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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

January 04, 2003

Canada's CBC gets a dressing down in spades

Norman Spector, Canada's former ambassador to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, served as chief of staff to Brian Mulroney calls on Tony Burman of CBC to account for CBC's media bias and distortions, especially, CBC's unwillingness to use the term "Terrorist" to describe a person blowing up babies and women and children in suicide attacks or drive by shootings.

I am writing in reply to your letter of Dec. 24, concerning the CBC's Mideast coverage. Many Canadians are still struggling to comprehend how Chief David Ahenakew could have spoken approvingly of Hitler and the Holocaust. Their understanding has not been helped by the media, who've largely failed to explain the context -- a speech in which he had just blamed Jews for the Second World War and, by "killing Arabs," an eventual third one.

I believe your Mideast coverage encourages demented views such as these. I understand this is a serious charge, and am prepared to debate in a mutually agreed forum if you disagree.

Let me be specific. Our government's decision to name Hezbollah a "terrorist" organization was inevitable, once the UN certified Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon was "complete," and the United States added them to its "A-team." Yet, your reporter claims it was an "intensely political decision" because these pioneers of suicide attacks can be viewed as a "national liberation movement." Another -- apparently infected with the same conspiracy virus as Ahenakew -- referred darkly to a "Jewish lobby" using "pressure tactics" (a press conference and a lawsuit, standard fare in Ottawa). Shame on the CBC.

Shame on you, personally, for resorting to similarly crude stereotypes to dismiss critics. In newspapers available daily in Toronto, you'll find articles by Jews who share your view of the Mideast conflict, and by non-Jews who believe you are hopeless apologists for the Palestinians. Relying on the CBC ombudsman to certify your coverage is akin to Jean Chretien citing Howard Wilson to defend his Shawinigan shenanigans.

By 2001, even beat reporters drawing paycheques from the public broadcaster began ridiculing that position. Having observed PMO-CBC relations from a front-row seat, I appreciate these reporters must sometimes walk on eggshells -- especially with nothing but perpetual Liberal government on the horizon.

How empowering it must be for a journalist to be far away from the powerful people who today vote your budget and tomorrow might offer you a job. Freed from incessant demands for fairness, free to pursue a political agenda other than the government's.

The CBC's consistently negative presentation of Israel -- a country where minefields are not just a bureaucratic problem, and that has its few good points along with the bad -- is, in part, a consequence of sending reporters who lack Hebrew.

Even a senior reporter like Neil Macdonald, in my experience though understandably not yours, normally lags behind news freely available on radio and the Internet. And, the linguistic gap perhaps explains why -- despite the expense of maintaining a foreign bureau -- he rarely reports on Israel's medical, cultural, scientific and technological achievements.

Your correspondent deserves praise, on the other hand, for studying Arabic, which is not easy to acquire. It's curious, therefore, that Macdonald has not reported more frequently from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- in carrying out his self-described mandate of "holding what's going on up to the mirror of Canadian values." Nor have we heard much about Syria's de facto occupation of Lebanon.

The toxicity of this double standard on democracy and human rights is compounded by the frequent omission of context from his reports. Recently, Macdonald presented a Hamas spokesperson who vowed to continue attacks "as long as there is occupation." Believe me, and despite how it may look to you and other senior managers in Toronto, this guy is no Nelson Mandela. The New York Times routinely explains hat "occupation" means elimination of the Jewish state; had your correspondent done likewise, and noted the widespread public support beyond Hamas for "liberating all of Palestine," Ahenakew would understand why Israel s "killing Arabs."

The CBC's sins of commission are also noxious in minds of this ilk, judging from the volume of e-mails I receive that refer to "Judeo-Nazis," the "Israeli SS" perpetrating a Holocaust and Ariel Sharon -- of whom I'm no fan -- as another Hitler.

Describing a recent shooting of Israelis, for example, Macdonald appropriately notes the long history of violence in Hebron; in an aside, he mentions the horrific 1994 murder of 29 Arabs by Dr. Baruch Goldstein. He could also have reasonably alluded to the brutal slaughter of Jews in 1921, 1929 and 1936 by determined opponents of the establishment of any Jewish state, of whatever size.

But these enormities don't fit CBC's prejudices -- of Jews as "settlers" having no business being in Hebron, and of the conflict being about "armed Palestinians battling the Israeli occupation." It would also suggest that, while an independent state is necessary for peace, it might not be sufficient -- as President Bill Clinton learned at Camp David.

Still, and though it is a criminal offence under anti-terror laws for anyone to assist Hamas (punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment), you argue that viewers should be allowed to make up their own minds. We're talking about blowing up teenagers at discos, mind you -- "crimes against humanity," according to Human Rights Watch. Presumably your open-mindedness extends to young viewers -- potential recruits like Omar Khadr or a Canadian John Walker Lindh. Fortunately, that's not CBC's approach to rape, armed robbery and other lesser crimes -- or even toward legal, though harmful substances like tobacco.

Aside from being irresponsible and amoral, your failure to call Hamas a terrorist organization betrays another double standard. When the blood on the sidewalk is Israeli it's one thing, when American it's another. It was an error, you say, for the CBC initially to call the Sept. 11 attacks "terrorism." A fortuitous error, I'd say, considering the likely reaction at the border had you referred to al-Qaeda as a "national liberation movement."

Yet, I'll withdraw the allegation, as you demand, if you'll provide examples where David Halton spouts that Orwellian line, even now after emotions have cooled. Nor do viewers find him regularly challenging from Washington the appropriateness of calling the 9/11 Saudi hijackers "terrorists" -- as you regularly do regarding their Hamas brethren. As journalists, you should be ashamed for covering up their ideological kinship by censoring bin Laden's messages.

Ironically, it's in the name of professional standards that you reject the word "terrorism." You insist the CBC must not adopt the terminology of either side. Say what? We must be watching different channels, if not in different languages. Because, while I sometimes agree with your terminological choices, it's clear that the CBC, like the Tower of Pisa, always leans in one direction.

Your reporters do not leave viewers to decide whether curfews are self-defence measures; they unambiguously refer to "collective punishment," the Palestinian term and a crime under the Geneva conventions. You call Israel's targeted killings, though not the recent U.S. one in Yemen, "assassinations" -- a word used by Palestinian spokespersons but not normally conferred by CBC on any mass murderers, other than, it appears, those who send bombers to blow up babies in Jerusalem pizzerias. Your correspondents refer to the "occupation" and to the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied Palestinian land," not as disputed territory. And they call Israeli communities "settlements" and their residents "settlers."

Interestingly, you never mention that even these Israelis -- as do Palestinians -- have a stronger claim than my neighbours who've settled on aboriginal lands in British Columbia. Fortunately, your reporters don't bring home the thinly veiled code they use to "explain" why Israeli school-kids are blown up by Hamas "militants" -- which is what your reporters in Montreal normally call political party activists, not murderers.

No wonder some viewers may be wondering why Israel is killing Arabs. Unless they've read a recent report by Human Rights Watch that appears to have escaped Macdonald's attention. It states unambiguously that nothing -- not settlements, not occupation -- justifies Hamas's "crimes against humanity." They've also concluded that Yasser Arafat is "politically responsible," and I'm still waiting for a Newsworld program to balance last year's one-hour indictment of Ariel Sharon as a war criminal.

I also challenge you to produce in writing the longstanding "policy" you claim to be implementing. Even your less-than-independent ombudsman says, "There is nothing in CBC's journalism policy that prevents the public broadcaster's journalists from calling a spade a spade or a terror attack a terror attack."

Innocent Canadians were incinerated in the Twin Towers and in Bali. Today -- young and old, at home and abroad -- we are all considered legitimate targets by al-Qaeda. In my book that's terrorism, and I'm frankly appalled that the guy calling the shots at Canada's national broadcasting service believes it's an error to call these murderers what they are.

Its as bad as he says it is.