The Atwal Effect - Coverage of the Sikh community.

The complainant, Baj Singh, was disturbed by an Analysis piece about the various difficulties Canadian political parties have had with elements of the Sikh nationalist community. He thought it was full of inaccuracies and omissions, and thereby biased. He was concerned it perpetuated a myth of a violent community in Canada. I did not agree with his concerns.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about an article published in March in the wake of the revelation and political fallout that Justin Trudeau met with Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister here in Canada. You said there were “6 glaring factual errors and omissions” in the article and follow-up News Network interview. Your overall concern was that the coverage implied an imminent threat in the Sikh community and that this followed a continued pattern of painting the Canadian Sikh community as violent and dangerous.

The article, by Terry Milewski, was entitled It’s the Atwal effect - and nobody’s immune was an analysis piece in the wake of the Atwal incident. It looked at the interplay between the three principle Canadian political parties and their encounters with proponents of Sikh nationalism, and pointed out that all three parties have had some political problems stemming from this small group. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had visited India at the end of February of this year. When it was revealed that a convicted attempted murderer had been invited to a dinner and had attended a reception in Mumbai, it caused controversy both in Canada and internationally. In the wake of this incident the Conservative Party proposed a motion that would have stated that the party valued the contributions of Canadian Sikhs and other Canadians of Indian origin, but “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms all forms of terrorism, including Khalistani extremism and the glorification of any individuals who have committed acts of violence to advance the cause of an independent Khalistan state in India.” Mr. Milewski noted that the motion was withdrawn and attributed that fact to the work of the “separatist lobby led by the World Sikh Organization,” which he said they interpreted as an attack on all Sikhs, not just violent ones.

Your first objection centred around this statement. You said Mr. Milewski was labelling every person who wrote in against the motion as separatist:

The concern mainly stemmed from the many Canadian Sikhs concerned with the revival of fictitious allegations that members of the Sikh community continue to support a violent struggle for a separate Sikh state in India. In past decades, every attempt by the Indian media and government to give credence to this narrative has been proven false.

You asked for proof of a separatist lobby and you rejected the characterization of the World Sikh Organization as separatist:

The WSO’s mission statements do not have any statements concerning a separatist agenda. It is unclear why the CBC continues to propagate this myth.

Second, you objected to Mr. Milewski’s explanation that the Conservative motion’s mention of glorification of individuals who have committed acts of violence refers to the fact that some Sikh temples display posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, named by the Air India inquiry as one of the perpetrators. You rejected his assertion that the hanging of the photos is “glorifying the bomber.” You said he should have stated that those who hang the picture do not believe that Mr. Parmar was guilty:

Glorification of a bomber and believing someone is innocent are two very different thing, and a distinction that is very noteworthy when communicating to the public who may not follow the issue regularly. Why not explore the issue concerning Parmer’s alleged innocence with the small number of Sikhs who hold this belief rather than tell the Canadian public that members of the Sikh community continue to venerate the bomber?

Your third and fourth concerns were in regard to references to Jaspal Atwal. In the online article you said there was no reference to Mr. Atwal’s removal from an Indian government blacklist and the fact that he had obtained visas and made more than one trip back to India.

During the News Network interview, you acknowledged that Mr. Milewski did make mention of the removal from the blacklist but he mischaracterized the time frame. You stated he said Mr. Atwal had been removed “a very long time ago” without providing a date - which was, in fact, more recent - in 2017.

The WSO’s mission statements do not have any statements concerning a separatist agenda. It is unclear why the CBC continues to propagate this myth.

Lastly you thought CBC was in violation of its own policies on fair and balanced reporting because Mr. Milewski has published more than 20 articles about Sikhs and none of them mention the persecution by the Indian government, the impact of the Indian government attacking the seat of Sikh religion, the Harmandir Sahib temple complex in Amritsar in 1984, or the role the Indian government intelligence agencies have played in manipulating Canadian Sikhs. You are concerned that this paints a false impression of a community, implying it is violent and dangerous, and leaving it vulnerable to discrimination and attack.

After you got a response you sent a more detailed explanation of each of the points you raised, and it is available here.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your complaint. He pointed out that the article was labelled “Analysis” and followed events in India during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s trip there. He said Mr. Milewski’s analysis was designed to provide background and information “to help readers understand the significance of the event.” The point of the published piece and the interview was to point out that other political parties had also had difficulties when dealing with issues pertaining to Sikh nationalism. He responded to your objection to the example used - that of the proposed, and then withdrawn - Conservative Party motion to condemn Sikh terrorism. He noted that the Conservative motion first said that the party “values the contribution of Canadian Sikhs” but then goes on to condemn all forms of terrorism, including Khalistani extremism. He did not agree that Mr. Milewski characterized the majority of those who objected to the proposed motion as separatists:

The Conservative motion was intended to trap the Liberals. It condemned terrorism, including “Khalistani extremism and the glorification of any individuals who have committed acts of violence”. Presumably, the reference here is to Talwinder Singh Parmar, the architect of the 1985 Air India bombing, whose portrait adorns some Sikh temples.

Here’s what Mr. Milewski wrote, “As soon as they got wind of it, the separatist lobby, led by the World Sikh Organization, peppered Ottawa with complaints that this was an attack on all Sikhs, not just violent ones”. He included a message from the WSO urging Sikhs to write or phone the Conservative leader about the motion.

Mr. Milewski did not say that the “vast majority” of messages came from separatists. What he said was that the “separatist lobby led by the WSO” urged its members to write to the Conservative leader and included the text of the WSO message. There is every reason to believe they did.

I think you will find that the most high-profile act of Sikh separatist violence is referenced throughout the story: The bombing of Air India flight 182 killing 329 men, women and children remains Canada’s deadliest mass murder. And perhaps the most apposite reference is to the man whose name appears in the headline above the story. Jaspal Atwal who was convicted of plotting to assassinate a visiting Indian cabinet minister in the name of Sikh separatism.

He responded to your second point concerning the references to Talwinder Singh Parmar and how to characterize the fact that his poster hangs in some Sikh temples. He pointed out that it is a documented fact that he is honored in some temples and that his role in planning the Air India bombing was “accepted as fact” by the Air India inquiry and that his role was confirmed in the testimony of the person convicted of making the bomb. He added that the fact some members of a B.C. temple disagree with those conclusions was beyond the scope of this article.

He observed that the focus of the analysis was the “seemingly troublesome relationship” the three major political parties have had at different times with Sikh separatists. The incident with Jaspal Atwal was just the latest one. The details regarding the fact he had been removed from an Indian government blacklist were not germane to the story. He noted that CBC News reported on the incident in greater detail. He explained why Mr. Milewski made reference to the fact that Mr. Atwal had been taken off the list long ago, although you say it was 2017. While there were reports that he was removed from the list in that year, Mr. Atwal had already been in India several times before the February trip and had been engaging with the Indian government for at least three years.

To your assertion that the WSO’s mission statement says nothing about a “separatist agenda”, he replied that he “understood” that separatism is still a part of the organization’s constitution or charter.

He told you while he did not agree with your assessment that CBC has been consistently unfair and unbalanced in its representation of the Sikh community, he took “your critique to heart” and would share it with the senior journalistic leaders so they would be aware of how the coverage is perceived. He told you that he thought that over time stories provided a range of views and information.

REVIEW

There is always the concern that even with the use of careful language a whole community will bear the stigma of a few. Journalists are required to weigh the public interest in their reporting, and to assess whether there is a potential to cause harm and to mitigate that potential as much as possible. While you read the article and heard the interview as implying imminent danger, I do not agree. All of this was placed in a political context. The point of the piece was that it was not just the Liberals who had difficulty navigating a relationship involving Sikh nationalists. The television interview also began by framing the discussion as the ongoing political fallout from the Prime Minister’s trip. The first questions are about the Liberal explanation for Atwal’s presence. The online article begins:

The tsunami is spreading far from the epicentre of the Jaspal Atwal earthquake. And it doesn't discriminate between political parties.

The Liberals, of course, have been the ones swept farthest out to sea. A week after Atwal — a former wannabe hitman for the Sikh separatist cause — was summoned to dine with Justin Trudeau in India, the prime minister and his national security adviser were neck-deep and clinging to a conspiracy theory.

It was an Indian plot, they said, meant to make us look soft on separatism. So far, the theory isn't selling well.

But are the Conservatives and the NDP still high and dry? Not exactly. Take the case of the Conservatives first.

The proposed Conservative motion began with an appreciation of the contributions of Sikh Canadians that highlighted the fact that this was not about a whole community. Ms. Fatah was clear to delineate that she was talking about the “issue of Sikh nationalism, when it’s manifested in a violent way.” In his response, Mr. Milewski stated that each political party has, at some time, tried to court or work with the separatist wing of the community.

CBC Journalistic policy states that journalists are given latitude to provide analysis and interpretation, or professional judgement, based on “facts and expertise.” In this analysis and in the interview that is what Mr. Milewski did. Another significant part of your complaint dealt with the characterization of the World Sikh Organization and the motivation of those who wrote to condemn the proposed Conservative party motion. They were not all separatists, you stated. I have no doubt that people had different reasons for answering the call for a write-in campaign. It is the WSO lobby that Mr. Milewski refers to as separatist, not Sikhs in general - or even the ones who responded. I agree with you that the WSO does not mention separatism in its mission statement. However, in its Constitution it does make reference to support for separatism. The page with that document was taken down from the website some years ago. The WSO might very well participate in a range of activities that have nothing to do with separatism as you observe, but one does not negate an association or support for independence. Similarly, you propose an alternate way to understand the reason some temples feature a display of Talwinder Singh Parmar. You pointed out they believe he is innocent. A journalist must weigh a variety of factors when considering the value of bringing facts or observations into the discussion. First, no one piece can provide all information - that is why there is a provision for balance and fairness over time. Second, he or she must also weigh the relevance or validity of the alternative view. The fact that some reject the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Air India bombing, as well as testimony given in a Canadian court that he was the leader, does not alter the fact that he is admired and presented positively. This article was an overview of some of the difficulties Canadian political parties have had in their interactions with some segments of the Sikh community. In that context, to have provided that amount of detail and background would not be possible or realistic. That is generally true of the article and interview as a whole; the frame and context of this story was political fallout. The story does link to more detailed examinations of the whole controversy surrounding the Prime Minister’s trip to India and Atwal’s presence there. Those articles give more information about Mr. Atwal as well as the controversy surrounding the early explanation that this might have been a set-up orchestrated by “rogue” elements in the Indian government. CBC News also continued to follow the story as it developed.

You also questioned Mr. Milewski’s statement that Jaspal Atwal had “long ago” been removed from a no-fly list. You said that occurred in 2017 and that was not long ago. Mr. Milewski’s answer was in the context of a question about the theory floated by the Liberals that Atwal was present as a set-up, perpetrated by rogue elements of the Indian government to derail the visit to India:

The second problem with the Indian plot theory is that it hangs, to a large degree, upon the idea … well why would the Indians have given him a Visa, why was he even allowed into India. Well, the fact of the matter is, and it’s very well known, that the Indian blacklist of people not to be given visas, ever, to go to India, was cut way back, long ago, starting under the previous Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and continuing under the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and that Atwal had been to India several times before. So you can credit the Indian Security Services for many things but I don’t think they’re clairvoyant. I don’t think they took Atwal off the list long ago in the anticipation that this might become a possibility. I don’t get it at all.

Mr. Milewski gives a time frame which goes back several years. There is no certainty about a precise date. Mr. Atwal, in his own statement to the public made after this interview, said “I have visited India numerous times since my release from custody, most recently in 2017 and 2018.” It would appear that he had, as Mr. Milewski explained, been travelling earlier. While accuracy is important, the point being made had to do with a Canadian government position. There is nothing in the tone of the article or the interview that implies imminent danger in Canada, nor does it label an entire community.

One story with a political focus cannot do justice to a complex and multifaceted story. Again, that is why there is an expectation that balance and fairness are achieved over time. A brief look at CBC archives yields stories that reflect a broader and more textured look at the Canadian Sikh community. A story out of Edmonton features the growing community there. Another looks at tensions within the community in Windsor, which indicates an understanding that no community is monolithic. There is also coverage of the campaign sponsored by the WSO which you cited, “#AskCanadianSikhs”, designed to dispel stereotypes and educate the broader community.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman