The contentious case of Omar Khadr

The complainant, Kathleen Ruff, felt very strongly that by leaving out key details about the treatment of Omar Khadr CBC was “hate-mongering” and biased in its coverage. The stories dealt with an Alberta Court of Appeal decision on where he should serve his sentence. CBC news policy makes a commitment to balance over time. The stories were accurate, and the web treatment linked to many other articles. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned that a CBC radio news report and an online story on July 8, 2014, concerning an Alberta Court of Appeal decision about the incarceration of Omar Khadr were “unethically biased” and “hate mongering.” You thought this was the case because the radio report referred to the fact that Khadr pleaded guilty to war crime charges, but “CBC did not include the information that this plea was obtained with the use of torture. By omitting this critical information, CBC has legitimized the obtaining of information by the use of torture and treated torture as being acceptable and irrelevant.”

You were equally critical of a cbcnews.ca story that appeared later the same day. You said the story portrayed Khadr as a “heinous criminal,” but did not provide coverage of the “violation of national and international law by US and Canadian governments in their treatment of Khadr.” Khadr had been held in a federal prison since the United States transferred him back to Canada under the International Transfer of Offenders Act. In early July, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that Khadr should serve out the rest of his sentence in a provincial facility.

The long and complex tale of Omar Khadr has been in the headlines off and on for the last twelve years. As the Appeal Court put it:

 This appeal is the latest chapter involving Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen found fighting in Afghanistan in 2002 at 15 years of age. Khadr was detained for eight years by the United States government in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba before he pled guilty to five offences and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
 

You referred to a Globe and Mail “report” that called into question the process by which he was convicted, and which referred to the military tribunal as a “kangaroo court.” You asked that CBC broadcast and publish an apology and correction.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He explained that the CBC News radio report was broadcast less than an hour after the Alberta Court of Appeal decision, so it focused on what was “newsworthy,” which was that the court had ruled Mr. Khadr should be treated as a young offender. He explained that a report which was under a minute and half long could not capture the many details of this case. He explained that a great deal of information must be telescoped into a short time, and inevitably, some details are left out, but that is not an indication of bias. “In the long run, one story cannot reasonably be expected to encompass all points of view or all the information available.” He noted that this is especially true in the case of Mr. Khadr:

You are right; there is a lot to Omar Khadr’s story. What happened in 2002 in that walled compound in eastern Afghanistan is unclear and the subject of enduring controversy. His treatment following his capture is equally controversial. Practically speaking, it’s impossible to include all or even a good part of that disputed and often contradictory information in one brief radio news report.

He noted that the online story contained more details about Mr. Khadr’s background, as well as political and legal reaction to the ruling. He added that there were links to five earlier stories, which in turn linked to others. He stated that “over the years CBC News and current affairs programs have broadcast hours of thoughtful, thorough and innovative coverage about Mr. Khadr.”

REVIEW

Your concerns about this article raise issues that I frequently deal with in reviews. I understand the concern that a story have as much detail and context as possible to remind people of the issues at hand. The subjective question is, what is indeed adequate, and if the absence of information important to you is proof of malicious intent or bias. Understandably, the stronger one’s convictions about an issue, the stronger the conviction that one’s views should be emphatically reflected. If they are not, that could lead one to a conclusion that there is bias. The issue frequently comes down to what the purpose of an individual story is, and what can reasonably be expected from one radio item or online article. That is especially true in the coverage of Omar Khadr, who has been in and out of the news since 2002.

In the case you are questioning, the Alberta Court of Appeal issued a judgment on an appeal to have Mr. Khadr placed in a provincial correctional facility rather than a maximum security prison. As Mr. Nagler pointed out to you, the decision had come less than an hour earlier. Breaking news is not the place for context or nuance. Its purpose is to provide the latest information on matters of public interest. It is unrealistic, and not required by policy, to provide all sides of an issue in one short radio news script. The policy on balance states:

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The newscaster set up the brief report by saying:

Omar Khadr won a major victory today. In a ruling released in the last hour, the Alberta Court of Appeal says the former Guantanamo Bay inmate should be treated as a young offender, not as an adult prisoner.

The reporter went on to give the decision and to provide background about the appeal itself. The background and facts given, including the fact that he had “pleaded guilty to a number of crimes and had been sentenced by a US military tribunal,” were there so a listener would understand the nature of the appeal and why Khadr’s lawyers would make the case he was improperly incarcerated. The fact that there are those who believe that he should never have been charged or convicted in the first place is a long and complex tale, impossible to capture in a newscast, let alone one news item. It is, however, the reality of breaking news, and not a violation of CBC policy.

Over the twelve years of Mr. Khadr’s case, CBC has provided analysis, documentary coverage, news reports and current affairs treatments on its website and all its flagship programs. The reporters and editors have dealt with every aspect of this case. Anyone who has followed the story has learned of allegations of torture; of the Charter case that sought to have him repatriated; of the Supreme Court decision which did not uphold that request but that did say his human rights had been violated; of his plea bargain and the controversy around his trial, as well as the dispute about whether there was ever any basis to prosecute him in the first place.

The National featured part of a full-length documentary called “The U.S. vs. Omar Khadr” which ran in its entirety on Doc Zone. It deals with many of the issues and concerns you raise. CBC News extensively covered the debate around whether Mr. Khadr should be treated as a child soldier, as well as the Canadian government role and actions in his case. It did so by presenting a variety of positions and a diversity of voices, as is required by CBC policy. It also provided analysis based on expertise that did draw some conclusions based on facts.

The Globe and Mail piece you cited as the model for CBC coverage was in fact an editorial on the op-ed page. It takes a particular point of view and advocates for it. The article is entitled “Every Canadian deserves justice. Even Omar Khadr.” Newspapers have editorial pages. They are distinct from the news pages. CBC News does not have an equivalent. And while it can provide and has provided analysis about the case that is pretty pointed, neither they nor most other news departments would place the article you cite on their news pages.

The CBC News online piece you cite mostly deals with the issues of the Court of Appeal decision released that day. And while it doesn’t go into any detail, it does say that the sentence was the result of a plea bargain:

He agreed to plead guilty to five offences — including murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder in violation of the law of war and conspiracy in attacks on U.S. forces — in 2010, shortly after the start of his trial at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for assurances his sentence would not exceed eight years.

While I sympathize with your concern that there might have been more background on the Khadr conviction, it does not make it biased or a violation of policy. It is an accurate statement of the facts. It’s true that someone completely ignorant of the Khadr story would not have the background on how his plea bargain came about. But at some point, it seems reasonable to assume there is some knowledge of it. There was an additional step taken, though, that would enable a reader to find out more. Because this story has gone on for so long and has generated so much controversy, it is appropriate that the day’s news story linked to many others that in fact do provide further context on some of the critical issues you raised about Mr. Khadr’s treatment. One of them is headlined “Omar Khadr war crimes charges lack legal basis, U.S. memo suggests”.

The purpose of news is to provide facts and a range of views and opinions in matters of public interest, so that citizens can inform themselves and draw their own conclusions. That doesn’t mean a mindless even-handedness. The CBC policy does allow for analysis and synthesis of the facts, based on knowledge. That is something that is accomplished over time. In reviewing the range of CBC coverage of the Omar Khadr case over the last few years, CBC News has lived up to its policy commitments.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman