Identifying Interviewees - how much background is enough.

The complainant, Marjaleena Repo, thought that important information about an interviewee was absent. An Iranian exile who has been supporting a movement of women protesting mandatory wearing of hijab is also an employee of VOA - Voice of America. That information should have been included, she said, as well as the fact that it is funded by the State Department. Her affiliation with VOA should have been mentioned. Providing background on VOA is not a policy requirement.

COMPLAINT

On January 31, 2018, The Current aired two interviews with Iranian women in exile about a protest movement in Iran led by women who reject having to wear a hijab. One of the interviews was with Shahrzad Mojab, who led an earlier protest at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and is now a professor at the University of Toronto. The other participant was Masih Alinejad, who programme host Anna Maria Tremonti introduced as the founder of a Facebook page which encourages women to post pictures of themselves unveiled, as well as a “former parliamentary reporter in Iran turned social activist.” You objected to this description because it omitted the fact that Ms. Alinejad is now employed by Voice of America:

At no time was it mentioned by Ms. Tremonti or by Ms. Alinejad that she is currently employed by the Voice of America (VOA), and has been so since 2013. The VOA is a US propaganda agency fully financed by the US State Department via its Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

It is brazenly irresponsible for The Current to mislead Canadians into believing that Ms. Alinejad is an independent Iranian activist, when she has been living in the west for ten years and in the US since 2014 as a full-time employee of the VOA…

You said The Current had to be “frank and professional...and not lend itself to regime change activities that the U.S. government is engaged in against the government of Iran.” You believe that the #WhiteWednesday movement, to protest the imposition of hijab created by Ms. Alinejad, is one such activity.

When the Executive Producer of The Current informed you, she agreed Ms. Alinejad’s affiliation should have been mentioned, and that it was added to the web page of this story. You were not satisfied because it did not include the information that Voice of America is funded by the State Department.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The acting Executive Producer of The Current, Lara O’Brien, responded to your concerns. As I mentioned, she agreed that there was an oversight to omit that Ms. Alinejad was host of VOA’s Persian TV programme, Tablet. She told you that information had been added to the story on The Current’s web page.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices says this about identifying interviewees:

We are open and straightforward when we present interviewees and their statements. We make every effort to disclose the identity of interviewees and to give the context and explanations necessary for the audience to judge the relevance and credibility of their statements

You were correct that it was a relevant piece of information to mention Masih Alinejad’s employer. The Current staff took the appropriate action when the information was added to the story online. Anyone now accessing the interview would have the appropriate information - that is a logical and appropriate remedy.

You thought it insufficient:

I have seen the addition to the story of Masih Alinejad on the Current's website, but it has a crucial element missing, namely that Voice of America, by whom Ms. Alinejad has been employed for at least five years, is fully financed by the US State Department. That information must also be included, and the Current needs to notify its listeners and website readers, in clear language and in no uncertain terms, that a serious omission was made in the interview. Saying anything less would allow the misinformation to continue that Ms. Alinejad was an independent agent, a brave activist, rather than an employee of a state hostile to the government of Iran.

CBC News’ employees have an obligation to provide the information necessary so that interested and concerned citizens can judge the value of what they are hearing. Telling listeners that the interviewee was employed by VOA is sufficient. Your suggestion that listeners be reminded of its funding source is reasonable, but its absence is not a violation of journalistic policy. The logical extension of your suggestion is that the funding of every organization an interviewee is associated with would have to be included. There are times it might be critical to the interview. You believe that Ms. Alinejad is motivated by her association with the State Department, and is doing the bidding of the U.S. government. That is your conclusion. Others might conclude she is working for VOA as a means to reach women who have started an authentic and locally-driven protest movement. Ms. Tremonti also described her as a social activist and the founder of a Facebook page supporting the protesting women. While you see it as inseparable, she is not carrying out these activities in her role as a VOA tv host. Providing individuals with her association gives them the information they need to form their own conclusions or to obtain further information about her activities.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman