Non-coverage of certain events in the Middle East

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the non-coverage of certain events in the Middle East and concerns that this constituted bias. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices policy.

Complainant Michael Harwood wrote the CBC Radio programs, As It Happens and The Current, on June 25 and 26 respectively, to express concerns — not about what was covered, but about what wasn't.

Harwood noted that As It Happens had twice in recent weeks covered the anti- immigration violence in Israel but had not covered anti-immigration violence in Egypt as people attempted to cross the Sinai to gain entrance to Israel.

In a separate email to The Current, he noted that a segment June 8 dealing with illegal African immigrants in Israel also did not explore the violence in Egypt.

“These shootings were and continue to be regularly reported in the mainstream media by the major wire services, especially Reuters and Agence France Presse,” Harwood wrote to As It Happens. “The killings have been the subject of scathing condemnation by Human Rights Watch and other prominent human rights NGOs.”

Harwood asserted that the shootings were more important than the anti-immigrant violence in Israel, which had not resulted in any deaths. “As such, one has to ask why As it Happens would be so concerned with drawing attention to the plight of African refugees being harassed and roughed up in Israel, and yet seemingly uninterested in reporting on their murders at the hands of Egyptian soldiers and border police?”

On July 12, the executive producer of As It Happens responded. Robin Smythe wrote that there had been no intention to avoid the story.

“I do not have a quick answer as to why we haven't pursued that story to this point. I can only say that we weigh stories every day against other news stories, and we often pursue stories for which we can't find a good guest who is close enough to the story to provide us with the reportage and analysis that benefits the audience,” she wrote. “I can assure you it is not because of a lack of caring or interest on our part to the plight of refugees in any part of the world.”

Smythe noted that in one segment an immigrant mentioned his greatest fear in migrating out of Sudan “was his fear of being killed by Egyptian border guards.”

She added: “I am troubled by the suggestion that we have somehow shied away from a story because of who is perpetrating an atrocity. We have covered many stories about the mistreatment of people in Egypt, especially during the Arab Spring protests.”

On June 26, The Current's then-executive producer, Pam Bertrand, wrote Harwood. She said the June 8 segment's focus was on the uneasy relationship between Israel and the immigrants, but said future segments “may well focus on other aspects of the story including the migrants' exploitation by human traffickers and mistreatment by security personnel at the border.”

Bertrand noted, however, that the June 8 segment “fully acknowledged” the brutal treatment in Egypt of would-be immigrants in the discussion. In the segment's first element — an interview with Mitchell Barak, a political analyst and former aide — he noted that immigrants had often come to Israel through Egypt and the Sinai, paid smugglers on both sides of the border, been “beaten, taken advantage of by the smugglers, raped, robbed” and even been victims of organ harvesting. He said Israeli television had shown images of Egyptian shootings of the immigrants and that Israelis were sympathetic to their plight.

Harwood wrote July 8 that the reference was relatively small in the context of the overall theme's focus on Israeli conduct and that The Current did not show interest in the most important element.

He also wrote Smythe on July 15. In part, he said: “I see nothing in your response that even remotely ameliorates this grossly disproportionate emphasis on Israel's conduct versus that of Egypt.”

He wrote July 28 to ask for a review.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for even-handed, respectful treatment of individuals and groups and divergent coverage of issues over a reasonable period across its platforms. It also avoids coverage that would spur hatred and contempt or contribute to generalizations and stereotypes.

Conclusion

Disputes about non-coverage are difficult for this Office to resolve because a news organization must remain independent to determine how to allocate its finite resources and what to provide its audience. External efforts to direct coverage are forms of interference in that independence.

With that principle in mind, the mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman only permits a review of news and information content, not of the choices that might have led CBC away from — or never brought it to — certain stories and issues. The review, then, has to examine the attributes of the coverage to determine if it abided CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

I recognize this does not satisfy some complainants who believe non-coverage deserves the same scrutiny as coverage, but only if it were possible to conclude that the absence of critical information contributed to a bias or inaccuracy could there be a finding of a policy violation.

I could not conclude such was the case in this instance. The radio segments fulfilled policy. They were accurate and fair.

(Parenthetically, I note the segment on The Current made specific mention of the harsh treatment of immigrants in Egypt and that the senior programmer responsible for the show indicated that the program might well explore the theme. The senior programmer for As It Happens expressed the same open-mindedness.)

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman