You have to strike a balance between adequate information and perspectives to provide well-rounded coverage against the complainant’s desire to have very detailed accounts, and often a partisan spin, on quite narrowly focused news stories, writes the CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin. 

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

Lambros Kyriakakos, the Acting Chair of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations, complained about bias and selective use of facts in a story noting that the city of Toronto sent Independence Day greetings to Eritrea even though the Canadian government’s relations with the country are strained. The last several reviews I have conducted deal with the balance between adequate information and perspectives to provide balanced coverage against the complainant’s desire to have very detailed accounts, and often a partisan spin, on quite narrowly focused news stories. That was the case here, but in this case, even the narrowly focused account failed to provide any official Eritrean perspective. 

COMPLAINT 

You are the acting chair of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations. In that capacity, you wrote to complain about a CBCNews.ca article, entitled “Despite sanctions, Deputy Mayor celebrates conflict-prone state of Eritrea.” The article noted that Toronto’s deputy mayor, Norm Kelly, had sent a letter to the consulate of Eritrea, located in Toronto, to congratulate that country on its independence day, May 24. It contrasts the sending of the letter with the “strained” relations between the two countries.


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You took issue with many aspects of this report. You thought it was full of inaccuracies, was selective in the facts it presented, lacked context, and “unnecessarily creates controversy around Mr. Kelly’s protocol letter.” You took issue with this negative portrayal of relations between Canada and Eritrea. You said, “We are disappointed and dismayed that while your national writing staff had readily available facts to help write an accurate and balanced story, they chose not to seek them out.”

You point to many examples of this distortion. The article states that Canada’s ambassador is not in the country, but operates from Khartoum. You think this creates a false impression because Canada has never had an embassy in Eritrea, and this is not the only country where this is the case. For various reasons, Canadian ambassadors serve countries where they are not resident. You also take issue with the fact that there was no mention that Canada maintains a consulate in the Eritrean city of Asmara.

You note that the Eritrean consul in Toronto is referred to as the “head of consular services at the Eritrean embassy in Canada” which is clearly not the case because there is no embassy. You also stated that Ahmed Iman, the Eritrean consul, did not make a statement attributed to him in the article.

You said that while the article mentioned that Eritrea has limited relations with other countries, this was not balanced by the fact that many other world leaders also sent messages of congratulation on Independence Day. Similarly, while the article mentioned that Canada does not provide humanitarian aid to the county, it did not provide balance by mentioning the official policy of the Eritrean government is one of self-reliance. And you felt that there also should have been mention that the number of visas granted to travel to Eritrea is increasing as a balance to the statement that the Government of Canada “urges Canadians not to go to Eritrea.”

And, finally, you took issue with the “partial and imbalanced chronology” of significant events since Eritrean independence. You felt the article blamed Eritrea for clashes with neighbouring countries when it stated: “Eritrea has a violent recent history with its neighbouring countries, with battles against Yemen and Ethiopia.”

The issue is more complex, and you cite a report from the International Crisis Group that states the international community should have done more to pressure Ethiopia to implement a recommendation from the International Boundary Commission to hand some disputed territory to Eritrea. This particularly concerns you because you think “This fact is important because Eritrea’s foreign policy is largely affected by the resulting perception that Canada and its international partners are behind Ethiopia, no matter what it does.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of news for Toronto, Cathy Perry, responded to your concerns. She explained that the article had a limited scope and could not address the intricacies and background on Eritrea you see as critical to bring balance to the piece. She told you that there was a “limited nature and purpose to the story.” She added that it compared the congratulatory independence message sent by Toronto Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly with the Canadian Government’s on-the-record concerns over the “governance of the country.” It did not get into history or causes but narrowly focused on the current state of government relations between the two countries. She pointed out that the original story had a quote from the consul stating that Eritreans were determined to resist “external conspiracies.” She felt this addressed some of the negative information cited in the story.

She addressed all the points you raised: She acknowledged that the quote about “external conspiracies could not be directly attributed to the consul.” The writer had read the phrase in an account of Independence Day observance in Toronto on an Eritrea Ministry of Information web site. Since the consul, Mr. Iman, had spoken at the event, the writer made the inference. When you wrote to say it had not been in his speech, the story was amended and that phrase was taken out. She also informed you the writer had tried for two days to reach the consul, but was not able to speak to him. She also acknowledged the “inadvertent” error of referring to the consulate as an embassy.

She told you that there was no bias in stating that the Canadian Ambassador to Eritrea lives in Khartoum because that is simply the fact. She pointed out that the story next states that the Eritrean Ambassador to Canada actually resides in Washington, and that these statements justify the conclusion: “Relations between the two countries are strained.”

Ms. Perry told you that the point you raised about the increased trade between Canadian and Eritrean firms was beyond the scope of the article, as was the need to mention that other countries and notable world leaders sent Independence Day greetings, since the focus was a comparison of Toronto and Canada’s positions.

She also said that the article accurately reflects the position of the Government of Canada regarding humanitarian aid and its position to discourage Canadians from travelling to Eritrea. On the question of aid she quoted from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade website which states:

“Canada has not provided any humanitarian funding for Eritrea since 2005, when the World Food Programme was forced to redirect Canadian funding to regional programming following Government of Eritrea interference in its monitoring process.”

She responded to your concern about the selective use of facts in the chronology of events in Eritrea by explaining it focused on those areas that highlighted the divergence between Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly’s letter and the way in which it “contradicted foreign policy.” It was not meant to “give a comprehensive history of Eritrea.”

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has accuracy, balance and fairness at the core of its values and guidelines. There were two errors of fact in the original article, which is a violation of policy. However, when news staff became aware of the errors, the article was amended and the change noted. It was a lapse in judgement to directly attribute a quote to someone without knowing for certain he said it. The second error, the reference to the consulate as an embassy, was certainly a minor one.

Your larger concerns with this article center on its balance and fairness. 

To continue reading this review, please go the CBC ombudsman's website where this was originally published.


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.