Loaded language is fair game in an interview when both sides are presented, writes CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin.

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Lambros Kyriakakos, is acting chairperson of the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations. He thought that there were inaccuracies and a lack of fairness in an As It Happens interview with a spokesperson from the Eritrean embassy. The interview dealt with the Eritrean government’s practices around collecting a “diaspora tax” and the fact that the Canadian government had threatened to close down the consulate because of these practices. The government spokesperson was given a fair hearing and had the chance to answer all the allegations and respond to the interviewer’s characterization of the activity. There were no grounds for this complaint. 

COMPLAINT

On July 11, 2014, Rick MacInnes Rae, a guest host on As It Happens, interviewed Samuel Igbu, an official at the Eritrean consulate in Toronto. There is no Embassy in Canada, although the Embassy in Washington is also responsible for this country. The interview was prompted by a statement made two days before from John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was reacting to media reports, including those on CBC, that Eritrean citizens were being asked by consular officials to contact the Eritrean tax authority in Asmara, the capital, to pay a tax in order to receive certain consular services. The Minister said he had sent a “strong” message to the consulate that if these activities didn’t stop, he would close them down.


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There were a number of things you objected to in the interview. You questioned why As It Happens chose to talk to Mr. Igbu and not someone from your own organization, the Coalition of Eritrean Canadian Communities and Organizations (CECCO). You felt since your organization “represents the majority of Canadians of Eritrean origin who pay the 2% Diaspora tax”, you should have been interviewed. You thought that the interview lacked balance because no one who willingly pays the tax was represented.

You also challenged Mr. MacInnes-Rae’s characterization of the tax as “illegal.” You point out that based on Canada’s adoption into Canadian law, a 2009 UN resolution prohibiting making a financial contribution to military activity in Eritrea, but that does not mean the tax itself is illegal. Because Canada has not implemented a more recent UN resolution which you characterize as calling for “the end of using the tax to destabilize the horn of Africa and the end of tax collection though the use of threat and intimidation”, it is further proof that it is not illegal. Besides you said, the UN didn’t make it illegal either.

You also thought it was inappropriate to have characterized Eritrea as a “rogue state”:

“At no material time has the UN referred to Eritrea as a Rogue state. This is a term applied by the United States when addressing states considered threatening to the world’s peace. We ask that you provide us an explanation for the foregoing.”

You asked that As It Happens correct these “inaccuracies.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of As It Happens, Robin Smythe, responded to your concerns. She explained that since this story was about the threat of the Canadian government to close down “Eritrea’s only diplomatic office in Canada because of Asmara’s tax policy, it was logical to go directly to its government, as represented by the Toronto consulate.” She pointed out that Mr. Igbu was given “ample opportunity” to respond to Mr. Baird’s statement and to put forward his government’s position and characterization of the tax question.

She also disagreed that there were any inaccuracies in the segment. She explained the program producers had heavily researched the issue, and they, with Mr. MacInnes-Rae, felt the facts supported the characterization of the tax as “illegal.” She shared some of those findings with you, including a fact sheet on Canada-Eritrea relations on a Government of Canada website. She cited this relevant passage:

Persons in Canada who have dealings with Eritrea are encouraged to carefully consider the prohibition on the provision of financial assistance related to military activities contained in the Regulations Implementing the United Nations Resolution on Eritrea. This may be of particular relevance to Eritrean expatriates paying national taxes to Eritrea, as payments made in support of military and similar activities, whether called dues, contributions, donations or any other term, may be prohibited under Canadian sanctions.

She also told you that human rights lawyer David Matas, who represents Eritreans in Canada opposed to the tax also considers it illegal.

She explained the term rogue state was used to capture the description of various activities of the government in Asmara which arguably fall into that description. She based this on information in a report from a report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy deals with issues of balance, fairness, and impartiality. All of them are relevant here. Balance and fairness require seeking different perspectives, allowing an institution or individual the right to explain his position or perspective when faced with accusations of wrong doing or anti-social behavior. While you might like to defend the tax, and think it important that Eritreans that want to pay it are heard from, it was not relevant to the discussion at hand. Ms. Smythe is absolutely right when she says balance was achieved by interviewing the designated spokesman of the Government of Eritrea in Canada. 

To continue reading this column, please go to the CBC ombdusman'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.