Fairness and balance for an Olympic swimmer

The complainant, the Executive Director of Honest Reporting, Mike Fegelman, thought a story about a Palestinian Olympic swimmer was inaccurate and lacked balance. There were no violations of policy in this report.

COMPLAINT

In your capacity as Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada, you wrote to share your concern about a report by Derek Stoffel, published August 1, 2016 on cbcnews.ca, and aired on The National the next day. You said the report on Palestinian Olympic swimmer Mary al-Atrash lacked balance and was inaccurate.

You said it was inaccurate because Mr. Stoffel stated there were no Olympic-size pools in the West Bank. You cite an article published in the Jerusalem Post on August 8th, entitled “Fact check disproves Palestinian swimmer’s claims against Israel”, as well as a blog entitled Elder of Ziyon and extensively from Liel Leibovitz writing in Tablet to prove that there are Olympic facilities in the West Bank. You quoted Leibovitz as saying:

As the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympic games celebrated the spirit of competition and camaraderie that captures the hearts and eyes of millions around the world every four years, the festivities were momentarily darkened by a short and stabbing reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. And as usual, it was all Israel’s fault. Introducing the Palestinian swimmer Mary al-Atrash, media outlets were quick to note that the young athlete was challenged not only by the rigors of training for the Olympics but also by the fact that the occupation had cut off her access to a proper 50-meter-long pool, the standard Olympic size. Such stately facilities, the media informed its outraged viewers, were simply not available in Palestine.

You also thought there should have been a response to Ms. al-Atrash’s statement that it was more difficult for her to practice because of the restrictions Palestinians live under, notably their ability to travel to Israel. You said that statement should have been checked with COGAT, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Had the reporter done so, you stated, he would have been told that she could have travelled to Israel, but she never applied for a permit to do so. You thought this information was essential to the balance of the story.

Finally, you thought there was a serious omission because:

The CBC failed to acknowledge that the Palestinian Authority and/or Hamas in Gaza could build swimming pools if it wanted to for the benefit of its Olympic athletes (and public) and there shouldn’t be a presumption of free unfettered travel between Israel and the Palestinian territories, not only due to obvious security concerns, but also because we are talking about a sovereign country and a disputed territory who share borders/armistice lines.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Director of New Content, Jonathan Whitten, replied to your concerns. He told you the information in the story was accurate. He said that after he received your emails, he asked the Jerusalem-based news staff to verify the contention that there was an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Palestinian territories, since you had cited three sources that stated there were such facilities in the West Bank and Gaza. His staff could not confirm that fact:

There are swimming pools at several facilities in the West Bank, including the Murad resort, in Beit Sahour and in Nablus. While some of those facilities advertise “Olympic pools”, they are not 50 metres long, which is one of the specifications for an Olympic long course training venue pool. Facility owners and a government deputy minister in Gaza told CBC News that their pools range between 17 and 25 metres in length.

He added that the day after you sent an email, another article appeared in the Jerusalem Post (August 10) entitled “The hunt for an Olympic-sided pool in the West Bank” revealed that the reporter could not find any pools that conformed to Olympic standards.

He also did not agree that it was inaccurate or inappropriate to mention the travel restrictions that Palestinians face. He explained:

Israel maintains a strict regime of restrictions on Palestinians traveling to Gaza or Israel. A series of Israeli checkpoints and a network of prohibited access roads makes travel within the West Bank difficult for Palestinians. The fact that she would have to apply for a permit (whether she did or not) is an indication of the travel difficulties Palestinians experience. Even with a permit in hand, checkpoints, road closures and the crossing between Israel and the West Bank would qualify as restricting travel.

He informed you there would be no change or addenda to the story.

REVIEW

This report focused on one participant in the Olympics, a Palestinian woman who lives near Bethlehem. Its purpose was to tell her story.

While you pointed to some sources that disagree there are no Olympic-size pools on the West Bank, fact checking by CBC staff and a reporter at one of the publications you initially cited confirm that indeed there are not. This is what Mr. Stoffel wrote:

Atrash swims in the 50-metre freestyle, but her best time of 29.91 seconds is more than four seconds slower than the 25.28 qualifying time needed to compete in the Olympics.

"It's difficult because of the lack of resources for us here. It will be very difficult to win a medal," Atrash said.

There is no Olympic-sized swimming pool in the Palestinian territories that Palestinians are allowed to use, so Atrash practises at the YMCA in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. The pool is 25 metres long, half the length of the facility she'll compete in at Rio.

You further disputed the fact that no Israeli source was quoted or asked if indeed it is true that Ms. Atrash could not go to Israel to train. The article does not categorically say that she is banned. Rather, it conveys her view of the situation:

"Because of all the difficulties that Palestinians live under … it makes it harder to practise and compete in our sports," said Atrash.

Mr. Stoffel goes on to explain, as Mr. Whitten also did, that it is not an opinion that it is difficult for Palestinians to cross into Israel and Gaza. I agree the fact that it requires a permit is a restriction.

Had this been a story about travel between the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, it would be reasonable to seek Israeli views on the reason for the need for the restrictions. However, this was an article about one Olympic swimmer and what her presence at the games meant to her. It does not exist in a vacuum. Coverage of many perspectives and aspects of life in the region and the ongoing conflict is extensive. Addressing a host of different issues in every article is not a requirement of every individual article or broadcast segment. A range of views and perspectives are required over time.

You raise a point about including criticism of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and of Hamas in Gaza for not building appropriate facilities. It was well beyond the scope of the article, but perhaps some reading it, like you, would have come to that conclusion. You are entitled to your opinion, but there is no violation in policy by its absence.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman