Getting both sides of the story

Lambros Kyriakakos, the Acting Chair of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, complained about bias and selective use of facts in a story noting that the city of Toronto sent Independence Day greetings to Eritrea even though the Canadian government’s relations with the country are strained. The last several reviews I have conducted deal with the balance between adequate information and perspectives to provide balanced coverage against the complainant’s desire to have very detailed accounts, and often a partisan spin, on quite narrowly focused news stories. That was the case here, but in this case, even the narrowly focused account failed to provide any official Eritrean perspective.

COMPLAINT

You are the acting chair of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations. In that capacity, you wrote to complain about a CBCNews.ca article, entitled “Despite sanctions, Deputy Mayor celebrates conflict-prone state of Eritrea.” The article noted that Toronto’s deputy mayor, Norm Kelly, had sent a letter to the consulate of Eritrea, located in Toronto, to congratulate that country on its independence day, May 24. It contrasts the sending of the letter with the “strained” relations between the two countries.

You took issue with many aspects of this report. You thought it was full of inaccuracies, was selective in the facts it presented, lacked context, and “unnecessarily creates controversy around Mr. Kelly’s protocol letter.” You took issue with this negative portrayal of relations between Canada and Eritrea. You said, “We are disappointed and dismayed that while your national writing staff had readily available facts to help write an accurate and balanced story, they chose not to seek them out.”

You point to many examples of this distortion. The article states that Canada’s ambassador is not in the country, but operates from Khartoum. You think this creates a false impression because Canada has never had an embassy in Eritrea, and this is not the only country where this is the case. For various reasons, Canadian ambassadors serve countries where they are not resident. You also take issue with the fact that there was no mention that Canada maintains a consulate in the Eritrean city of Asmara.

You note that the Eritrean consul in Toronto is referred to as the “head of consular services at the Eritrean embassy in Canada” which is clearly not the case because there is no embassy. You also stated that Ahmed Iman, the Eritrean consul, did not make a statement attributed to him in the article.

You said that while the article mentioned that Eritrea has limited relations with other countries, this was not balanced by the fact that many other world leaders also sent messages of congratulation on Independence Day. Similarly, while the article mentioned that Canada does not provide humanitarian aid to the county, it did not provide balance by mentioning the official policy of the Eritrean government is one of self-reliance. And you felt that there also should have been mention that the number of visas granted to travel to Eritrea is increasing as a balance to the statement that the Government of Canada “urges Canadians not to go to Eritrea.”

And, finally, you took issue with the “partial and imbalanced chronology” of significant events since Eritrean independence. You felt the article blamed Eritrea for clashes with neighbouring countries when it stated: “Eritrea has a violent recent history with its neighbouring countries, with battles against Yemen and Ethiopia.”

The issue is more complex, and you cite a report from the International Crisis Group that states the international community should have done more to pressure Ethiopia to implement a recommendation from the International Boundary Commission to hand some disputed territory to Eritrea. This particularly concerns you because you think “This fact is important because Eritrea’s foreign policy is largely affected by the resulting perception that Canada and its international partners are behind Ethiopia, no matter what it does.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of news for Toronto, Cathy Perry, responded to your concerns. She explained that the article had a limited scope and could not address the intricacies and background on Eritrea you see as critical to bring balance to the piece. She told you that there was a “limited nature and purpose to the story.” She added that it compared the congratulatory independence message sent by Toronto Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly with the Canadian Government’s on-the-record concerns over the “governance of the country.” It did not get into history or causes but narrowly focused on the current state of government relations between the two countries. She pointed out that the original story had a quote from the consul stating that Eritreans were determined to resist “external conspiracies.” She felt this addressed some of the negative information cited in the story.

She addressed all the points you raised: She acknowledged that the quote about “external conspiracies could not be directly attributed to the consul.” The writer had read the phrase in an account of Independence Day observance in Toronto on an Eritrea Ministry of Information web site. Since the consul, Mr. Iman, had spoken at the event, the writer made the inference. When you wrote to say it had not been in his speech, the story was amended and that phrase was taken out. She also informed you the writer had tried for two days to reach the consul, but was not able to speak to him. She also acknowledged the “inadvertent” error of referring to the consulate as an embassy.

She told you that there was no bias in stating that the Canadian Ambassador to Eritrea lives in Khartoum because that is simply the fact. She pointed out that the story next states that the Eritrean Ambassador to Canada actually resides in Washington, and that these statements justify the conclusion: “Relations between the two countries are strained.”

Ms. Perry told you that the point you raised about the increased trade between Canadian and Eritrean firms was beyond the scope of the article, as was the need to mention that other countries and notable world leaders sent Independence Day greetings, since the focus was a comparison of Toronto and Canada’s positions.

She also said that the article accurately reflects the position of the Government of Canada regarding humanitarian aid and its position to discourage Canadians from travelling to Eritrea. On the question of aid she quoted from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade website which states:

“Canada has not provided any humanitarian funding for Eritrea since 2005, when the World Food Programme was forced to redirect Canadian funding to regional programming following Government of Eritrea interference in its monitoring process.”

She responded to your concern about the selective use of facts in the chronology of events in Eritrea by explaining it focused on those areas that highlighted the divergence between Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly’s letter and the way in which it “contradicted foreign policy.” It was not meant to “give a comprehensive history of Eritrea.”

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has accuracy, balance and fairness at the core of its values and guidelines. There were two errors of fact in the original article, which is a violation of policy. However, when news staff became aware of the errors, the article was amended and the change noted. It was a lapse in judgement to directly attribute a quote to someone without knowing for certain he said it. The second error, the reference to the consulate as an embassy, was certainly a minor one.

Your larger concerns with this article center on its balance and fairness. One example you cite about a lack of fairness is the mention of the fact that Canada’s ambassador to Eritrea resides in Khartoum, outside the country. You rightly point out that there are other countries covered diplomatically from outside its borders. The writer makes an assumption with no attribution, and further tries to make the case by phrasing it this way:

“The Canadian ambassador to Eritrea is not even in Eritrea, but in a diplomatic outpost in Khartoum, Sudan.”

This may well be a reflection of the state of relations between the two countries, but there is no attribution or evidence provided. I don’t believe Ms. Perry is correct when she says that citing the residence of the two ambassadors effectively illustrated or explained the state of relations between the two countries. I agree it does not serve balance in the piece.

You cite a range of other facts you felt should have been present. You rejected Ms. Perry’s explanation that the article was limited in scope and could not address many of the details you raise. In fact, scope does matter. This was not a definitive look at Eritrea, or Eritrean-Canadian relations. It was written to point out a perceived anomaly between Canadian foreign policy and the actions of a local mayor. It is legitimate to narrow the scope of an article. Even within that scope, there is a policy requirement to provide facts to enable a member of the public to form an opinion, and to do that by ensuring a range of perspectives.

There is nothing inaccurate in painting a portrait of strained relations between the two countries. There is a challenge in taking on something as complex as foreign relations in an article this short, and compressing the facts as it does. I take Ms. Perry’s point that the purpose of the article was to show that Toronto’s deputy mayor was out of step with Canadian foreign policy. To do so effectively requires explaining what that foreign policy is, and why it has come to be that way. And that is where there is difficulty.

There is nothing wrong with the facts as presented in the corrected article. The question is, is there enough of them and given that it is critical of Eritrea, does the piece provide enough perspective. The facts would have been better served with some more detailed explanation or data to back them up. Ms. Perry provided one such example when she quoted from the Department of Foreign Affairs website.

Also lacking is at least some reference to Eritrea’s position and its world view – while universally seen as totalitarian and aggressive, some context on why it might see the world in that way might have increased Canadian understanding and provided balance. The facts that you raise were for the most part well beyond the scope of the piece. Whether the consul is issuing more visas or bilateral trade is growing does not change official Canadian government policy, the focus of the article. Their absence does not violate policy.

The article does provide some context for the Canadian government position in the chronology of events given since independence. They are accurate, and backed up by Canadian government documents, State Department reports, and countless human rights organizations. Even the report you cited to show a different perspective, that of the International Crisis Group in 2010, is highly critical of Eritrea. You quoted it to explain Eritrea’s conflicts with other states in the region. The report, entitled Eritrea: The Siege State, states more than once:

Militarised politics has spilled into foreign policy, the latter frequently involving armed responses and aggressive adventurism at the expense of conventional diplomacy. To date, Eritrea has fought, directly or indirectly, with Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan and involved itself in various ways in the conflicts in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia. While it asserts that it is pursuing legitimate national security interests and lambasts the U.S. in particular for intervening in the affairs of others, the aggressive approach and abrasive tone have left it increasingly isolated. The willingness of potential friends to consider the legitimacy of at least some of its concerns is diminished by Eritrea’s unwillingness to demilitarise its foreign policy and to make concessions on any level.

The purpose of the report is to encourage engagement, rather than isolation, to solve some of the internal and regional issues. It points out Eritrea’s world view that most western countries support Ethiopia no matter what. It is true it does say Eritrea has a grievance in that the boundaries agreed upon were never acted on by Ethiopia, but it also very clearly states that the country is defined by a culture of militarism. It in no way contradicts the facts as stated in the CBC News article. To have gone into this kind of detail is well beyond the scope of the news piece. It would have been better served however, if it had found a way, when the consul was not available for comment, to provide some Eritrean response and perspective to the state of relations between the two countries.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman