Loaded Language: It's fair game in an interview when both sides are presented

The complainant, Lambros Kyriakakos, is acting chairperson of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations. He thought that there were inaccuracies and a lack of fairness in an As It Happens interview with a spokesperson from the Eritrean embassy. The interview dealt with the Eritrean government’s practices around collecting a “diaspora tax” and the fact that the Canadian government had threatened to close down the consulate because of these practices. The government spokesperson was given a fair hearing and had the chance to answer all the allegations and respond to the interviewer’s characterization of the activity. There were no grounds for this complaint.

COMPLAINT

On July 11, 2014, Rick MacInnes Rae, a guest host on As It Happens, interviewed Samuel Igbu, an official at the Eritrean consulate in Toronto. There is no Embassy in Canada, although the Embassy in Washington is also responsible for this country. The interview was prompted by a statement made two days before from John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was reacting to media reports, including those on CBC, that Eritrean citizens were being asked by consular officials to contact the Eritrean tax authority in Asmara, the capital, to pay a tax in order to receive certain consular services. The Minister said he had sent a “strong” message to the consulate that if these activities didn’t stop, he would close them down.

There were a number of things you objected to in the interview. You questioned why As It Happens chose to talk to Mr. Igbu and not someone from your own organization, the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (CECCO). You felt since your organization “represents the majority of Canadians of Eritrean origin who pay the 2% Diaspora tax”, you should have been interviewed. You thought that the interview lacked balance because no one who willingly pays the tax was represented.

You also challenged Mr. MacInnes-Rae’s characterization of the tax as “illegal.” You point out that based on Canada’s adoption into Canadian law, a 2009 UN resolution prohibiting making a financial contribution to military activity in Eritrea, but that does not mean the tax itself is illegal. Because Canada has not implemented a more recent UN resolution which you characterize as calling for “the end of using the tax to destabilize the horn of Africa and the end of tax collection though the use of threat and intimidation”, it is further proof that it is not illegal. Besides you said, the UN didn’t make it illegal either.

You also thought it was inappropriate to have characterized Eritrea as a “rogue state”:

“At no material time has the UN referred to Eritrea as a Rogue state. This is a term applied by the United States when addressing states considered threatening to the world’s peace. We ask that you provide us an explanation for the foregoing.”

You asked that As It Happens correct these “inaccuracies.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your concerns. She explained that since this story was about the threat of the Canadian government to close down “Eritrea’s only diplomatic office in Canada because of Asmara’s tax policy, it was logical to go directly to its government, as represented by the Toronto consulate.” She pointed out that Mr. Igbu was given “ample opportunity” to respond to Mr. Baird’s statement and to put forward his government’s position and characterization of the tax question.

She also disagreed that there were any inaccuracies in the segment. She explained the program producers had heavily researched the issue, and they, with Mr. MacInnes-Rae, felt the facts supported the characterization of the tax as “illegal.” She shared some of those findings with you, including a fact sheet on Canada-Eritrea relations on a Government of Canada website. She cited this relevant passage:

Persons in Canada who have dealings with Eritrea are encouraged to carefully consider the prohibition on the provision of financial assistance related to military activities contained in the Regulations Implementing the United Nations Resolution on Eritrea. This may be of particular relevance to Eritrean expatriates paying national taxes to Eritrea, as payments made in support of military and similar activities, whether called dues, contributions, donations or any other term, may be prohibited under Canadian sanctions.

She also told you that human rights lawyer David Matas, who represents Eritreans in Canada opposed to the tax also considers it illegal.

She explained the term rogue state was used to capture the description of various activities of the government in Asmara which arguably fall into that description. She based this on information in a report from a report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy deals with issues of balance, fairness, and impartiality. All of them are relevant here. Balance and fairness require seeking different perspectives, allowing an institution or individual the right to explain his position or perspective when faced with accusations of wrong doing or anti-social behavior. While you might like to defend the tax, and think it important that Eritreans that want to pay it are heard from, it was not relevant to the discussion at hand. Ms. Smythe is absolutely right when she says balance was achieved by interviewing the designated spokesman of the Government of Eritrea in Canada. If your organization has government standing, or is designated as an official body to speak on its behalf, I am sure Ms. Smythe and other CBC staff would make note of that fact for future reference and speak to you when appropriate. I also note it is curious that you say your “organization represents the majority of Canadians of Eritrean origin who the 2% diaspora tax.” In the course of the As It Happens interview, Mr. Igbu, the government representative, said that almost no Eritreans in Canada actually do pay the tax. When MacInnes-Rae asked him how much money is raised through taxes in Canada, he replied: “The Canadian is nothing, to be honest. Over 90% of the Eritrean people that reside in Canada, they don’t even pay their taxes.”

Mr. Igbu is given an opportunity to explain his government’s position and to respond to Mr. Baird’s statements. Several times Mr. MacInnes Rae asks him about illegal activities: the soliciting of the tax, and coercion in attempting to collect it. Each time Mr. Igbu is able to put his position: that it is the collection of the tax in Canada that is illegal, not the payment through the tax authority in Asmara. He said that “since 2012 we have taken the necessary steps to deliver our services in full compliance with the Vienna convention and consular relation as well.”

You objected to that characterization of illegality. CBC policy on impartiality states:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You believe the only illegal element is contribution to defense funding. Ms. Smythe quoted the relevant section to you – the government of Canada says there may be a prohibition under Canadian law no matter what the levy is called. A 2013 United National Monitoring group report refers to “illicit tax collection.” The whole reason for the interview was the threat to close down the consulate for its actions. I think based on these facts, Mr. MacInnes-Rae was reasonably exercising his professional judgment, while giving Mr. Igbu a chance to explain his perspective. Similarly, the reference to “rogue state” would fall under the same category. He was not referring to an official United Nations designation, but he may have had in mind the Human Rights Watch entry on Eritrea:

Torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religious freedom remain routine in Eritrea. Elections have not been held since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the constitution has never been implemented, and political parties are not allowed. There are no institutional constraints on President Isaias Afewerki, in power now for twenty years. In addition to ongoing serious human rights abuses, forced labor and indefinite military service prompt thousands of Eritreans to flee the country every year. Access to the country for international humanitarian and human rights organizations is almost impossible and the country has no independent media.

Ms. Smythe mentioned reports from the United Nations monitoring group that influenced their characterization of Eritrea. The report not only mentions an illicit system of revenue collection, but human trafficking and abduction of refugees attempting to flee Eritrea.

You think the attention paid to Eritrea in CBC coverage is disproportionate. You point out that the same group, Human Rights Watch, has published negative reports about Ethiopia, but that goes uncovered. This argument is entirely irrelevant in this context. For one thing, this story was based on events in Canada involving Canadian residents. Equity is not achieved by talking about the negative things going on elsewhere, balance and fairness is achieved by hearing from those implicated in this story. The interview was fair and balanced and there was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman