Article about United Nations tribunal into killing of Lebanese PM

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


A complaint about information concerning the Mossad in a analysis questioning the ineffectiveness of a United Nations tribunal into the killing of the Lebanese prime minister. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On August 15, 2011, carried a contribution from CBC's senior Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, on the lack of public progress in the investigation of the death of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The article, labeled an “analysis,” explored how the specially created United Nations tribunal into Hariri's death had so far failed to arrest anyone.

In a 2010 investigative report, Macdonald had chronicled the evidence that connected Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, to the assassination. His report also identified the failings of the tribunal.

The article also explored Hezbollah's public statements that Israel was behind Hariri's death.

“This is nonsense, but it works for Hezbollah on several levels,” wrote Macdonald, who had been a Middle East correspondent for CBC News for five years before transferring to Washington in 2003.

He went on: “For one, defending Israel is simply bad for one's health in the Arab world, which also loves a conspiracy theory involving ‘the Jews.' (A secret Israeli underground bomb, unseen Israeli drones, a ghostly Israeli hit team, etc.)

“The Israel-did-it theory also plays into the mystique of invincibility enjoyed by Mossad, the Israeli spy service, in the Arab world.

“It's an undeserved reputation, but one Hezbollah has often used to its advantage.”

The article turned its attention to Mossad and alluded to the January 2010 killing in Dubai of senior Hamas military commander Mahmoud Mabhouh.

“(In reality, Mossad agents have, over the years, killed the wrong target, been thwarted, arrested and publicly humiliated during apparent assassination attempts, including recently in Dubai where they were extensively photographed by surveillance cameras. What's more, Lebanese authorities have in the past few years rolled up an entire network of Israeli spies in that country.)”

Macdonald said: “That the Mossad could, or would, carry out the complex, long-term operation that killed Hariri is ridiculous.

“Under pressure in Lebanon, the UN tribunal actually investigated the Israel theory and found not a shred of evidence. Still, judging from the tidal wave of reaction to my documentary last fall, an awful lot of people in Lebanon and the West want to believe it.”

Macdonald noted that Hezbollah had been militarily successful against Israel and concluded that “the Israel theory further polishes Hezbollah's power and reputation as a self-declared vanguard against Israeli aggression.”

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, is the executive director of HonestReporting Canada, an organization that scrutinizes Middle East coverage and serves as an advocacy group on behalf of certain Israeli interests. He is a frequent correspondent to CBC News and to this Office, and his organization's website often cites these complaints and correspondence to solicit funds and public support.

Fegelman wrote CBC August 15, 2011, to complain that the story had unfairly characterized Mossad. He noted the death in January 2010 of senior Hamas military commander Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai and said there had been only “circumstantial evidence” linking Mossad to it.

“Mr. Macdonald's contentions are again based on circumstantial, not verifiable evidence. Had Mr. Macdonald responsibly stated that these were just his contentions and not matters of fact, or at the very least inserted the word ‘alleged,' then there wouldn't have been a problem here, however he didn't responsibly state his argument in this manner.”

Fegelman characterized Macdonald's writing as “misleading and unfair” and an example of “prejudice.”

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote Fegelman on November 22 and apologized for the time it had taken to respond to his initial complaint.

Enkin noted the parenthetical nature of Macdonald's reference to Mabhouh's death in the article, which she noted was ostensibly about Hariri's death.

Even so, Enkin said there was broad acceptance of Mossad's involvement in Mabhouh's death. “True (as usual in such cases), the Israeli government has not acknowledged responsibility. However, Dubai police publicly say there is no question Israeli agents were responsible. Circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. The Israeli media has accepted Mossad's responsibility, as has the international media,” Enkin wrote.

She disagreed with Fegelman's perspective that the article was prejudiced. “It is not, of course. And, while I appreciate that you view his work through a particular prism, I think any objective reading would bear that out.”

Fegelman wrote back that there was only “circumstantial” evidence of Mossad's involvement. “I would argue that any objective reading of Mr. MacDonald's analysis would lead readers to only one conclusion, that it has been factually and verifiably proven that Israeli assassination squads committed this assassination. It is for this reason that I am asking the CBC to issue a correction notice to remedy this error as the jury is still out on this matter.”

He asked for this correction as part of his request for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate, fair reporting, an even- handed treatment of varying views, and an equitable and impartial approach.

The policy permits CBC journalists to “provide our audience with the perspectives, facts and analysis they need to understand an issue or matter of public interest” but directs them to “not express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality and could affect an open and honest exploration of an issue.”


The complainant's blanket assertion of a present animosity was based on a minor reference in a lengthy analytical piece, from which he asserted there existed a larger anti-Israeli sentiment. I don't agree.

Context is relevant and important here. Macdonald's extensive investigative effort earlier involving this story and his specific conclusions about the responsibility for the death of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has not carried with it any prejudice. In the substantive focus on his latest analytical piece, Macdonald was dismissive of Hezbollah's claim that the Mossad could have been responsible for Hariri's death. Indeed, he called it “nonsense.”

Actually, without an understanding of Middle East details, it would have been very difficult for a typical reader to comprehend what the minor passage about Mossad meant, much less the complaint about it. There was no reference to Mabhouh by name or association, for instance, and any reference to circumstance was oblique.

That being said, Macdonald was simply alluding to what several other officials and news organizations have chronicled and expressed in connecting Mossad to Mabhouh's death. I concluded this was an acceptable use of what had been quite widely reported. The passage was congruent with CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices that provide latitude for journalists to make judgments based upon available information.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman