Language and Precision

The complainant, the Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada, Mike Fegelman, complained about the use of the word “illegal” to describe Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank in a November news story about the Governor General’s trip to the Middle East. He didn’t like the phrasing of a reference to the Conservative government decision to defund a U.N. agency either. I agreed the reference to UNWRA should have been clearer and disagreed on the settlements.


In your role as the Executive Director of Honest Reporting Canada, you complained about an article published on November 2, 2016 by Derek Stoffel on regarding Governor General David Johnston’s recent visit to the Middle East. You found two inaccuracies in the article entitled Gov. Gen. David Johnston walks fine line on Middle East visit.” You disputed the use of the term “illegal” to describe the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Contrary to Mr. Stoffel’s claim, both the United States and Canada does not consider west bank and eastern Jerusalem settlements as being “illegal”. Both have opted instead for the non-legal designation of “illegitimate.”

On December 29, you asked me to review a second use of the term “illegal” in a report by Mr. Stoffel that day.

Your second concern was about a reference to the withdrawal of funding from UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). You thought the reason for the cut should have been clearer. You stated:

Lastly, we believe it behooves CBC to point out that Canada cut its core funding to UNWRA because, as the Globe and Mail reported a couple months ago, there was "... mounting criticism that its (UNWRA's) schools were hotbeds of anti-Israeli extremism…” This context is vital for readers to understand. Failing which, they may wrongly conclude that core funding was cut for strictly political or other purposes.


Steve Ladurantaye, Managing Editor of @cbcnews, replied to your concerns. He told you that “we are standing by the statement in the story.” He added that in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention. In addition, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the word illegal in a town hall discussion in March 2016. He quoted from Trudeau’s remarks:

"Israel is a friend, Israel is an ally, Israel is a country that has values and an approach on many, many issues that are very much aligned with Canadians values," Trudeau said. "But, at the same time… we won't hesitate from talking about unhelpful steps like the continued illegal settlements. We will point that out. We will continue to engage in a forthright and open way because that's what people expect of Canada."

He said that he did not see a reason to amend the article on the second point you raised about the reference to UNWRA. He explained it was a short reference to actions taken by the former Conservative government and not the focus of the piece. He referred you to a different article that did supply context about the defunding.


CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accuracy and for clarity in language - that is the purpose and commitment. Various sides in a dispute will claim meaning and usage of words to support their position. There is a requirement for clarity and accuracy and, in this case, it meets that test.

The first reference in the November 2 article is:

More than 400,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, considered illegal under international law by Canada and most of the international community, although Israel disputes this. Palestinians claim the land as part of a future state.

The second reference on December 29 is almost identical, and in both cases provides Israel’s view:

Most of the international community, including Canada, views the settlements as illegal under international law, although this is disputed by the Israelis.

The definition of “illegal” in the Canadian Oxford dictionary is “not legal” or “contrary to law.” The same dictionary defines illegitimate as not authorized by law: i.e. illegal. The reference you make to Canadian Policy on Key Issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict notes the settlements are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Your second concern was the reference to the previous Canadian government withdrawing funding from UNWRA without providing any reason for the decision. Mr. Stoffel mentioned it in the article in the context of, as he said, “road-testing a more balanced approach to the long standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

For years, Palestinian leaders criticized former prime minister Stephen Harper for his close relationship with the Israeli government, and, in particular, right-wing Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Harper ended Canada's support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian housing, education and medical care across the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The Conservative government opposed increased recognition for the Palestinians at the United Nation

It is true that this was not the main thrust of the larger article, but the way it is phrased can lead to the impression that the funding was withdrawn because the agency was assisting Palestinians in any way. It is too broad to be clear. The Conservatives ended the funding because there were allegations that it was too closely tied to Hamas. I agree some reference to the Conservative government’s concern that UNWRA had ties to Hamas as the reason for ending the funding would be more accurate and would provide context.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman