If the word fits, use it: The Syrian president as dictator

The complainant, Marjaleena Repo, said calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a dictator demonized him. I disagreed. The context was correct and the facts back it up.


You wrote to “strenuously object” to the use of the word “dictator” in relation to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. You cited a reference in a news report on The National on November 17, 2015, but said that the word was used on many occasions. You cited a reference from Wikipedia that stated Mr. al-Assad was re-elected in a multi-candidate election in 2014. You asked why CBC used the “loaded term of dictator to demonize Mr. al-Assad and discredit his legitimacy as the president of the country.”

You rejected the CBC’s response which explained that a dictator was somebody who “rules a country with total authority,” and said this would equally apply to other world leaders:

It would equally well describe the reign of Stephen Harper! In any case, to call Syria’s president a “dictator” is nothing but name-calling of the demonizing kind, and should not be allowed on the CBC. If Barak Obama is the president of the United States and is thus addressed, so must Syria’s president al-Assad be, whether CBC approves of him or not.


Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your complaint. He told you that many impartial people would question whether the Syrian presidential election in 2014 “provided any degree of legitimacy – at least as that concept would be understood by a Canadian audience.”

He said he mentioned this by way of background, and that regardless of these facts, there was nothing inappropriate about the story on The National. He told you it was not CBC’s role to demonize the president or to take sides in the Syrian civil war:

Ms. Duncombe’s story on November 17th refers to “President” Assad on first reference. It is only in a second aside in which she uses the term in question, referring to Russia’s support of “the Syrian dictator.” There is no suggestion that this is Mr. al-Assad’s formal designation. But it is an accurate description of his leadership. Most dictionaries describe a dictator as “someone who rules a country with total authority”. That seems to be a pretty bang-on description of Syria’s President, at least in the parts of the country he still controls.


There was no violation of policy in this news report. CBC journalists are able to draw conclusions based on facts and experience. You are entitled to reject the facts, but the overwhelming evidence points in another direction. Your comparison to either a Canadian prime minister or a U.S. president does not bear up under the facts. In both Canada and the United States, there are checks and balances between the judiciary, and the legislative branches of government. Of course the two systems are different so those checks and balances work differently, but they do exist.

You quoted Wikipedia to prove that President al-Assad won the 2014 multi-candidate election. If you go a little deeper into that entry you will also find this statement:

The form of government Assad presides over has been designated as an authoritarian regime by political scientists.

Furthermore, it goes on to say that while a monitoring group made up of Assad allies declared the election free and fair, it was highly controversial. Opposition groups boycotted it for one thing, and given that there is an ongoing brutal civil war, voting was not possible in many areas of the country.

Aside from the demonstrable facts used to come to the conclusion that dictator was an appropriate word, the word itself and the context in which it was used was not demonizing. You are right language should be as neutral as possible; given the facts it is hardly editorializing.

The story itself was actually about the aftermath of the bombing of a Russian jet which crashed in the Sinai peninsula. The Russians had stepped up their bombing of ISIS. Here is the first part of Ms. Duncombe’s report, including the reference to Mr. al-Assad:


This is what Russian revenge looks like. The Kremlin’s Defense Department released this “Top Gun”-style video today, a multi-camera display of military escalation. In a similarly theatrical briefing broadcast on Russian television the defense minister briefed President Vladimir Putin, explaining their target is ISIS. Without naming the extremist group, Russia confirmed today a bomb blew up the charter plane full of tourists over the Sinai Peninsula, a conclusion Western countries reached more than a week ago. “One can say it was a terrorist act,” said Russia’s head of security in another meeting broadcast on national TV.


(Speaking Russian).


Putin vowed to punish the perpetrators.


(Speaking Russian).


“We will search for them everywhere,” he said. “We will find them in any spot on the planet.” The timing of this mission could be as orchestrated as the videos showing it off. Significantly, Putin ordered the military to coordinate with France calling for joint action, not an alliance yet, but there is growing evidence Western countries need Putin. Consider the G20 where last year the Russian leader was ostracized over Ukraine. This year he huddled with the U.S. president. It’s not just military cooperation on the table. Russia’s influence with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiating a political solution in Syria, but it is unclear where Putin’s loyalties lie. Russia’s action in Syria, up until now, has largely been in support of the Syrian dictator. And while today’s bombs did appear to hit ISIS targets, the Pentagon insists it’s not coordinating its attacks with the Kremlin.

The tone is measured and appropriate. There is no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman