Syria Crisis Reporting

The complainant, Alex Perry, thought an analysis piece about the western response to chemical weapons in Syria reflected CBC News “groupthink” and proof that the reporter has bought the propaganda of the U.S. and its allies. I did not agree.

COMPLAINT

You think CBC News coverage of Syria overall is biased and has “largely parroted the regime line of the U.S. intelligence and political establishment.”

You were concerned that CBC News reports include quotes from the White Helmets and various spokespeople from factions in the civil war. Your assessment is that the only perspectives represented are those who are against the regime and believe the only solution for Syria is the removal of the president, Bashar al-Assad.

To sustain this illogic, the American public and decision-makers make use of a sophisticated propaganda campaign involving video images and narratives provided by forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including organizations like the “White Helmets,” the Syrian-American Medical Society, the Aleppo Media Center, which have a history of providing slanted information designed to promote an anti-Assad message.

Your complaint centred around an analysis piece by CBC mid-eastern correspondent Derek Stoffel. The article, entitled 'Clearly a war crime': International community denounces chemical attack in Syria but fails to act struck you as an example of this overall issue. You said “CBC is either participating in groupthink…[or] more seriously, the CBC is following a misleading narrative.”

You disputed that the chemical attack in April of this year was the work of the Syrian regime. You asked what proof Mr. Stoffel had to attribute it to the Assad government. According to your analysis, Assad is winning the war and would not use chemical weapons to “draw the ire of the international community.”

You took issue with another statement in the article as well, one that concerned a 2013 chemical weapon attack at Ghouta. Mr. Stoffel wrote:

Assad blamed a 2013 chemical weapons strike on rebel fighters, even though the United States came forward with evidence that showed Syrian government forces were behind the deadliest use of chemical weapons during the war. The attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta left more than a thousand people dead.

You said that the 2013 attack was carried out by a rebel group, not government forces. You cited analysis by an “MIT specialist”, Theodore Postol, who stated there is “no concrete knowledge” that the 2013 attack, or the most recent one carried out by the Syrian regime, were linked to Assad.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lianne Elliott, an Executive Producer for digital news, replied to your concerns.

She told you that over time CBC News has provided a range of perspectives on the Syrian civil war. She informed you that the CBC had been to Syria, and that it is one of the few North American media organizations which have been into the country over the 6 plus years of fighting. She provided you 7 links to stories done by Margaret Evans who had been in the country in November, during the battle for Aleppo.

She mentioned that CBC News uses video from their own correspondents, or those of reputable news agencies. If there is any citizen-sourced video used, it is identified and verification checks performed with sources in the country. She told you they are careful to ensure those sources are not toeing a particular party line and in the April 4 article Mr. Stoffel used what CBC News considers reputable sources:

We are well aware that many organizations and individuals weighing in on the Syria conflict are coming at it with clear, often biased agendas that either favour Assad or favour the rebels. This is why we pick our sources carefully -- In the April 4 analysis piece that you highlight in your letter to the Ombudsman, CBC correspondent Derek Stoffel is careful to attribute findings that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chlorine gas in 2014 and 2015 to the United Nations and the non-partisan global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

She also addressed your concern about the gas attack in Ghouta in 2013 and the 2017 incident at Khan Shaykhun. The reference to the 2013 attack is linked to an earlier story which presents the United Nation’s view of the attack. In reference to the 2017 attack, she noted Mr. Stoffel did not say definitively that Assad was behind the attack, and she also included links to stories that highlighted both the Russian and Syrian denials of involvement.

REVIEW

The piece you highlighted in your complaint was a work of analysis by Derek Stoffel. CBC reporters, especially experienced ones like Mr. Stoffel with specialized knowledge, are expected to synthesize information based on facts. The Journalistic Standards and Practices states that journalists “provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise.” The other tenet that would be most relevant here is the obligation to provide a range of views over a reasonable period of time.

Ms. Elliott provided you with examples of the coverage that present a range of views. There are significant challenges in covering this ongoing conflict - the greatest of which is to gain first-hand information and knowledge. I agree with you that there are active propaganda machines, but they are not the exclusive purview of one side in the conflict. You state that Mr. Stoffel has bought the line that the removal of the Syrian president is the only solution to the conflict. I see no evidence of that. He noted that was the position of the U.S. government prior to the election of Mr. Trump, but that is no longer the case:

Under the Trump administration, American policy on Syria is no longer focused on forcing Assad from power, a departure from Obama's long-held stance that the Syrian president cannot be a part of any political solution to end years of war.

"You pick and choose your battles. And when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities — and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out," U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said recently.

Just days later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad's fate "will be decided by the Syrian people."

The point of his analysis was to show that despite condemnation of chemical attacks, there is no consensus on what it is to be done about it. In this context, I note Mr. Stoffel referred to an “alleged” chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. Elsewhere he referred to the attack believed to have been carried out by Syrian government forces. It is not a definitive statement. In CBC coverage of the attack, the government and Russian denials have been given prominent coverage. There are also links to stories that present the Russian and Syrian denials.

Like many conflicts, there are competing narratives, sources and beliefs. Mr. Stoffel has attributed his statements to reputable sources. You dismiss them - that is your choice, given the information presented.

In the analysis, Mr. Stoffel pointed out that the United Nations agency responsible for assessing whether a chemical attack has occurred, and who might be the culprit, has attributed two attacks to the Syrian government and one to ISIS. As for the Ghouta attack, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated in its report that it was able to ascertain the trajectory of some of the weapons. Many analysts believe this pointed to Syrian government troops. As you pointed out, in many instances there is no definitive proof, while citing articles that refute the possibility of Syrian government culpability. Based on this knowledge and expertise, Mr. Stoffel found other sources and analysis, including a Human Rights Watch report, on the whole, more credible. While CBC News is required over time to present a range of views and opinions, it is not obliged to give the same credence to every view. The policy states there is an obligation to present divergent views on matters of controversy, taking into account how widely held those views might be.

I fully expect CBC News to continue to cover this story in some detail and to provide analysis and judgment based on credible sources. There is an ongoing investigation into the April 2017 attack. As evidence is made public, it is important to report the information so that citizens can draw their own conclusions. This piece provided adequate sourcing for its statements and there was no violation of policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman