Interviews about Omar Khadr

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complainant asserted CBC Radio’s As It Happens was not balanced in its October 1 edition in its coverage of Omar Khadr’s return to Canada. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On October 1, 2012, CBC Radio’s As It Happens followed the transport of convicted Canadian terrorist Omar Khadr back to Canadian Forces Base Trenton from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The program interviewed Moazzam Begg, a British former cellmate of Khadr’s at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2002 before they were separately transferred to theGuantanamo Bay facility.

Begg had talked to Khadr’s family. He provided some insight into Khadr, criticized his trial and treatment, and expressed the view that he should be freed.

Host Carol Off noted Khadr had pleaded guilty and asked Begg if Khadr expressed regret or remorse. Begg said Khadr was the victim of a “travesty of justice” in an approach that “beggars belief.”

Off asked if Khadr’s family should take some responsibility for his fate. Begg responded that the family had paid an enormous price: the father had died, a brother was paralyzed and Khadr himself had lost sight in one eye and remained without full use of his feet or shoulders.

“What more do they want from this boy?” Begg said.

The program followed that with an interview with Layne Morris, a former U.S. Army sergeant who in 2002 was part of the Special Forces unit sent into an Afghanistan compound in search of a bomb-maker.

In that compound, Morris said Khadr waited for the arrival of the Forces and threw a hand grenade that killed U.S. Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer and wounded other soldiers.

Morris said he was “deeply disappointed” by Khadr’s transfer from U.S. custody.

He described the sequence of events that led to Speer’s death: the approach by the Special Forces, the attempt to get people to come out of the compound, the attack when Afghan soldiers entered the compound, the air attack on it, and the thrown hand grenade by Khadr, the only one left in the compound following the air attack.

In response to Off’s question about how much free will Khadr had in the circumstances, Morris said “Omar had a choice” and “could have quit at any time.” Morris said people could change, but that the trial led him to believe Khadr was a “committed jihadist” and an acknowledged leader at Guantanamo Bay.

Off asked if Morris thought Khadr had the capacity to be rehabilitated. “Anyone does,” Morris said, but Khadr’s 10-year record had not indicated he was on that path. He remained a dedicated, indoctrinated jihadist and Canadians should be wary of releasing him from prison until he is no longer considered a threat.

The complainant, Pero Despotovic, wrote October 25 and said host Carol Off had been “cozy” with a convicted terrorist and had failed to ask sufficiently challenging questions.

He said the interview was part of a larger trend on the program and he complained the show and another on CBC Radio were being used as a “personal fiefdom and propaganda mouthpiece” by their hosts.

He explained: “It is shown when left-leaning interviewees or people aligned with drug use are talked to in a cozy way. Whereas controversial, mostly right leaning interviewees have been attacked in the interviews and not just asked to make their points. Also, many times they would be cut off in their responses.”

The executive producer for As It Happens, Robin Smythe, wrote back November 14. She noted: “Mr. Khadr is an extremely polarizing figure in Canada. The Canadian government continues to call him a convicted terrorist, an unrepentant killer who should be in prison. Others, including both opposition parties, have a different view, pointing out that he was a child soldier and deserves rehabilitation.”

Smythe noted that Morris, in his interview following the Begg segment, asserted that Khadr was a jihadist, more committed to the cause than ever, and should remain in prison.

Smythe said that Off approached both interviews in the same way with the same line of inquiry and that “in any fair listening” there could be no assertion of partiality.

Despotovic wrote again November 25 to seek a broad review of the program’s approaches. He was informed that the mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman does not permit such reviews.

The mandate requires that CBC News first determine there is a problem and that the review be provided as internal advice to CBC.

Despotovic agreed to a review of the specific segment.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for respectful, even-handed treatment of individuals and a balance of perspectives over a reasonable period across its platforms. It states CBC journalists do not “promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.”

CONCLUSION

Repeated listening to the two segments revealed no bias.

The host permitted both guests to argue their cases and was neither more lax nor challenging in either instance. Each guest was accorded a respectful interview. The host took a neutral position and neither agreed nor disagreed with statements. These were model segments on impartial presentation.

CBC News’ coverage of Khadr across its platforms included a wide range of perspectives on his case and fulfilled the journalistic policy in the process.

There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman