It's all about context

In a column published in March, about some of the western countries’ responses to Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine, Neil Macdonald cited several examples of inconsistent response to international incidents. One of the examples he used was the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The complainant, Dr. Leonard Direnfeld, thought it outrageous to compare Israel to Russia’s activities. He also thought that the article condemned and called illegal the seizing of the territories in the 1967 war. He was one of many who expressed concerns about the article. I found that the article in fact did not compare the two countries, and that the Israeli example was one of many. It was fully in context because the article, and a segment on The National, was actually an analysis of remarks made by U.S. President Barack Obama while sitting with the Prime Minister of Israel. It is also acceptable and correct to call the West Bank occupied territories. The context was clear enough but the column was amended to clarify that the settlements are in violation of international law.

COMPLAINT

On the March 3, 2014, edition of The National, and in a longer column on the CBC News web site on March 5, Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald talked about the response of the United States and other western countries to the Russian move to take over Crimea. U.S. President Barack Obama invoked international law to criticize Putin. Obama was responding to reporters’ questions during a “photo opportunity” at the White House while meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Macdonald pointed to times that the United States has occupied or invaded other countries unilaterally as an example of the “hypocrisy” of international diplomacy and of countries like the United States and Britain. He said:

America, of course, has invaded multiple countries on its own authority, and today Obama lectured Russia while sitting alongside an ally who occupies the West Bank in violation of international law. But hypocrisy is part of the warp and weft of diplomacy. What really counts is power, money and guns.

The article on the website elaborated on the notion of hypocrisy in diplomacy and made a similar reference to Israel.

You objected to two aspects of this reference: You felt that “Mr. Macdonald vilifies Israel” when he discussed Russian invasion of Crimea, and that it was completely inappropriate to mention Israel in this context at all. You also objected to Mr. Macdonald saying Israel occupied Palestinian territory in violation of international law:

This is unbalanced, misleading and factually incorrect. At worst these can be called disputed territories. This in no way contravenes International Law.

You rejected the explanation that Mr. Macdonald was referring to the settlements in the occupied territories being illegal:

The article leads one to believe that the land is occupied illegally full stop. The land is not occupied land, it is disputed and I am not convinced that the settlements are in any way illegal.

You were one of about 70 people who wrote to complain about the report on The National and the website article. The complainants had similar concerns. They felt the information was wrong, and the reference to Israel in this context was gratuitous.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns. He said that the citation of Israel in this context was appropriate. He explained that the focus of the piece on The National was the increased Russian pressure on Crimea in light of reports that Russian troops were on the ground there. He said the purpose of the piece was to add some context to the diplomatic maneuverings of the United States and other western governments.

He said Mr. Macdonald reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was scornful of threats of western sanctions and boycotts and demands for withdrawals of Russian troops from Crimea. He added that Putin accused the western powers of making up their own rules when it suits them, and that there is a double standard in matters of international law. It is this idea, Mr. Nagler explained, that is being explored in the National piece, and in much greater detail in the accompanying web article. And he emphasized that Mr. Macdonald was referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and not the holding of the territory as “illegal.” He wrote:

As evidence, he pointed out that earlier that day U.S. President Barack Obama had said Russia’s actions were in “violation of international law”. Yet, as he wrote in an analysis for CBCNews.ca, Mr. Macdonald said the United States and its allies had also violated international law when they felt it was in their interest. The United States had invaded multiple countries on its own authority, he said. And with its allies, it had invaded Iraq on a false pretext, while denouncing Mr. Putin’s pretext for going into Crimea.

Citing a more immediate example of the hypocrisy he described as “part of the warp and weft of diplomacy”, he noted that earlier that day President Obama had lectured Russia about its international legal obligations during a joint news conference while sitting next to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “an ally who occupies the West Bank in violation of international law”. In other words, Israel is currently occupying the West Bank in violation of international law because the building of settlements on occupied land is illegal. (He was not suggesting that Israel’s taking the area during the 1967 war and holding it was illegal, it was not. Had he meant that, he would have said Israel occupied the West Bank in violation of international law).

I should note that we revised a similar sentence in the online analysis to make it clear that it is the settlements that violate international law. We also added a prominent note advising readers that we had clarified that sentence.

He pointed out that U.S. President Barack Obama made his remarks about Russian interference and international law while sitting with the Israeli Prime Minister at his side.

Mr. Nagler also addressed your preference for the West Bank to be referred to as “disputed” rather than occupied. He pointed out that while the Israeli government might prefer that term, it is “widely considered internationally – including by the Canadian government – to be territory ‘occupied’ by Israel since the 1967 war.”

REVIEW

There are two issues here: One is the fairness of invoking Israel in the context of the story on The National and the longer analysis piece on the web; the other is the accuracy and fairness of the reference to the occupation of the West Bank “in violation of international law.” As a corollary to that, you also question the use of the word “occupied” in the first place.

CBC journalistic policy on fairness and impartiality states that CBC journalism should contribute to public debate and treat various individuals and organizations in an even handed manner, and that journalists may provide analysis based on facts and professional expertise.

An important way to judge the fairness of an article is to examine the context. The March 3 piece on The National was part of a package that examined the growing crisis in Ukraine from a variety of perspectives. One of them was the day’s diplomatic activity. The Macdonald piece was a discussion, with brief clips from the U. S. president’s comments of the day. The piece begins with a brief quote from Obama: “We are examining a whole series of steps.” Anchor Peter Mansbridge then sets up the rest of the item:

Neil Macdonald questions whether threats against Russia carry much weight. So why, you might ask, are so many world leaders condemning Vladimir Putin's actions, yet appearing to simply stand back and watch? There have been threats of sanctions, demands of withdrawal, but little more. Senior Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald is here with some insight on that. Neil?

Mr. Macdonald goes on to list some of the diplomatic options and threats being made. The point he makes is that while the United States and some of its allies are threatening retaliation for a violation of international law, they too have “invaded multiple countries on [their] own authority.” He is pointing out that there is not necessarily one way to look at events, and indeed provides response from the Russian foreign minister. He includes a reference to Israel in this broader context because it so happened that the visuals he was working with had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in them. President Obama chose to address the Ukraine issue while sitting with Netanyahu. So including Israel in this context was not gratuitous. It was another way to make a point about the ‘’warp and weft of diplomacy.” In this context, the inclusion of Israel was not a demonstration of bias.

The longer web analysis piece includes Israel for the same reason. In this case, it is one reference in a much longer reflection on motivation and consistency in foreign policy and interpretation of international law. For example, the essay asks the reader to consider if a Ukraine-like situation existed somewhere in a western sphere of influence, might it be seen differently. In an attempt to provide the Russian view of western actions and statements, Macdonald is providing a range of views on a controversial range of subjects. Macdonald states:

It's easy to go on and on in this vein — Britain's prime minister, who leads a nation that helped invade Iraq on a false pretext, denouncing Putin's pretext for going into Crimea. The NATO powers that helped bring about the independence of Albanian Kosovars complaining about the separatist aspirations of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, etc.

But that's diplomacy. Hypocritical declarations and acts are woven into its essence.

What's remarkable is the unspoken pact among the Western news media to report it all so uncritically.

When Obama spoke, the gaggle of reporters in attendance rushed to report his statements, mostly at face value.

I recognize for you the issue is also whether Israel should be mentioned in this context at all. On The National, Macdonald refers to Obama’s remarks about Russian and international law, and goes on to say “…today Obama lectured Russia while sitting alongside an ally who occupies the West Bank in violation of international law.” The web story, in its first iteration, stated:

In Obama's case, sitting beside him on Monday as he gave his lecture on international law from the Oval Office was close ally Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister, having just engaged in a protracted, robust handshake for the cameras, presides over a country that operates a military occupation in the West Bank, violating the “international law” Obama was demanding Putin obey.

The U.S. insists that Israel's occupation can only be solved by respectful negotiation between the parties themselves, and it vehemently opposes punishing Israel with the sort of moves currently being contemplated against Russia.

The amended version reads:

The Israeli prime minister, having just engaged in a protracted, robust handshake for the cameras, presides over a country that operates a military occupation in the West Bank, an occupation that includes Israeli settlements, which violate the international law Obama was demanding Putin obey.

The second version is much more precise than the first one and makes the meaning clearer. To characterize the West Bank as occupied territory is hardly radical or biased, and to cite the settlements is equally in keeping with the general understanding of international law. They are disputed for sure, but CBC policy asks for clarity and precision in language, while attempting to be as neutral as possible. But not everything is neutral, and one side in a dispute does not get to define the terms. The West Bank is commonly referred to as the “occupied territories” and a general audience will understand what that means. The issue is not what happened in 1967, it is the ongoing dispute over land and settlements. The Canadian government refers to the West Bank as occupied territory. Here is the reference on the Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Development Canada web site:

Occupied Territories and Settlements

Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel's obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.

Canada believes that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority must fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law which is key to ensuring the protection of civilians, and can contribute to the creation of a climate conducive to achieving a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement.

This was not a discussion of the Middle East peace process, the settlements and the future of the occupied territories. It was a reference within the context of an essay about international diplomacy and who gets to set and define the rules. The point was that there is a lot of inconsistency and often some hypocrisy, whether that is realpolitik or cynicism. There is no singling out of Israel for opprobrium, and the reference to occupied territories does not violate CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman