Sometimes it is as important to say what is not known as what is, writes CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin.

 By Esther Enkin, CBC ombudsman

The complainant, Gregory Duffell, thought Nahlah Ayed completely missed the mark in her reporting on an incident in Ukraine. The story was about the distribution of an anti-Semitic leaflet outside a synagogue in Donetsk. He was concerned that she merely repeated the unproven allegation that a pro-Russian group was responsible. But she made clear that the allegation was unproved and quoted the group’s spokesman denying it. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You are generally unhappy with CBC News coverage of events in Ukraine, and this is one of two reviews I will be conducting based on your complaints. In this case you felt that a piece that ran on The National April 18 was biased. The story, reported by Nahlah Ayed, was about an anti-Semitic leaflet distributed at a synagogue in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The flyers had been delivered to the rabbi of the synagogue and some of his congregants as people were leaving the building following a Passover service. The leaflets demanded that all Jews 16 and over register with the authorities. The report stated that it was purportedly authored by a pro-Russian separatist group, a charge denied by its leader. Ms. Ayed reported those details and also provided an explanation about why this would be upsetting to the Jewish population with its echoes of Nazi activity in the Second World War.


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You were concerned that the piece lacked balance and that the reporter should have made a greater effort to verify who was behind the leaflets instead of reporting the allegations:

“The reasonable effect on an audience of this CBC report would be to vilify Ukrainian anti-government protesters, those that identify culturally and ethnically specifically with Russia, by heavily inferring a charge of collective antisemitism (sic) and racism on them in particular with virtually no proof whatsoever and without a proper or even handed investigation.”

You thought it would have been appropriate, after making reference to the fact that there were echoes of the Nazi treatment of Jews, to mention that it was “those in the western area that were more prone to be involved collaborating with the German Nazis.” You also thought it was critical to talk about the Right Sector, an alliance of far-right groups involved in the removal of the elected Ukrainian government because the anti-government protestors (those who support Russia) are strongly motivated by their fear of the power of this group. Since these protestors are “anti-fascist” they could not be supporting policies reminiscent of the Nazis.

You also feel that this anti-Semitic incident was promoted by United States Secretary of State John Kerry for his own purposes, and that Ms. Ayed should have pointed out this origin of the story to put it in context. You also said there is no justification to report conjecture about responsibility for this incident and that other scenarios, that the Right Sector is responsible, for example, are equally plausible:

“In my view, it would be as reasonable to conjecture that this leaflet could have as much been planted by the CIA, the "Right Sector" or the coup Ukrainian government itself to be used by John Kerry to rile the Jewish community in the United States and Canada and vilify the ‘enemy’ protestors. The timing of its disclosure, added with the western media’s abject refusal to discuss the very vocal neo-Nazi element in Ukraine’s ‘revolution’ over the past few months, is extremely suspicious. It should be the role of journalists to question what they are being drawn in to report in a responsible way.”

You also noted that Ms. Ayed reported the denial from Denis Pushilin, the leader of the group alleged to have delivered the leaflets, but that she did not interview him herself even though she was in the area. Overall, you thought she should have made a greater effort to get to the bottom of the story in an “even-handed” investigation.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He agreed that others, including the Right Sector could have been the authors of the flyers distributed at the synagogue. He explained that reporters do not “have the luxury of developing the kind of ‘proof’ you are looking for.” He said daily news reporting is the “first draft of history.” He thought it likely that either CBC or other reporters would eventually get to the bottom of the story. But as a story develops, he saw the purpose of reporting what is known, with its contradictory positions, as a way of letting people know what is going on and to make their own judgments. He explained the pro-Russian anti-government group were identified because their organization’s name appears on the leaflet. But the denial was also reported, and the story emphasized it was an alleged connection:

“In the report that followed, Ms. Ayed described how ‘three men in masks’ showed up outside the synagogue with dozens of fliers ‘which claim’, she said, ‘to be from one of Donetsk’s main pro-Russia groups’. She continued, ‘The group named in the leaflet and its leader deny any link or allegations of anti-Semitism’. She also included a clip of the local rabbi who told her ‘It looks like a provocation’, someone trying to ‘use’ the community. She concluded by saying that ‘Whatever the motive, they say they will not be intimidated’ and like many others, pray the discord ends quickly.”

He told you that CBC News would watch for developments in this part of the story and that reporters would continue to report on the role of the Right Sector in the ongoing story of the conflict in Ukraine.

REVIEW

There is a cliché that the first casualty of war is the truth. Certainly both sides in any conflict try to create a narrative that is favorable to its own cause. In the day and age of social media, it has never been easier to spread propaganda. Another recent example would be the intense propaganda battle in Syria, with both sides putting out a tremendous amount of misinformation. This conflict is no exception. Both sides have called each other fascists and levelled charges of anti-Semitism. In a region like Ukraine where there is a significant history of persecution of Jews, it would have a particular resonance.

The purpose of journalism is to try and make sense of the information and accusations made by each side. 

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.