Being held accountable

Although the Public Notice for a modification in the conditions for broadcast distributors to carry Al Jazeera was issued last Thursday, Financial Post’s story came out today.

Ten years ago, the CRTC set an unusual condition for any broadcast distributor that wanted to carry Al Jazeera:

  1. to retain and provide a clear and intelligible audio-visual recording of each Al Jazeera Arabic program distributed on its undertaking for a period of
    1. four weeks after the date of distribution of the program; or
    2. eight weeks after the date of distribution of the program, if the Commission receives a complaint about abusive comment from a person regarding the program or for any other reason wishes to investigate abusive programming and so notifies the licensee before the end of the period referred to in paragraph (i); and
  2. not to distribute, as part of the Al Jazeera Arabic programming service, any abusive comment or abusive pictorial representation that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.

The CRTC observed at the time “No licensee of a BDU is actually required to alter or curtail the Al Jazeera signal as a result of this notice.” However, it was clear that the Commission would hold the distributor accountable for violations of the conditions.

In its application filed by the Washington office, Al Jazeera has asked the CRTC to delete these conditions, claiming that “The intervenors’ concerns outlined in BPN 2004-51 have not materialized.”

The Al Jazeera application does not address an actual finding of fact by the CRTC “that there is sufficient credible evidence to establish that future Al Jazeera programming, taken in context, could include abusive comment that could be contrary to Canadian law and be inconsistent with the section 15 Charter value of equality that underlies Canadian broadcasting policy.”

The Commission also notes the submissions of a number of supporting parties that it is important to distinguish between the statements of Al Jazeera hosts and statements made by guests or viewers. In the view of these parties, if there was hate in some of the statements, it was hate that Al Jazeera “reported on” rather than expressed, condoned or adopted, and this distinction is meaningful. The Commission notes that relatively few of the statements included in the opposing submissions appear to have been made by employees of Al Jazeera, and that most occurred when Al Jazeera reported the controversial views of others or broadcast views provided by viewers or guests. However, the Commission also notes that the policy that it employs with its licensees, a policy most frequently used in terms of open line programming, is based on the principle that the licensee chooses its guests and the viewers or listeners calling in that it puts on the air. The licensee is therefore responsible for the statements made by such guests, viewers or listeners. Supporting parties also submitted that the reporting of news is vitally important to a free and democratic society. However, the Commission considers that there is a line between reporting on hate as news in newscasts or news coverage, as opposed to facilitating its expression or directly expressing, condoning or adopting it. In this case, it does not appear that any of the statements in the appendix were news reports.

In its new application, Al Jazeera points to the fact that its service is available in Israel. The application claims that Al Jazeera’s Arabic language service “has continued to expand its global reach without encountering any credible complaints relating to its journalistic principles or its news and information programming in the countries where it has been readily available.”

Of course, Al Jazeera must have forgotten the incident in 2008 that led the network to apologize to Israel for its coverage celebrating the release of a convicted terrorist who had murdered Israeli children, acknowledging the coverage had violated its own code of ethics.

In a 2011 article in American Journalism Review, Erik Nisbet, an Ohio State University professor who studies Arab media and anti-Americanism, is cited saying “anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of Al Jazeera’s Arabic reporting.”

We’ll see if Al Jazeera is able to successfully counter the CRTC’s earlier finding as a matter of fact.

Comments are due March 17.

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