Breaking the Silence: A controversial report and the question of balance

The Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada wrote to complain about an interview with one of the founders of the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence. He was talking about soldiers’ testimony about their conduct in the 2014 Gaza conflict. CBC policy calls for balance over time. When the subject is highly contentious, it’s better to make that a short time.


You had several concerns about an interview aired on As It Happens on May 4, 2015. The program host Carol Off talked to Noam Chayut, one of the founders of an Israeli Organization called Breaking the Silence. The interview concerned testimony the organization had collected anonymously from Israeli soldiers about the actions of the Israel Defence Forces in the occupied territories and Gaza. The testimony is highly critical of the army’s actions.

You had three areas of concern:

CBC failed to explain who Breaking the Silence is and what its motivations are. Listeners were told only that Chayut is a “veteran of the IDF and co-founder of BTS”. No explanation was given of the mandate of BTS and what its political interests are.

You quote an article from another journalist that states that “the aim is to end the occupation,” and that is how BTS got funding from various international organizations, and that its true aim is to “further a pro-Palestinian agenda.”

CBC failed to point out that all 70 testimonies were anonymously given, all which affirmed Israeli guilt. The fact that all sources were unnamed calls into question the credibility of the BTS report, along with its authors and raises issues about a lack of transparency, accuracy and questionable methodology employed by the organization.

Ms. Off asked only: “What is different about these testimonies?... How were these testimonies chosen… how representative are they of the whole?”

You said that As It Happens should have interviewed an Israeli official to refute the assertions made by Mr. Chayut.

The final issue you had with the item was the citing of casualty figures in the introduction:

Jeff Douglas’ introduction to this interview falsely claimed that in the July/August conflict, some “2,100 Palestinians were killed, close to 1,500 of them were civilians, almost 500 of them were children…”

You pointed out that I have said in past reviews that mention of contested casualty figures requires providing alternative assertions and the sourcing of the numbers used. The information was not provided in this introduction.

There was one other issue in dealing with this complaint. Your original complaint was filed in May and there was no response for six months. You sent a series of emails inquiring about the complaint. In the response you got from the executive producer of As It Happens, she mentioned a “glitch in communications.” You wanted to know “the nature of the ‘glitch’ and when she was first made aware of this complaint.


As I mentioned, the Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your complaint. She apologized for the delay in response and mentioned that she “only became aware of your concerns about our coverage much later than you sent them.”

She addressed the three points that you found problematic. She quoted from the organization’s website which describes itself as an “organization of veteran combatants” who have made their goal to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

While not agreeing with your characterization of the organization, she did agree that:

. . . we might have better explained the inherent leaning of the group, as with any group, and better described the group’s own stated goal of collecting and publishing testimonies from soldiers who have served in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since September 2000.

She also agreed with you that it might have been “helpful to our audience” to have explained that the seventy testimonies collected were all anonymous. She said it was an oversight that it was not mentioned in the introduction to the interview. She added that Ms. Off did in fact challenge the methodology and the rigour of the exercise in the course of the interview with Mr. Chayut. She noted that Ms. Off asked how the soldiers were chosen, and how representative they were of the whole:

She presses him on his methodology of collecting testimonies, and in characterizing who is reported as a civilian in his report, by asking “who was considered to be not involved?” She further asks: “The United Nations, recently, they said that Hamas did use civilians as shield in that war, as they have in the past, so how do you respond to those who say Israel is fighting a dirty war against an enemy that also doesn’t play by all the rules?” In this way, Carol is challenging his report, and his methodology.

To your final point about the casualty figures, Ms. Smythe responded that she wanted to thank you for reminding her and by extension her staff that they should have attributed the numbers to the source, which in this case was the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

She also told you that As It Happens has featured interviews with a range of participants and principals over a period of time in order to provide a range of perspectives on a controversial matter.


There are two policies in CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices that relate to your concern about the way in which Noam Chayut was introduced and the way in which his organization was presented. The first is “Identification of Interviewees” which states:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements. In exceptional cases and for serious cause, we may decide to withhold such information in whole or in part. In such cases we explain the situation to the audience without disclosing the information that must be kept secret.

The second policy, about commentators and guests, notes that “it is important to mention any association, affiliation or special interest a guest or commentator may have so that the public can fully understand that person’s perspective.”

In the context of the interview, it was fairly evident what the role and purpose of the organization was. This is what it says on the Breaking the Silence website:

Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel's security. While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name. Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

You characterize their motives and “agenda” in a certain way – As It Happens is not obliged to do so. Ms. Smythe has already acknowledged that some more background about the goals, organization and methods used to obtain the testimony should have been included. The organization has certainly created controversy in Israel. While it is not CBC News practice to label or characterize organizations, but to let the audience draw its own conclusions, giving more detail was required. Ms. Off, in the course of the interview, does not give Mr. Chayut carte blanche. She asked him how representative the testimony was, she asked what kind of response the IDF had to the accusations of violating rules of engagement and she pointed out that the Israel Defense Forces provided warnings before the launching of attacks. I note, as Ms. Smythe did, that she should have inquired about the fact that the testimony was anonymous.

CBC journalistic policy allows for the presentation of a range of views on matters of controversy over a reasonable period of time. There is nothing wrong in doing a stand-alone interview like this one to hear and examine one perspective that violates that policy. The assessment of what is a reasonable period of time is a judgment call. Generally, the more controversial the subject, the greater the obligation to provide some kind of balance. While this report was new, there was and is an ongoing controversy over the rules of engagement and behavior of both sides in this controversy. As It Happens and other CBC News and Current Affairs programs have provided coverage and varying perspectives on this matter. I agree that in this case, though, it would have been helpful to have some response, if only a quote or comment from an Israeli official.

As for the mention of casualties, Ms. Smythe is right that it is important to attribute the numbers used because there is a dispute about their accuracy. Ms. Smythe has acknowledged the weakness in this segment. I trust she will review this with her team to ensure more attention to detail in the future.

Finally, you wanted to know what the “glitch” in communications was that caused the lengthy delay in responding to your complaint. While we try to streamline the process of moving a large volume of material to the accountable news managers or executive producers, errors do occur. This was one of those cases. Your original email was sent to Jennifer McGuire, head of news, and I was copied. It is our standard procedure in those cases to take no further action. The email was not passed on to Ms. Smythe and this office seems to have lost track of it as well. For any role this office played in the delay of the response, I apologize. As near as I can ascertain, Ms. Smythe did not receive it until August 27. Perhaps since there were several emails from your organization, there was some error in tracking.

In future, it might be easier to send complaints about As It Happens directly to Ms. Smythe or to the manager who is responsible for As It Happens, Lynda Shorten. While overall journalistic policy falls to Ms. McGuire, As It Happens is managed through radio. Managers are asked to do their best to respond within 20 working days. It is a guideline and not a requirement. Even given the confusion, it still took an unacceptably long time to respond. I would ask that radio and news management ensure a smoother sharing of information and that radio management provide oversight to ensure more timely responses.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman