Reporting in Gaza

The complainant, Shoel Silver, thought the reporters working in Gaza faced intimidation and possibly censorship from Hamas, and should have said so in their reports. He was concerned that they withheld information about the presence of Hamas fighters in populated areas. The reporters faced restrictions imposed by working in a war zone, but were not censored. They reported what they knew and CBC News coverage provided context for their reporting.

COMPLAINT

At the beginning of August 2014, you wrote directly to two CBC reporters who had been reporting from Gaza and Israel during this summer’s conflict. You expressed “distaste and disappointment” in their coverage. You told them they had made no effort to talk about the cause for the high civilian casualties, namely that Hamas fired its rockets from heavily populated areas:

There was no attempt whatsoever to cover the other side of the story that was happening IN GAZA – the fact that rockets were being fired by someone from within urban areas, that tunnels had been dug by someone that opened into the ground floors of houses, that someone was reportedly (a word that is related to the word “reporter”) using the basement of the hospital as a military headquarters.

You wanted to know if they had been censored by Hamas, or had been “intimidated into self-censorship.” And if that was the case you felt that information should have been shared at the time of broadcast and publication. You asked:

Did CBC, in other words, knowingly conceal a critical piece of the news, and/or cover it with some cryptic reference or “Israel claims that” preamble, buried near the end of the narrative, unaccompanied by any video other than more Gazan children’s bodies on stretchers, all in order to protect its personnel in Gaza?

A week later you wrote to me because you had not yet received any answers. You cited several other reports that suggested to you the reporters had withheld information they had while in Gaza. The first example you mentioned that proved to you that the reporters withheld information was an article by Paul Hunter, published on cbcnews.ca on August 2, when he was out of Gaza. In it he gave some of the back story and explained some of the dangers and limitations facing war correspondents and, in particular, what it was like trying to report from Gaza. In his July television reporting, he told of an incident when missiles landed very close to where he was staying. In referring to it in his article, he said:

The downside to our hotel, as we learned, was that it’s surrounded by well-known Hamas hot spots: residences, militant training grounds, weapons bunkers. All of them are in the Israeli crosshairs.

You thought it completely inappropriate that he had not said so in the original July report because “his coverage of Israeli missile fire showed pictures of destruction but no reporting that could suggest any explanation or justification.”

You had similar concerns about a report Derek Stoffel did on The National on August 6. You thought he was very vague about where he was and whether it was in a built up area. You were concerned that he “carefully avoided disclosing to viewers where in Northern Gaza he was.” This was important, you said, because if he was in a built up area, it proved that Hamas was firing in heavily populated urban areas:

If it was, then Mr. Stoffel was admitting to having been a direct eyewitness to the very act – the firing of rockets from residential neighbourhoods – that Israel used to justify its bombing of those neighbourhoods. These were the bombings that led to the casualties whose pictures, with a CBC correspondent’s accompanying narrative, were so shocking to all of us. But at the time of those terrible reports, during the critical period of the conflict when opinions were being formed, he never mentioned it. (Sic) Again, what conclusion could the average viewer draw but the visceral one: Israel callously and unjustifiably uses its might to harm innocent Palestinian civilians, including children, and to destroy the homes where they live?

You asked whether CBC News had violated its own Journalistic Standards and Practices, which calls for embedded reporters to be clear about the conditions under which they function. And while you realized they were not formally embedded, the consequence of Hamas intimidation in your mind amounted to the same thing and should have been referenced. Overall, you thought CBC News failed to live up to its obligation to provide other perspectives within a reasonable time frame. Any mention of the Israeli view was only occasionally presented and only presented something “Israel claims, which means it does not have the same impact as a straight reporting of the facts.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Director of Journalistic Accountability and Engagement, Jack Nagler, responded to your concerns. He told you that the two reporters who covered the conflict in Gaza were neither censored nor intimidated by Hamas, nor did they willfully conceal any limitations. He told you:

I have spoken to both correspondents, and can tell you point blank that they were operating in Gaza completely independently. Of course this was a war zone. They were not free to go everywhere they wanted to go – just as they were restricted in where they went on the Israeli side. But neither Mr. Stoffel nor Mr. Hunter was censored. They were not told what to report from Gaza or what not to report. They were not threatened nor did they feel intimidated. They did not censor themselves. Finally, they said, there was nothing they felt reportable that they concealed at any time.

He pointed out to you that Mr. Hunter did mention the presence of Hamas in his July 22 report on The National. He quoted from the script which mentioned that there were more reports of Hamas rockets being found in a safe house. He added:

Short of witnessing for himself a cache of rockets hidden in a safe house, I’m not sure how much more explicit Mr. Hunter could be in indicating the very point you wanted him to make – a “possible suggestion or explanation” for Israel’s actions. He also never suggests – much less states – that Israel was “aiming randomly at civilians”, as you wrote in your email. Indeed, Israel repeatedly made its aims in the conflict clear.

He noted that on the same night on The National there was another report from Sderot, a community in Israel which had been severely affected by rocket attack.

He reassured you there was no attempt to obfuscate where Mr. Stoffel was reporting from in his August 6 conversation with host Peter Mansbridge. He pointed out that Mr. Mansbridge said at the outset the reporter was in Gaza City, and in the course of the interview, Mr. Stoffel himself mentions that he was in Gaza City.

He told you that in his assessment CBC News had adequately reflected the perspectives of many in this conflict, and had reported honestly and thoroughly over the summer-long fighting.

REVIEW

Many complaints I received about the Gaza conflict centred around the concern that the powerful images of death and destruction were presented without equal emphasis on the fact that Hamas had rockets and munitions in densely populated areas. You thought that CBC failed in its goals of presenting balanced and fair coverage because it did not adequately report on that aspect of the story. You raised two important concerns: that the CBC reporters working in Gaza were not transparent about the limitations they were working under, and that they failed to provide context, and indeed withheld information they knew to be true. You thought the fact that they did not report on the presence of Hamas fighters and rocket launchers in heavily populated areas was a dire omission because it explained the heavy civilian casualty rate and justified Israel’s actions.

The idea that mentioning the tactics of Hamas is required to balance the showing of images of destruction is an oversimplification of the reality of the situation. Reporters in the middle of bombardment in the middle of a war report on what is going on around them. They can try to provide some context, but realistically, the context should come from a wide range of coverage. An examination of CBC News coverage reveals an almost daily presence of an Israeli government or military spokesperson, often talking about Hamas’s tactics, Israel Defense Force footage of the tunnels, and reports from border areas featuring Israelis talking about the toll the rocket attacks had on their lives. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices talks about creating balance over time by presenting a range of perspectives and views. The reporters did so in the coverage of the Gaza conflict.

You believe that emphasizing the placement of Hamas rockets and fighters is necessary because it justifies Israel’s level of response and places the responsibility for the death toll on Hamas. It is important to raise the issue in the course of coverage. Reporters can report the level of destruction, report when they can on a Hamas presence but can’t draw conclusions. The issue of “proportionality” is a complicated one. The legal scholar and strong supporter of Israel, Alan Dershowitz explains it this way:

The governing principle of international law is “proportionality,” a widely misunderstood concept. It does not mean that there must be roughly the same number of deaths on both sides of a conflict. It does mean that when an army selects a legitimate military target for attack, knowing that the attack may harm civilians the number of anticipated casualties must be proportional to the military value of the target. For example, if a low-ranking soldier has taken refuge in a school, hospital, or mosque, and attacking him would risk hundreds of civilian lives, such an attack would be disproportional to the military value of killing the soldier – and would therefore constitute a war crime.

It is not realistic in the middle of the fighting for the reporters to know who or what was targeted. They reported what they saw and what they could confirm. When there were allegations or reports by reputable sources that weapons were found in civilian areas, they reported those facts with proper attribution.

You ask an important question about transparency. Were the reporters clear enough about the restrictions they faced? The issue was not threats or censorship; it was the complexity and danger they faced. Some reporters did face intimidation, and they wrote about it. The Foreign Press Association in Israel launched a formal complaint about it. It is equally true that many reporters wrote and were quoted in interviews that they encountered no such threats and intimidation. They also wrote that they had great difficulty finding Hamas fighters at all, or actually finding, filming or photographing rocket installations.

Their freedom of movement was constrained because they were in a war zone with no front line. In the interests of transparency, perhaps they could have been more explicit about the limitations that safety concerns and the lack of access to Hamas fighters created. Both Mr. Hunter and Mr. Stoffel did provide more context about the difficulties they encountered in blog posts published after they left Gaza. In the case of Mr. Hunter’s post, it only raised your concerns because it proved to you he knew more than he was saying when he was in Gaza. Specifically you point to this paragraph:

The downside to our hotel, as we learned, was that it’s surrounded by well-known Hamas hot spots: residences, militant training grounds, weapons bunkers. All of them are in the Israeli crosshairs.

Mr. Hunter reported on a hit he witnessed near that hotel on July 22. He didn’t say it was surrounded by “Hamas hot spots” – he had just arrived and almost immediately was in the middle of a bombardment. He does, however, talk of reports of “Hamas rockets being found in safe houses and of Hamas officials using hospitals such as the one we were at today as hiding places.”

Immediately after Mr. Hunter’s report, the summer host of The National, Amanda Lang, reported that in recent days Hamas rockets had been found stored in schools. The context is provided. Had there been pictures to support it, they likely would have been used.

Mr. Hunter is a reporter with many years’ experience, who regularly risks his life to bear witness to events of trauma and violence. He is very clear that he reported what he knew when he knew it, given the constraints of working in a war zone with limited mobility. The constraints were not any of those you feared. He told me:

I reported what I knew when I knew it. I never once withheld information from my reportage, neither as a matter of personal choice (i.e. due to any bias) nor due to fear of, or intimidation by, Hamas. Nor would I. The basis for the referenced comment in my blog was that it [the Hamas presence] had become clear to me over time.

Derek Stoffel did manage to capture the trail of a rocket coming out of Gaza while interviewing a man who had lost his home in the attacks. He used that scene in his report on August 8. He included it in an online piece entitled “Gaza rocket launched during CBC Interview.” He used that example as well as two other tweets he sent with photos of rocket trails rising from residential areas on July 24 and 25 to illustrate the fact that he and other reporters did address this aspect of the story. There appears to be a misunderstanding because you thought this image had been withheld.

You also thought Mr. Stoffel tried to hide the fact that he was in Gaza City in a conversation he had with Peter Mansbridge on The National. In that report, Mr. Stoffel featured the video shot by an Indian television crew that showed a Hamas rocket launcher in a civilian area. Mr. Stoffel refers to it as “here in Gaza City.” Mr. Mansbridge begins the piece by saying “The CBC’s Derek Stoffel is in Gaza City tonight. Elsewhere, it is true, they refer to “northern Gaza” or simply “Gaza.” There is no attempt to obfuscate his whereabouts.

The Israeli prime minister and other spokespeople frequently expressed frustration that reports were filled with images of dead and injured civilians, but there was scant reporting of the placement of fighters and rockets. Since reporters were frequently unable to furnish proof of this fact, the attribution was to Israeli sources. This is standard journalistic procedure, not some attempt to undermine the credibility of the information.

I think one of the difficulties in assessing this is the lack of pictures of Hamas fighting. Images are more memorable than words, and when the images are of death, destruction and suffering, that is even truer. It’s a factor that should be considered in overall coverage. But the hard fact remains that about 2000 people in Gaza lost their lives. Reporters had no choice but to show what was going on.

Faced with limited ability to show the Hamas offensive, the reporters relied on other sources to tell that part of the story, but they could not substantiate it through pictures or accountability interviews. CBC reporting certainly provided enough information for audience members to form their own conclusions about the causes and impacts of the conflict. There is no one absolute truth here, as much as ardent supporters of each side would believe there is. There are nuances and complexities that daily journalism can try to illuminate but it will never be able to bring perfect clarity.

You also asked whether CBC had violated its own policy on embedding of reporters with military or armed factions. You acknowledge that this was not literally the situation but that it was analogous. This is the relevant portion of the policy:

Our conflict reporting should contribute to an understanding of the reality on the ground, and tell the stories of the combatants and the people affected by the fighting. To do this we may choose to embed with the military or another faction in the struggle, or with other interested parties.

Embedding usually imposes some restrictions of movement and on our ability to record or tell stories.

Reporting from an embed means that only a particular point of view is represented; we will provide balanced reporting with other perspectives and sources in a reasonable time frame. We will also be transparent with our audience about the restrictions embedding imposes.

Embedding with an army or faction means you are reliant on that group for your safety, your movement and your ability to get in and out of the zone. While you are right to point out that there are restrictions, as there always will be in war coverage, the reporters in Gaza were not in an embedded situation. At great peril, they made their own arrangements to move in and out of Gaza, decided where they could stay and when they could go out. The reports and the reporters moved back and forth from Gaza to Israel over the course of the 50 days of fighting. They revealed what they knew.

In a two-week period in July, almost every report on The National included some statement from an Israeli government or military official, provided images and voices from the border area most affected by Hamas rockets, and showed images released by the Israel Defense Force showing the tunnels they had come to destroy. There was also frequent mention of Israeli Defense Force warnings to civilians to clear out of areas that were to be targeted. CBC News fulfilled its obligation to provide other perspectives and sources in a reasonable time frame. It bears repeating that in this complex reality, no single story, or even a group of stories, can capture all the nuance or context. There was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman