The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is claiming a significant victory in its long-running dispute with Radio-Canada over its Middle East coverage.
The advocacy group hails new guidelines to journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the French-language broadcaster issued by Montreal bureau chief Michel Cormier.
The guidelines are aimed at ensuring balance and objectivity.
“Our role is to report the facts and present the context in which they happen, regardless of the emotion that the subject can give rise to,” the guidelines state.
Since 2007 CIJA has filed numerous complaints with Radio-Canada over what it views as reporting that is inaccurate or biased against Israel. The coverage of the deadly wave in terrorism by Palestinians over the past two months has prompted a series of objections from CIJA to the network’s ombudsman, Pierre Tourangeau.
Cormier says that the conflict is “often controversial and always delicate,” and cautions journalists that coverage is “scrutinized under a magnifying glass by certain interest groups for the least error of fact or interpretation.”
Cormier notes the many complaints the ombudsman has received on this subject over the years, and though only a “tiny minority” have been upheld by the ombudsman, “nevertheless, we can and must take all appropriate measures to reduce the number.”
Cormier is a veteran Radio-Canada and CBC journalist who served as foreign correspondent in Beijing, Moscow and Paris. He assumed his present post in 2012.
He acknowledges that determining the facts is especially difficult in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because even within the parties there is disagreement on what they are. Therefore, he counsels that journalists take the time to “attribute each fact and its interpretation to the group that defends it.”
They should also bear in mind the conflict’s long history, with its periods of discord and relative calm, he said, and the current geopolitical reality.
“The more we remember the historic context of the events that we cover the more we give our public points of reference to better understand the sense.”
He counsels against “synthesizing” a single Palestinian and a single Israeli position in an attempt to make a complex situation more comprehensible, as a wide diversity exists among each people.
Digital media offers a way of providing more background to news stories, he suggests.
However, Cormier advises “the greatest discretion” in the use of social media. “It takes one comment to damage the credibility of our whole coverage.”
The guidelines also address the selection and identification of in-studio guests. Cormier cites the case of Rachid Antonius, a Université du Québec à Montréal sociology professor and frequent commentator on the Middle East in the media – the subject of one of CIJA’s more recent complaints.
Cormier says he does not share the opinion that Antonius is not qualified to speak on the subject, but the host or journalist should situate his and other guests’ interest in the debate.
Harder to correct is the “tone” of coverage, which CIJA has cited, specifically an “aggressive tone” used in interviews by two hosts with the Israeli Consul General on the Israeli military operation in Gaza in 2014, which resulted in hundreds of mainly civilian deaths.
“Even if the complaints against our two hosts were not upheld [by the ombudsman], it is important to show restraint in this type of situation. That does not mean showing indifference to the victims of a drama. But it is not up to we journalists, to get indignant about a situation, as terrible as it is…
“Our audience will decide the emotion that they feel toward a situation. We are not to suggest theirs by our own.”
David Ouellette, CIJA Quebec’s associate public affairs director, hailed the establishing of the guidelines as “huge” and, by implication, “really damning.
“Radio-Canada has systematically failed to uphold its own journalistic norms. It is clear in our minds they have not been doing their job thoroughly. They are acknowledging a systemic problem in reporting on Israel,” he said.
In CIJA’s opinion, Radio-Canada journalists have shown a “clear bias” against Israel. Among young reporters, Ouellette attributes much of that to “ignorance.” More worrisome is the network’s high-profile seasoned journalists who “wear their bias on their sleeves.”
In his most recent review of a CIJA complaint, issued Nov. 26, Tourangeau found no fault on the part of journalist François Brousseau in his analyses of the violence in Jerusalem on the program Midi Info on ICI Radio-Canada Première on Oct. 5 and 9.
Tourangeau concludes that Brousseau publicly acknowledged and corrected the inaccuracies.
In a Nov. 18 review, the ombudsman sided with CIJA in its complaint about the inaccuracy of a report on the ICI RDI program Téléjournal on Sept. 30, also about tensions in Jerusalem. Ouellette pointed out that it was “completely false” that Palestinians, unlike Jews, are not allowed to pray at the Temple Mount.
The ombudsman agreed that the error and the failure to correct it immediately contravene Radio-Canada’s Normes et pratiques journalistiques.