, our focus will specifically be on the CBC’s coverage of Israel, and to a lesser degree, its combined reporting of the Arab world and the broader Middle East. A region that traditionally dominates the headlines and commands immense news coverage. NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher recently observed that Israel is the “most analyzed, yet least understood country in the world.” But why is Israel, in particular, in the midst of a battle for public opinion? The singling out of the State of Israel for disproportionate censure is a phenomenon that is part and parcel of a campaign of delegitimation by Israel’s enemies, who look to defeat Israel in the media battleground as they cannot defeat it through conventional warfare. This war is taking place in the court of public opinion and in the media which, for most people, is the prism through which most people understand the world. How else to explain the misnomer of Israel demonized as an “apartheid” state, along with being the unique target of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) campaigns which are perpetrated by Israel’s enemies. Israel, after all, is a sole democracy surrounded by states suffering from tyranny, instability and a basic lack of human rights. In Israel, although a nation that’s far from perfect, everyone is equal before and under the law, whereas in the broader Middle East, justice is often swift and done without a jury or judge, but by an executioner.

During the Israel-Hamas conflict this past summer, 700 journalists from over 40 countries covered the conflict and put a magnifying glass on everything Israel did. That magnifying glass approach is fine and even to be encouraged, so long as that same magnifying glass is put on the other side of the story. However, the power of dramatic headlines, photos, daily news reports and television footage is telling a story about Israel that is so often unfair and inaccurate, in what has been termed “The media intifada”. Western mainstream news organizations like the CBC play a critical role in shaping public opinion and public policy. It is therefore incumbent on the CBC to ensure that its news coverage – especially that of the Middle East – is scrupulously fair, balanced, and accurate. The CBC can’t be seen, by default, to be advocating a particular political point of view which might make it an unwitting accomplice to Israel’s detractors and a narrative that vilifies Israel.

With so many threats facing Israel – from nuclear proliferation, terrorism, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, unstable neighbours, the ascendancy of ISIS and the stalled peace process, it’s important to ensure that our business and political leaders, and the public who influence those leaders, receive accurate information about Israel. This brings us back to the CBC. Time and again, CBC reports and reporters hold Israel to an impossible standard and the broader Middle East, to a lesser one. While we are mindful of the reality of human nature and human error, but that does not exonerate journalists for failing to meet well accepted journalistic standards or for their lack of historical knowledge.

During this summer’s Israel-Hamas conflict, CBC, by and large, failed to adequately show footage of Hamas firing rockets at Israel from urban areas of Gaza, or showing its fighters, dead or alive, engaged in warfare. CBC Ombudsman Esther Enkin acknowledged this phenomenon in a review this month where she said: “I think one of the difficulties in assessing this is the lack of pictures of Hamas fighting. Images are more memorable than words, and when the images are of death, destruction and suffering, that is even truer. It’s a factor that should be considered in overall coverage.” Viewers of CBC’s reporting may have concluded based upon the coverage they saw, that Israel was facing a ghost army and that claims of Hamas using children as human shields were unsupported by the facts due to the lack of imagery in media reporting. Pictures and videos would have supported claims that Palestinian children are used as human shields, and that Hamas fired from heavily populated areas.

During the 50-day operation, CBC’s flagship news program, The National, aired an unsubstantiated video
alleging that an Israeli sniper killed an innocent unarmed Palestinian teenager. The creators of this footage? Hard-core anti-Israel activists well-known for making baseless claims and for producing libelous propaganda videos. Additionally, our efforts prompted the CBC to acknowledge having unfairly reported that Israeli munitions targeted a Gaza power plant, and that Israeli airstrikes destroyed a civilian home in Gaza owned by a resident in Hamilton, Ontario. A CBC reporter also this summer disguised his opinion as news when asserting that Israel “puts children at risk for military aims”.

CBC was also quick in rushing to indict Israel for the deaths of 16 Palestinians who were seeking refuge in a UN-run school in Beit Hanoun on July 24. Instead of being investigative about the incident, CBC took Palestinian allegations of Israeli culpability at face value. CBC presumed Israel guilty of the incident despite a dearth of evidence and prior to the IDF releasing the findings of its investigation. Israeli officials had contended that there was a very “high chance” that the shell that hit the UN school was shot by Hamas, either intentionally or waywardly. On July 24, the CBC ran the following article on its website with the headline; “Gaza conflict: Israeli fire hits compound housing UN school, killing 15.” Upon scrutiny, CBC editors did amend the offending report and headline and the story now reserves judgement and reads: “Gaza school: UN school caught in crossfire, killing 15”.

Just last week, we called on the CBC to stop erroneously reporting that “most” of the Palestinian casualties killed in Gaza during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict were “civilians”. In weeks prior, the CBC scandalously alleged that a “majority of Gazans killed are children”.  Importantly, Israel claims that about half of the dead were terrorists. The United Nations estimates that for conflicts worldwide, such as Afghanistan, there is an average of a three-to-one ratio of civilians to combatant deaths. That means that for every 3 civilians killed, 1 combatant is also killed. Fighting in Iraq and Kosovo was higher at four-to-one and in Gaza, thanks to Israel’s surgical pinpoint operations, the ratio was an unprecedented one-to-one. In the interests of fairness, balance, and accuracy, we asked the CBC to at least acknowledge Israel’s accounting that half of the dead Palestinians were combatants. We specifically didn’t ask the CBC to accept Israel’s accounting as fact, but to at least acknowledge and attribute Israel’s claims in the interests of securing balance and equilibrium in its coverage.

This is just a snapshot of some of our important work in recent days, months and years. Historically, I can tell you that close to a third of our efforts revolve around CBC and its French counterpart, Radio-Canada’s, reporting. In our over a decade of existence, we have issued approximately 1,000 complaints sent to the CBC due to its (mis)reportage of Israel and 70% of the time we receive a satisfactory remedy to our concerns. By that I mean that based upon our critiques, CBC issued formal correctives, reprimanded staffers, circulated memos calling for greater vigilance in their journalist’s reporting, produced more balanced coverage of an issue that was egregiously omitted, etc. That 70% of our concerns were remedied by the CBC, reflects positively of the CBC’s efforts to responsibly (and for the most part) promptly right a wrong and set the record straight. Trouble is, these wrongs are all too frequent, and its victim is almost exclusively Israel. Importantly, most people who watch or read an erroneous report, will not see a correction that ultimately serves to remedy errors, journalistic malpractice, and poor editorial oversight.

Of course, don’t just take my word for it. Our website chronicles many of our historical complaints with the CBC, segmented by its many programs across its various platforms. As well, we encourage this committee to review the website of the CBC’s Ombudsman which features many reviews carried out at our behest where the CBC’s own Ombud found that CBC reporting of Israel violated CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

For example, last November, Radio-Canada’s Ombudsman, Pierre Tourangeau who appeared before this committee, directed the CBC News department to be more vigilant in its reporting on Israel. On Radio-Canada’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Ombudsman concluded that there exists “again this year, real problems in the coverage of Arab-Israeli dispute about the Palestinian issue.” The problems, continued the Ombudsman, merit a “change in attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Indeed, in addition to complaints lodged with the management of Radio-Canada and having met in person with senior members of Radio-Canada, HRC prompted numerous Ombudsman reviews. Last year, after five HRC-prompted complaints lodged with the Ombudsman resulted in the finding of an “appearance of bias”, Ombudsman Tourangeau recommended that the management of Radio-Canada engage in substantive discussions over its methodology. This year and last, additional Ombudsman reviews have upheld HRC complaints.

As our public broadcaster plays an important role in influencing and informing Canadians on Israel and the Middle East, it’s hoped that the Ombudsman’s call for a change in attitude finds a listening ear at CBC. After all, Canadian tax dollars underwrite the CBC’s efforts. But recommendations can and often are, scoffed at. Regretfully, the CBC’s Ombudsman has no tools, nor ability to enforce responsible CBC journalism. The unfortunate outcome of this situation has the potential to relegate Ombudsman reviews to be nothing more than advisory in nature, and for some, a form of window dressing. It’s like letting a judge determine guilt or innocence, but depriving that judge of sentencing abilities.

The reporting practices by the French and English arms of our public broadcaster must evolve today to meet the changing environment of broadcasting and communications. As a primary lens through which Canadians learn about the world, the CBC must report honestly, accurately and with due context. Last week, we saw terror come to our nation’s capital. On the same day that Michael Zehaf Bibeau brazenly killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Hamas-terrorist deliberately ran over a 3-month old Israeli baby in Jerusalem, along with injuring nine people. Canadian media outlets rightly condemned Zehaf Bibeau as a “terrorist”. How did the CBC report on the incident of terror in Jerusalem? Its website carried an article headlined “Jerusalem mayor vows to calm city after baby killed” with a sub-headline saying only “Baby girl died after Palestinian motorist slammed car into light rail train station.” CBC adroitly avoided calling terror by its rightful name and used the passive voice, leading readers to conclude that this incident was simple vehicular manslaughter. CBC could have carried a more accurate headline like: “Hamas Terror Attack in Jerusalem Kills 3-Month-Old Baby Girl”.

To improve the CBC, our public broadcaster must strive to shed a spotlight on underreported stories such as Palestinian corruption and cronyism where its leaders syphon billions of dollars intended for their populace into their own personal coffers. Reports must be produced to show how the Middle East is a black hole when it comes to human rights and how despotic countries like Qatar and Iran are bankrolling international terrorism. How Iranian women are hanged for killing their own rapists and how Saudi Arabian women are treated like chattel. Consider, for a moment, the carnage that has taken place in Syria in recent years, with over 200,000 dead, and how this story is now largely being ignored by our media, legitimate questions
should be raised about priorities in news coverage, especially considering the limited resources available. Just look to the gruesome deaths of millions in the Congo in recent years, a critical story that amazingly fails to gain attention and traction by Western news outlets. In failing to report on these matters, the Canadian people and our government; will continue to receive a skewed impression of the region, which means we cannot adequately promote Canadian values and interests domestically and abroad.

Ladies and gentlemen, the study you’re undertaking is an important initiative that, while worthy of applause, will only represent a meaningful initiative if it leads to substantive changes that sees CBC standards and operating practices observed by CBC journalists.

In summary, we respectfully submit that to improve our public broadcaster, and to remedy what Ombudsman Tourangeau describes as an “appearance of bias”,

  1. An independent commission of inquiry should be established to provide an external review of the CBC’s combined Mideast reporting
  2. The role and mandate of the CBC’s Ombudsman should be expanded to equip the Ombud with tools to enforce responsible news coverage
  3. While we have no problems with the integrity of current CBC Ombudsman, we believe this position should be hired and employed externally and not from within the ranks of the CBC
  4. Middle East correspondents and journalists require more training to equip them with a clear understanding of the history of the region and the critical importance of producing fair and balanced reporting of the region
  5. Traditionally underreported and omitted stories of the Middle East must see the light of day

I state this for the record: We are not of the belief that the CBC has an agenda or axe to grind against Israel, that its reporters intentionally try to malign the Jewish State, but we do believe, have the facts to prove, and CBC itself acknowledges that it’s not living up to its standards and its very own journalist code of conduct. Actions can be anti-Semitic in effect even if not in intent. The cumulative effect of the CBC’s actions point to singling Israel out for opprobrium, regardless of intent. The Ottawa Protocol on combatting anti-Semitism, as affirmed by the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism, asserts: “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong. But singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium – let alone denying its right to exist or seeking its destruction – is discriminatory and hateful, and not saying so is dishonest.” During the recent Hamas-Israel conflict, worldwide negative media coverage of Israel’s operations against a network of terror tunnels and 4,000 rockets shot at Israel cities, fanned the flames of hatred and anti-Semitism in the streets of Paris, New York, and even here in Toronto proper – where Jews and supporters of Israel – were assaulted, harassed, intimidated, and our institutions vandalized with hateful graffiti. A natural, yet unintended consequence of prolonged and systemic unwarranted criticisms of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, can (and often does) lead to hatred of Jews as a collective.

If we’re serious about improving the state of the CBC’s journalism and fostering a greater sense of accountability, we must be true to our own values and enshrine the aforementioned recommendations into policy provisions.

Mr. Chair and distinguished members of this committee, I thank you very much for the opportunity you have afforded me in addressing you. At this time I welcome any questions you may have.

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