What to call Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Using “dictator” is not bias.

The complainant, Michael Jaeger, objected to one reference to Bashar al-Assad as “dictator” in a panel discussion on The National. He said he was elected by a majority and Syria is a member state of the United Nations. Those facts are true, but so are the facts that there were many irregularities in the election and Syria has one of the worst human rights records. I did not agree with the complainant’s view.

COMPLAINT

You objected to a reference pertaining to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a “dictator.” On December 14, 2016 The National featured several reports on the situation in Syria, specifically Aleppo, where fighting had erupted despite a ceasefire. There was one story from Aleppo, one featuring refugees here in Canada anxious for news of their family and a “Turning Point” panel discussion about the geopolitical and diplomatic implications about the latest developments in Aleppo.

You stated that President Assad was democratically elected in 2014 and that it was “inappropriate bias” to label him a “dictator”. You said that the entire interview implied that the fighting was Assad’s fault, and that is not the case. You dispute the characterization of the conflict as a civil war but rather “a massive covert war (using "rebels" of questionable intent) backed by the US/CIA/Saudi Arabia.”

You pointed out that Syria is a sovereign nation with a seat at the United Nations, and that “every indication also is that President Assad remains popular”:

And while the election of President Assad in 2014 may be questioned by some, the West is not the universal arbiter of these issues. Especially when the West is busy interfering in the affairs of Syria, including arming and equipping so-called "rebel" groups and factions.

Just because Mr. Mansbridge or other commentators might disagree politically with someone does not give them the right to call them a dictator. There was an election and for all we know it was valid - there is no universal mechanism for determining which election is valid and which isn't. An international team of observers had no major concerns with it and given the corruption and gerrymandering displayed in western elections who are we to judge anyway?

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your complaint. He agreed with you that the Syrian president was elected in a multi-candidate election. He pointed out that the conditions for that election made it “difficult to maintain that they were “fair or democratic;”

The vote was only held in government-controlled areas, it was boycotted by the opposition parties, and rebel groups threatened violence at the polls. At the end of the day, Syria’s allies - chiefly Russia and Iran - endorsed the results, but just about everyone else - including the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council - said it was illegitimate.

He reminded you about the context in which Mr. Mansbridge used the term. It was not in the news report from Aleppo but as part of the introduction of a panel discussion about the impact of the fall of Aleppo, the ceasefire and the renewed airstrikes. He reminded you that Mr. Mansbridge said Russia might be the real winner under the current circumstances, and that Russia supported the Syrian president, even though many other countries, including Canada, are calling for the “Syrian dictator” to step down. He concluded:

In the context, describing him as a “dictator” is a fair and accurate description. By definition, a dictator is simply someone who rules with total authority. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that Assad does not rule Syria with total authority.

REVIEW

I have reviewed a similar complaint before. I titled it If the word fits, use it.” It is appropriate to refer to Bashar al-Assad as a dictator. CBC journalists are guided by Journalistic Standards and Practices which state:

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

Another core principle is that CBC journalists take the time to learn the facts and analyze them. Mr. Spandier provided you with a range of reasons why this term is an appropriate one.

I concluded in that last review, as I do now, that while you are entitled to embrace a different narrative - the one you laid out in your complaint, that Western judgment does not pertain and that Assad is unfairly blamed - CBC is not obliged to do so.

You pointed out that Syria is a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations. Security Council Resolution 2139 calls for “an end to arbitrary detention, disappearance, and abductions, and the release of everyone who has been arbitrarily detained.” This is what a United Nations Security Council report had to say in March 2015:

The Commission’s investigations have reinforced that the main causes of civilian casualties are due to deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, attacks on protected objects - such as schools, hospitals and mosques - and the punitive imposition of sieges and blockades. The scale of government violations continues to outpace that of opposition and extremist groups with widespread reports of aerial bombardment, deaths, sexual violence and torture in government detention centres and extra-judicial killings, beatings and enforced disappearances.

Human Rights Watch had equally damning details to report:

Syrian security forces continue to detain people arbitrarily, regularly subjecting them to ill-treatment and torture, and often disappearing them using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout Syria. Many detainees were young men in their 20s or 30s; but children, women, and elderly people were also detained. In some instances, individuals reported that security forces detained their family members, including children, to pressure them to turn themselves in.

I should point out that in the two reports that night that reference the Syrian president, he is generally referred to either by his name or his title. This is not a process of demonizing, but rather one of providing context and using words carefully.

The origins of the fighting in Syria, the complex range of rebel groups and geopolitical interests was well beyond the scope of this programming. CBC's three platforms, over the last several years, have raised a variety of issues and opinions about Syria and the motivations and positions of various actors. I have spoken with CBC news staff who have been in and out of Syria throughout the fighting. They are well aware of the limitations of their access and the attempts of many players to control and manipulate the message. They have, over that time, done their best to be clear about the conditions imposed on them, and to seek out a variety of perspectives.

As for your concern about the tone of the discussion indicating that Assad was responsible for the civil war, I could find no evidence. Host Peter Mansbridge framed the discussion about the geopolitical impact of recent developments:

Well, now back to our top story: the gradual fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces and the resulting horror those who are fleeing the once beautiful, now destroyed Syrian city are facing. This is being seen as a victory, if that's even the right word, for Bashar al-Assad - one which may signal the beginning of the end of a civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions homeless. But the real winner here may be Russia and to a degree, Iran. Vladimir Putin from the beginning has sided with and heavily backed Assad, while the Americans and much of the West, including Canada, were calling on the Syrian dictator to step down. So what geopolitical impact will this have? And what does it say about the balance of power in a region that often seems on the verge of plunging the world into conflict?

The discussion centred on Russia’s growing influence due to its support of Assad. One panelist speculates that given the recent military gains he might not need to negotiate a settlement, but could prevail by force. Mr. Mansbridge solicited analysis. Viewers can take that information and form their own conclusions.

As I said at the outset, there was no violation of CBC policy.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman