Conflict in Georgia

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report on The National from Georgia about the conflict between Russia and Georgia

You complained about a report on The National on August 12, 2008, by the CBC's Moscow correspondent, Ms. Alexandra Szacka, from the city of Gori, Georgia where there had been intense fighting between Russian and Georgian troops.

The report showed the damage to buildings, allegations of civilian deaths and an interview with local residents. One person claimed there were many corpses. Another reaffirmed her support for the President of Georgia, Mikhael Shakashvili in his confrontation with Russia.

The report showed pro-government demonstrations, presumably in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, where the president addressed a crowd of supporters. There followed an interview with a former Georgian president, Nino Burjanadze, who stated that Georgians support Shakashvili.

The report continued with the reporter “on camera.” Behind her were a group of workers repairing a damaged rail line. Ms. Szacka reported that Russian planes had bombed this line in an attempt to stop retreating Georgian forces and in the process, also hit a cement factory.

The report concluded with shots of a damaged bridge with civilians walking over the bridge. The reporter noted that it may not be possible for Shakashvili to sustain his level of popular support if the war continued for any length of time.

In an e-mail dated August 25, 2008, you objected to the following elements in the coverage:

  1. That the coverage unfairly presented the Georgian point of view by not presenting the Russian side of the conflict in equal measure.
  2. That CBC made assertions of fact that could not be substantiated, specifically with regard to damage to a bridge over the Kvari River.
  3. That the CBC did not explain the military and diplomatic complexities around the conflict.

As well, in a previous email (August 13, 2008) you objected to CBC airing any report “if no footage was available from the other side of the conflict, CBC should…have…limited itself to coverage of facts.”

Investigation

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, regional tensions between Russia and Georgia have existed for many years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. (Critical Questions: The Georgia-Russia War and NATO, Johns Hopkins University, http://www.csis.org.)

Throughout 2008, journalists reported that Russia-Georgia tensions were deteriorating. Georgia's President Shakashvili openly courted western support by seeking closer ties with NATO and the Bush Administration. Tensions grew as Russia gave military and economic support for two breakaway regions claimed by Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The immediate crisis began when Georgian troops invaded South Ossetia on August 7, 2008, allegedly to counter Russian troop movements in the area. Russian troops responded by invading Georgian territory ostensibly to protect Russian citizens.

Fighting ended on August 26 when a ceasefire was agreed to under the auspices of the European Union. Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two breakaway regions are considered “under Russian occupation” and are not recognized by Canada or other western countries.

The larger picture indicated at the time of the report that Russian claims that Georgia's desire for closer economic, political and military relations with the west were undermining Russian influence in the region and were encouraging other countries, specifically Ukraine, to similar measures.

Other diplomatic observers noted that President Shakashvili had frequently been encouraged to take a hard line with Russia, specifically through the offices of then-US Vice President Dick Cheney. (Glenny, Misha, Superpower Swoop, The New Statesman, August 14, 2008,http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/misha_glenny)

Georgia is a close regional ally of the United States. It sent 2000 troops to Iraq in 2003 (withdrawing them during the war with Russia) and continues to accept military aid and training from the US and Israel.

CBC News Management Response

1. Mr. Mark Harrison, Acting Executive Producer of The National, responded to your concern that the Russian side of events was not properly reflected by stating that the report in question was one of many that attempted to show how historically complex the story was. Mr. Harrison noted that it is impossible for any one report on any specific issue to be entirely contextual.

2. Mr. Harrison did not address your specific concern about verifying certain claims and counter-claims. You mentioned an incident concerning damage to a bridge over the Kvari River which was not part of the report on The National, but which appeared on the CBC.ca website (http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2008/08/23/georgia.html). Mr. Harrison said that “balance in a story like this does not mean precise and immediate equality.” This is an accepted belief in journalism in general and in war reporting, specifically that over time, the veracity of events and their location in a proper context will eventually be established.

3. Mr. Harrison confirmed that the complexities of the conflict and the historical context will be explained over the course of the coverage and that no one story can or should be expected to handle every aspect. “Indeed CBC's journalistic policy recognizes that balance is a more sophisticated concept that can be achieved over a series of programs or over a period (of) time and I believe we are doing that.” (Harrison email 8/25/08).

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices:

The report in question touches on three aspects mentioned in the CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices guidelines.

One is whether the report has been complete and contextual. On the question of balance, the guidelines state in part,

CBC programs dealing with matters of public interest on which differing views are held must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of view. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.

Second, did the report make an effort to show the events from a Russian perspective to avoid appearing partisan on a matter of great interest and importance for many in the CBC audience? On that question, the guidelines state in part:

Continuing news and current affairs programs must present a balanced overall view of controversial matters, to avoid the appearance of promoting particular opinions or being manipulated into doing so by events… Such continuing news and current affairs programs, particularly magazine programs, are expected to present the general flow of ideas prevalent in our society. This will entail, at times, broadcasting the views of a single author, scientist, thinker, expert, artist or citizen, whose thoughts merit airing on their own account. In performing this role, those responsible for journalistic programming must avoid a cumulative bias or slant over a period of time and must be mindful of the CBC's responsibility to present the widest possible range of ideas.

Finally, the use of a second source, as a check against possible disinformation even in a war zone must be reinforced. As the guidelines state in the checklist for programmers:

Do you have a second source? Can you confirm this information another way?

Conclusion

It is unreasonable for a listener or a viewer to expect that CBC News will have equal access to both sides in an armed conflict. Ms. Szacka and her crew showed great courage in entering a war zone and obtaining the footage that aired on The National. She accomplished this at considerable personal risk especially since the CBC and other non- Russian news organizations were not allowed behind Russian lines.

But it is not unreasonable to expect that every effort will be made to present in as fully and as contextual a way as possible all aspects of a story. This may be impossible to do in one newscast. But over time and with the resources of CBC.ca, this should be possible. Moreover, war reporting is not always about equitable treatment of the sides. The war between Georgia and Russia was frequently portrayed in the western media as a “David vs Goliath” story. The reality was more complicated and could have been explained in greater detail on CBC.ca. Given the level of interest in this story, The National could have directed viewers to find more on the CBC website, if such material were available.

Mr. Harrison's explanations about the limits and ambitions of the coverage were correct. I find that The National's report was complete, fair and accurate given the limitations of access and airtime. More concerning is the apparent lack of co-ordination between the on air broadcasts and CBC.ca. Content posted on the CBC website seems to have no connection to what has aired on radio or television. On this story, there was no linkage to the on air content and more disconcerting was the rewriting of wire copy without sourcing the material. As a result the reference to the bombing of the bridge on the Kvari River was posted using unsubstantiated source material.

The CBC website makes the claim without attribution that “even after signing the French- brokered ceasefire agreement, Russian troops blew up a railway bridge that spans the Kvari river, about 40 kilometres west of Tbilisi, cutting a vital transport link from two Black Sea ports to the Georgian capital.”

This event was reported only by one news agency, the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA). The story was picked up by one other service, Europe News and by a blog – monstersandcritics.com. DPA stated that this event occurred “according to witnesses.” http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/europe/news/article_1425641.php/Russian_occu pation_of_Georgia_causes_railroad_mayhem__Feature_ There is no other mention of this event that could be found in English on the Internet. CBC.ca did not state where it obtained this information.

Searching through the CBC.ca archives was also disappointing. The stories are posted in a disorganized manner, precluding a useful search. Normally, archival material is posted chronologically. No apparent system seems to be in place on CBC.ca for this story.

Recommendations:

  1. Your complaint concerning a lack of balance is not proven given the demands of wartime reporting.
  2. CBC.ca should be more vigilant in assuring that information posted on the site is credible and properly sourced. Your concerns on this point are justified.
  3. I might suggest that CBC News look into methods of using its website more effectively in explaining the background to complicated events. Additionally, it would be helpful to the audience to post the actual news reports, either in text or electronic form, in order to allow the audience to review stories for themselves.
  4. Archiving of stories on CBC.ca should be brought up to date and be made more accessible.
  5. CBC.ca should remove the reference to the Kvari River bridge incident from the website due to a lack of a second source on this story.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman