Shafia trial

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involves CBC.ca coverage of the murder trials of Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya and Hamed Mohammed Shafia. I did not find a violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices, although there was room for improvement.

CBC Television, CBC Radio and CBC.ca provided extensive coverage of the first-degree murder trials of Mohammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son, Hamed Mohammad Shafia. They were accused of killing Mohammad Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, and his three daughters, Zainab Shafia, 19, Sahar Shafia, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13.

The four victims were pulled from the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario, in June 2009, where they were found submerged in a car. The family, originally from Afghanistan, lived in suburban Montreal. The Crown alleged the two older girls were killed because their father, mother and brother believed they had dishonoured the Muslim family.

In one online report November 21, CBC.ca reported that cell phone photos of the teenaged sisters, “some in revealing clothing,” were shown to the trial jury.

In one online report November 28, CBC.ca initially reported that court would hear from a “so- called honour killing expert,” Shahrzad Mojab of University of Toronto. A later version changed this phrasing to “an honour killing expert.”

The complainant, Jack Chivo, wrote twice in late November to take issue with the descriptions.

He said the description of “revealing clothing” was derogatory and wondered if any young murder victim had ever been described so.

Chivo also took issue with the reference to Mojab as a “so-called honour killing expert,” suggesting it questioned her credibility and derided and diminished her.

Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, wrote back December 28, 2011 to say the description of the girls' clothing was “pertinent” to the nature of the trial and its intersection with the concept of honour killings.

As for the description of Mojab, Enkin said that editors noticed the awkward phrasing and the potential for misunderstanding and changed it for subsequent versions of the story.

“As you will know, ‘so-called' has two quite different meanings: one, as it was used here to underscore a new term or put it in quotation marks; the other – the one you are thinking of – often used ironically to mean ‘wrongly named'. Because of the potential for misunderstanding, CBC's Language Guide urges reporters to use ‘so-called' carefully cautioning that it not be used if there is any risk that it conveys the suggestion that the words that follow are not to be believed.”

Enkin noted the term “so-called honour killing” was used at times throughout the trial.

“The phrase ‘so-called honour killing' does appear occasionally in our coverage, but it is far from common. More frequently, stories put the term ‘honour killing' in quotation marks or otherwise indicate that it is not the writer's. ‘Honour killing' is a controversial, even contentious term, one we expect reporters to qualify and use carefully. Certainly there is nothing honourable about the killing,” she wrote.

Chivo wrote February 22 to request a review of the dispute.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate reporting and an investment of time and skills “to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.”

Individuals are treated “with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly,” the policy states.

While there are not specific policy elements to deal with choices in phrasing, the spirit of the policy on language aims for accurate, proportionate descriptions.

Conclusion

The contradictory meanings of the term “so-called” — one a substitute for “commonly called” and another a substitute for “insincerely called” — make its use problematic.

When CBC News placed “so-called” ahead of the title of the academic, it recognized that the audience might infer it was questioning her credibility, so the wording was different in subsequent versions. The result was that “so-called” was in front of the term “honour killing” and not in front of “honour killing expert.” The online story's initial phrasing left room for improvement but was not a violation of policy.

It should be noted that the footprint of this initial story remains in several places on the Internet because the first version was used by online sites that subscribe to CBC News or by sites that shared CBC content. If nothing else it is instructive about the importance of the lingering first version and the viral nature of distribution in the digital age.

As for the complaint about the description of “revealing clothing,” I take the point that the teens were wearing what was typical “western-style clothing,” a term used later in the story and more preferable. Still, the description was technically accurate, not ideal but not derogatory, and important to note in the context of a trial that encompassed an examination of cross-cultural tensions. Again, while there might have been room for improvement, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman