Who said that? The use of paraphrase and direct quotes.

The complainant, Greg Hunter, was suspicious of statements attributed to the Syrian government and to Vladimir Putin. He thought it unlikely they had actually said what Carol Off attributed to them in the course of an interview on As It Happens. He questioned the accuracy. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You had questions about the attribution of statements in the course of two different As It Happens interviews. Your first inquiry referred to an interview Carol Off conducted with a Syrian doctor after the bombing of a hospital.

During the Thursday, April 28, As It Happens, Carol Off said something like, "The Syrian Government has said that they consider hospitals to be legitimate targets". She did not state where or when she had seen this. Personally, I find it rather hard to believe.

Could you please tell me if this statement can be verified?

You had a similar concern about a reference to Vladimir Putin in an interview Ms. Off did on May 5, 2016.

Could you please add one more quote to be checked out. It is from the May 5 As It Happens by Carol Off, "... Putin has said that no civilians have been killed by Russian Airstrikes". Please let me know where and if he actually did say that.

You asked for the sources of these statements and to be provided with the actual quotes.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Robin Smythe, the Executive Producer of As It Happens responded to your complaint. She dealt with your inquiry about the attribution to the Syrian government first. She told you “she absolutely stands by Carol’s question and the information we relied on in our interview.” She cited several reports from human rights and humanitarian organizations, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International and Amnesty International which document aerial attacks by Syrian forces. For that reason, she disagreed that it was, as you put it “‘hard to believe’ that the Syrian government would take such a position.” She also cited a statement from an April 28 report from The Guardian newspaper which attributed a policy of attacking medical facilities to the Syrian government:

The Syrian government considers any medical facilities in opposition-held territory as legitimate military targets, saying that they are de facto illegal… As early as 2013, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry investigating alleged war crimes in Syria said attacks on medical facilities were being used systematically as a weapon of war by the Assad regime. Attacks by both sides on medical facilities have continued unabated in recent months. MSF said in February that a total of 94 airstrikes and shelling attacks hit facilities supported by the organisation in 2015 alone.

Ms. Smythe told you that in reviewing the second interview she did not hear the phrase you mentioned - “Putin has said that no civilians have been killed by Russian Airstrikes". She did provide the question she thought you were referring to:

Carol Off: Both Syria and Russia are denying any responsibility for this air strike. Who do you think is possibly responsible for it?

She also supplied several articles which reference Vladimir Putin’s assertion that the Russian air force does not target or bomb civilians.

REVIEW

The essence of your complaint is a challenge to find precise quotes spoken by a member of the Syrian government and Vladimir Putin. Ms. Smythe supplied lengthy excerpts of the interviews to show you the context in which they were used. She also supplied you with numerous articles and reports from human rights groups on the same subject, and explained Ms. Off used sources like those to synthesize the information.

The evidence, based on the United Nations, Amnesty International and first-hand eyewitness reports from journalists, physicians and workers from organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, indicate that both Russian and Syrian jets have dropped bombs on civilian targets and medical facilities. You imply that CBC News should be more skeptical about those reports and those organizations because they have been wrong in the past:

Yes absolutely we should "refer" to them but not as the CBC often does "defer" to them. You may or may not be familiar with Keneth Roth of HWR fake tweets / pictures regarding Assad's barrel bombs. If not I suggest investigating that. (one was a drone of Gaza claiming to be Syria. Amnesty International's mistaken acceptance of the "Incubator Babies" - "Viagra fueled Libyan Soldiers" and "Gaddaffi's Black Mercenaries".

The most pertinent part of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in this case is one of the five main values on which the JSP rests, the value of Impartiality:

We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

You inquired about a May 6 interview with a human rights worker in the wake of an attack on a Syrian refugee camp. As It Happens co-host Jeff Douglas set it up this way:

Today, there's very little left of an encampment known as Kamouna in northern Syria.

Yesterday, the camp near the Turkish border was hit by an air strike. It's believed that close to thirty people were killed. Many more are badly injured.

Kamouna was home to hundreds of internally-displaced Syrians fleeing the fighting. And although it's an unofficial camp, the UN and others are calling the attack a likely war crime.

Volunteers for the relief organization Mercy Corps were among the first on the scene following the air strike. Dee Goluba is the Syria director for Mercy Corps. We reached her earlier today in Istanbul, Turkey.

You said you thought you heard Ms. Off state “..Putin has said that no civilians have been killed by Russian Airstrikes". In fact, Ms. Off did not say that. There are two references that are similar in the line of questioning. One of them is:

Carol Off: Both Syria and Russia are denying any responsibility for this air strike. Who do you think is possibly responsible for it?

The other is:

In previous attacks.., the Syrian government has denied any responsibility for attacking civilian targets. But we know the Syrian and the Russians have said they consider many things that are civilian in nature, like hospitals, to be legitimate targets because they believe they are providing some support to rebels. Does it feel like they’re fudging it?

Ms. Off used her professional knowledge and expertise to synthesize questions put to an eyewitness of an attack who had some evidence and strong suspicion about who was behind it. Members of the audience are left to make up their own minds. You have every right to be skeptical or even reject her conclusions. They are journalistically sound ones and well within good practice. I note that on a January 12, 2016 article in The Telegraph entitled, “Vladimir Putin denies bombing Syrian civilians”, he is quoted on several aspects of the bombing campaign:

Evidence of Russian air strikes killing civilians in Syria is “phony” and claims that Russia is targeting rebel groups rather than the Islamic State terror group are “lies,” Vladimir Putin has said.

In wide ranging comments on Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, Mr. Putin also claimed Russia is coordinating air operations with anti-Isil rebel groups and said “it is not important” whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

The comments, made in the second half of an interview with the German newspaper Bild, come after human rights groups and media organisations accused Russia of using indiscriminate cluster bombs that have killed more than 200 Syrian civilians.

Mr Putin said the only conceivable “civilian” targets hit by the Russian air force are columns of oil tankers, but said “everyone is bombing them, including the Americans, French and everyone else.”

The other quote you were inquiring about came in a question during an interview on April 26, 2016 when a hospital was attacked, killing one of the last paediatricians in Syria, among other civilians. Ms. Off put the question to another doctor working in that hospital this way:

Carol Off: “Given what you know about the ways in which the different factions are fighting, who do you believe is responsible for this attack?

Guest: The one who has flight is the one responsible. It’s a very easy answer.

CO: Both Syria and Russia?

Guest: One of them can do it. So one of them is the one who do this murder.

CO: So it’s either Russia or Syria?

Guest: For sure. For sure.”

CO: The Syrian government has said that it regards medical facilities in opposition-held territories as legitimate military targets. They openly declare that hospitals such as yours are likely to come under attack?

Ms. Smythe provided you with reference to articles describing the Syrian government’s position that some hospitals and medical facilities are legitimate targets because they aid or harbor rebels. Ms. Off attributed that justification in the course of her interview. She also accurately referred to “opposition-held” territories. She presented the view of the Syrian government fairly. There are several articles and reports that confirm that position. One of them is from The Guardian of February 18, 2016, entitled “MSF stops sharing hospital locations after ‘deliberate’ attacks,”. It states:

Humanitarian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian that the Syrian government has explicitly threatened to bomb a hospital in a besieged suburb of Damascus if it continues to admit emergency cases, and said doctors and families were targeted by the regime.

“Since 2011 during the demonstration time, medical activities that are not under their control are considered by the government of Syria as illegal and consequently as legitimate targets,” one official said. “This decision explains the repeated threat, arrest, torture and killing of doctors … and their direct families in addition to the systematic targeting of networks in charge of supplying underground medical activities in besieged zones.”

Amnesty International has said the same thing in reports it has published. Phrasing it as “the Syrian government has said that…” is a vernacular way of attributing the policy or position to the Syrian government. In neither of these cases was she, in fact, attributing the statement to any one person, nor was she providing a direct quote. She was paraphrasing. You don’t need an exact quote to make it true, as it is demonstrably so, based on a growing body of evidence from a variety of locations and a range of sources. The Guardian and others have also reported on a law passed in Syria declaring medical facilities built without government approval to be illegal:

An anti-terrorism law passed in 2012 by the Syrian parliament declared illegal any medical facility operating in opposition-held areas without government approval, effectively making them legitimate targets for Assad’s air force. Since then, clinics in the rebel-controlled parts of the country have gone underground, sometimes literally in caves and basements, and have refused to share their GPS coordinates for fear of being targeted.

You are right that it is always better to have first hand confirmation. Clearly in a situation like the long and protracted struggle in Syria that is not possible. Journalists consult a variety of sources and draw conclusions.

Journalists synthesize and analyze on a regular basis. A journalist of Ms. Off’s experience and stature, backed by producers who provide research, is well within policy to do so.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman