Interview with Nur Chowdhury

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

This review involves a public complaint about the content and tone of an interview February 28, 2011 with Nur Chowdhury on CBC Radio's The Current. I did not find a violation of policy under CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On February 28, 2011, CBC Radio's The Current featured an interview with Nur Chowdhury, convicted in absentia of firing upon and killing during a 1975 military coup Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder and first president of Bangladesh.

The leader of Bangladesh was killed, along with family members and personal staff, by a group of junior army officers who invaded the presidential residence with tanks August 15, 1975. Only his two daughters, visiting what was then West Germany, escaped harm in his family.

Political turmoil followed and an indemnity law was signed to give immunity to those involved in plotting the assassination and overthrow. Diplomatic positions were also given to some involved.

When the sheikh's daughter later assumed power in 1996, the law was revoked and a murder investigation launched. She lost power in 2001 and the momentum in the case stalled. But she regained power in 2009 and a trial resulted in convictions of 15 men sentenced to death. Six had fled the country, five were executed, three later acquitted, and one died of natural causes.

Chowdhury, accused of firing the bullet that killed the sheikh, had been living in Canada for 15 years when The Current interviewed him. He had claimed refugee status and been the subject of a deportation order he was appealing. The government of Bangladesh had been seeking his return and its prime minister was due to visit Canada to make that case in the days ahead. Canada does not extradite when people would face the death penalty.

Host Anna Maria Tremonti asked Chowdhury, among other things: why he deserved help; what was his involvement in the coup; where he was on the night of the killing; what were his reasons for not going back; why he was given diplomatic postings; why he came to Canada; and why he might be indemnified against prosecution.

At one point Tremonti expressed skepticism of Chowdhury's explanation of his whereabouts during the incident, saying the notion that he was making t-shirts with his family in the middle of the night “sounds kind of funny.”

Chowdhury asserted, among other things: he was set up; witnesses were afraid to step forward; he supported the coup but was not a participant in violence; his trial was “a total sham”; his diplomatic posting in his mid-20s following the coup was not unusual; the government's indemnification was broad and not applied specifically to him; and there was a “vendetta” to bring him back to Bangladesh.

An interview followed with Chowdhury's lawyer, Barbara Jackman, who clarified the legal process and asserted her client was innocent of involvement in the killing.

The complainant, Mario Bouchard, wrote March 7, 2011, to say Tremonti was “overly aggressive and dismissive. She even appeared to twist the facts on several occasions.” Bouchard asserted that Tremonti misunderstood how widely the indemnification was applied.

“This is not the first time Ms. Tremonti has gotten emotionally involved in the stories she covers. Overall her work is excellent. She should however show more detachment or pass on the interviews for which she cannot to others,” Bouchard wrote.

Pam Bertrand, the executive producer of The Current, wrote Bouchard on January 4, 2012. She expressed sincere apologies for the long delay in responding.

While Chowdhury had an opportunity to set out his version of events, Bertrand said that “Ms. Tremonti or any other CBC journalist would fail in her responsibility if she simply offered Mr. Chowdhury a platform to express his views.”

Bertrand wrote it was CBC's obligation to not only permit views to be expressed but “to test those views.” She added that if Tremonti misunderstood the scope of the indemnification law, Chowdhury “emphatically corrected her.”

She noted Chowdhury said: “I didn't get an indemnification. The act says all acts related to the change in government that day were indemnified.”

Bouchard wrote back January 11. He acknowledged styles vary and that interviews involve give and take, but said that this segment featured too much give and not enough take. “Sometimes it took the form of a cross-examination,” he said.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for respectful, open, even-handed treatment of perspectives in its programming. The policy calls for research to “learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience.”

Conclusion

Interview styles vary personally and according to their function. In some instances it is optimal to have a friendly conversation, in others it is necessary to pose benign questions that evince explanations, and in others it is a fundamental requirement as a public surrogate to use the opportunity to be tougher to seek accountability.

What some consider aggressive, others might find determined, and what some consider empathetic, others might find sympathetic. In all cases the underlying journalistic principle is that there be a respectful, open-minded exchange of talking and listening that permits the audience to make its own judgments.

Tremonti had as a guest a man convicted in absentia of assassination. It was clear she understood this called for a serious effort to at last question someone who had not faced a trial for a major crime more than 35 years ago. His alibi, his career, his travels, and his beliefs were all fair subjects.

He was not badgered or belittled, and even when Tremonti said it sounded “kind of funny” that Chowdhury's alibi was that he was making t-shirts at night with his family, she gave him ample opportunity to explain himself. He also was given time to clarify the indemnification issue, but this was not preceded or surrounded by any twisting of facts. The factual basis of the interview was sound.

She asked direct questions that were not loaded or leavened with presumptions. The emotional attachment the complainant cited is, in my view, a far better feature for the audience than, say, a disinterest or indifference, providing it is impartial and shares the space in congruence with journalistic policy that calls for respectful and even-handed treatment. It was in this case. As an aside: I sensed no discomfort in the encounter with him or with his lawyer, neither of whom indicated even slightly they were being dealt with in any other way than courteously and civilly.

I did not find any violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman