Canadian Media: Government 'Watchdog' or 'Lapdog'?
By Mariam Sheibani
The difference between accurate and objective reporting and inaccurate and biased reporting is essentially the difference between informing the public and misleading the public. Accurate, objective, investigative and independent news media is our country's best defence against corruption and (the) abuse of power." 1
Maher Arar's name is well-known to most Canadians – the story of his rendition by the United States, his torture in Syria, the O'Connor Inquiry that exonerated him, and, of course, the government's apology and compensation. However, little attention has been paid to the role that the media played in Arar's case. Few journalists have been as brave as Haroon Siddiqui, the Toronto Star journalist who professed: "media credibility was no less tattered by these episodes than that of the security establishment."2
While the press has intensely criticized the government and its security agencies for the mistakes made in handling Maher Arar's case, the media were no less a guilty party in destroying his life. In our increasingly complex world, we put our trust in what we assume to be a competent and unbiased press for our knowledge, and understanding, of current events, and to inform us of our government's actions, plans and mistakes. Democracy involves more than elected officials – it depends, crucially, on a vibrant public sphere in which public opinion can be formed on the basis of debate and deliberation by a critical and informed citizenry. This requires that information received from the media be as complete and accurate as possible if concerned citizens are to hold public officials – elected and otherwise – accountable. For these reasons, a vigilant and independent media is necessary to serve as the government's 'watchdog,' not its obsequious 'lapdog.' Sadly, by recurrently printing and broadcasting untested information provided by officials who always spoke on condition of anonymity, the media resembled the latter more than the former in their coverage of Maher Arar's troubling story. The Canadian media stand to learn from this experience, in order to ensure that more innocent lives are not ruined, and that genuine democracy is kept within the possibilities of our day.
Few would contest that in national security investigations, such as the Arar Inquiry, a delicate balance must be struck between national security needs and the public's right to know. The irony in Arar's case is that while the government vehemently refused to disclose information on the basis of national security confidentiality, public officials routinely divulged selective fragments of 'classified' information to reporters. Leaking confidential information – much of which was highly prejudicial and erroneous – is not only against the law, but it is also a serious breach of the public trust. In his report, Justice O'Connor described several of these leaks as "inaccurate, unsupported by the information available from the investigations and grossly unfair to Mr. Arar."3
The first leaks began to appear while Arar was still in detention. In November 2002, Canadian Press journalist Stephen Thorne quoted an official source that linked Arar to "a suspected member of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network." The reference was to Abdullah Almalki, who we now know, thanks to the Iacobucci Inquiry, is also innocent of all such allegations. Looking back, Thorne realizes that he was being used to smear the men – "I don't want to leave the impression that I take what I can get. Obviously, we try to get the truth... (b)ut now, believing that they are innocent... I have no doubt I was used. We (the press) are used all the time. That's Ottawa. Everybody uses everybody."4
Many of the leaks were strategically timed to detract from increasing media and public scrutiny about the potential complicity of Canadian agencies in Arar's detention and torture. For instance, soon after then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien declared that he would intervene to bring Arar home from Syria, Robert Fife, CanWest's Ottawa bureau chief, ran a story on the front pages of several newspapers that cited an anonymous official who described Arar as a 'very bad guy' who had received training at an al-Qaeda base. Fife also noted that intelligence received from Syria had helped the CIA avert an attack on the American Embassy in Ottawa.5 Justice O'Connor noted that "the apparent purpose behind this leak is not attractive: to attempt to influence public opinion against Mr. Arar at a time when his release from imprisonment in Syria was being sought by the Government of Canada, including the Prime Minister."6 In other words, whoever was leaking falsehoods was purposely impairing efforts to secure Arar's release, and also unnecessarily increasing public anxiety about terrorist threats in Canada.
Within days of Arar's return to Canada on October 5th, 2003, the leaks intensified, this time with the purpose of downplaying the seriousness of what he endured in Syria and to further undermine his reputation. In October 2003, Canadian government officials falsely stated that Arar had said he was not physically tortured, and proffered incriminating information that officials claimed Arar had confessed to.7 Unnamed officials also told Craig Oliver at CTV news that Arar was only released because he had given information to the Syrians about al-Qaeda and about other Canadians suspected of terrorism activities.8 Oliver later explained that he felt the story was credible because his sources were senior officials in two different government departments. Nonetheless, years after the Arar Inquiry's report, he apologized to Arar in person for running the story. He also told him of an offer he had turned down – a photograph of Arar training in a camp in Afghanistan. As he describes: "the source wanted me to use the information without showing me the photograph. That was a very solid source…. This experience has made me more skeptical…. I knew these people very well."9
The portrait painted of Arar in the media severely damaged his reputation and affected his psychological well-being and that of his family. A month after his return, Arar had all that he could handle. On November 4th, 2003, he held a nationally televised news conference in Ottawa. It received massive coverage, which, for the first time, was overwhelmingly sympathetic, and, along with the Commons Committee on Fo eign Affairs, championed the demand for the inquiry.
All too predictably, only days after the press conference, the worst confidentiality breach was orchestrated to fend off calls for a public inquiry by discrediting Arar. On November 8th, 2004, the Ottawa Citizen's Juliet O'Neill, ran a story headlined "Canada's dossier on Maher Arar: The existence of a group of Ottawa men with alleged ties to al-Qaeda is at the root of why the government opposes an inquiry into the case."10 While the past leaks had been informal, O'Neill was handed a file containing official government documents, which included Arar's 'confession' – elicited through torture during his detention in Syria –and a host of other inaccurate and misleading information. The article which "contained an unprecedented amount of classified information"11 described Arar's so-called confession in detail, and explained that the RCMP had caught Arar in their sights while investigating "the activities of members of an alleged al-Qaeda logistical support group in Ottawa."12 O'Neill also reported that officials' motivation behind earlier leaks was "in defence of their (RCMP's A-O Canada) investigation."13 O'Neill says that she has no regrets about what she wrote: "I stand by what I wrote. I was explaining what went on. I was reporting on what officials were saying."14
As calls for a public inquiry increased, the allegations were exacerbated. Near the end of December 2003, Robert Fife was once more the vehicle that Canadian and US Intelligence officials used to inform the public that they were "100% sure" that Arar trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, with one official remarking, "This guy is not a virgin... There is more than meets the eye here."15
Unfortunately, egregious allegations about Arar did not end with the establishment of the O'Connor Inquiry, and not even after Justice O'Connor unequivocally cleared his name. On the same day that Prime Minister Harper issued an apology, a CTV journalist cited an anonymous US official who said that Arar's "personal association and travel history" precluded his removal from America's no-fly list.16 O'Connor was right to remark that "labels, even unfair and inaccurate ones, have a tendency to stick."17 To this day, some prominent journalists, such as Ezra Levant and Kevin Steel, continue to cast aspersions about Arar and about the Inquiry that cleared his name in articles and blog entries entitled "Maher Arar, liar" and "What really happened to Maher Arar?."18
Beyond the irreparable damage of erroneous reporting on the lives of innocent Canadians, the democratic process also suffers. Communications scholars Robert Hackett and Yuezhi Zhao point out that "journalism is arguably the most important form of public knowledge in our contemporary society." 19 They also note that newspapers, in which most of the leaks originated, are at the foundation of the 'information pyramid' – they are often the source of information used by other media sources.20 An institution that has such an important influence in shaping public opinion and setting political agendas also has the responsibility to fairly inform.
The very integrity of the Canadian media establishment, and of Canadian democracy, is at stake if lessons are not learnt from the media's handling of Arar's case. Many journalists, such as Jeff Sallot and Haroon Siddiqui, have been pointing to the need for a public debate on how to ensure such mistakes are not repeated. According to Siddiqui, whereas the government has been "put under the microscope by two eminent judges... only the media continues to escape detailed public scrutiny."21 This scrutiny is imperative, especially given that similar leaks occurred in the media coverage of the cases of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin – three Canadians who were detained and tortured at the same Syrian jail, and recently exonerated by the Iacobucci Inquiry. Leaks also continue to appear in coverage of Security Certificate detainee Adil Charkhaoui's case and that of Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen currently being held in Sudan.
For starters, when presenting facts or quoting from sources, journalists must maintain their skepticism – as one journalistic principle goes: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Journalists also need to be sure of sources, and to assess carefully and verify the information they are given. This assessment must also include a consideration of the motives of the individual releasing the information: Who are they trying to protect? Who are they accusing? Why now, and not before or later? So long as journalists continue to nurture unhealthy and unquestioning relationships with government officials, their independence and objectivity is compromised. If journalists become the mouthpieces of anonymous public officials, the government controls the flow of information and the framing of events and issues. News then comes perilously close to government propaganda.
Furthermore, the promise of anonymity must be abrogated for sources that intentionally lie to keep an innocent man imprisoned and to prevent the truth from emerging. A journalist's foremost obligation is to tell the truth and to provide a check on government power, not to protect state officials. It is shameful that not a single official who broke the law and leaked classified information about Arar has been publicly identified, let alone charged and prosecuted. Where mistakes are made, journalists need to revisit their reporting when better information and evidence are available to correct the public record. When a journalist fails in these respects, misleading information will be communicated to the Canadian public, consequentially compromising the integrity of Canada's democracy. When uncertain or ambivalent about the legitimacy of a source or the veracity of information, journalists would do well to heed the words of Maher Arar:
"Reporters should consider whom they serve: the powerful and anonymous or the weak and vulnerable. I ask journalists to err on the side of protecting members of the public before defending the institutions and agencies of government – especially in the area of national security. Institutions and agencies do not have children and families. They should place themselves in their (others') shoes first."22
1 Maher Arar, "Media Ethics and Coverage of Muslims in a Time of Terror" (panel presentation at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, March 23rd, 2009).
2 Haroon Siddiqui, "Prejudice in a post-9/11 world," The Toronto Star, October 26, 2008. http://www.thestar.com/comment/columnists/article/524327
3 Arar Inquiry, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, Analysis and Recommendations, vol. 1, 46-47.
4 Kerry Pither. Dark days: the story of four Canadians tortured in the name of fighting terror. (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2008), 209.
5 Robert Fife. "Al-Qaeda Ottawa plot foiled: U.S.; Tipoff from Syria bears fruit; 'Bad guys got arrested'; Sources say terrorist objective was to kill Marines guarding diplomatic site," The National Post, July 25, 2003, A1.
6 Inquiry, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 257.
7 Jeff Sallot, "Arar was not tortured, officials say; Engineer held in 'very bad' conditions in Syria, suffered psychological stress," The Globe and Mail, October 10, 2003, A4.
8 Pither, Dark Days, 294.
9 Ibid., 295.
10 Juliet O'Neill, "Canada's dossier on Maher Arar: The existence of a group of Ottawa men with alleged ties to al-Qaeda is at the root of why the government opposes an inquiry into the case. Juliet O'Neill reports," The Ottawa Citizen, November 8, 2003, A1.
11 Inquiry, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 123.
12 O'Neill, Canada's Dossier on Maher Arar.
13 Ibid. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the RCMP formed Project O Canada in Toronto, and Project A-O Canada in Ottawa. These units, composed of RCMP investigators and local police forces, were tasked with investigating terror suspects who were considered an "imminent threat." This included Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Elmaati and others, who were later exonerated by the O'Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries, which also faulted Projects O and A-O Canada for mistakes made in handling these investigations.
14 Pither, Dark Days, 306.
15 Robert Fife. "Officials link Arar to Qaeda camp: Family claims is part of smear campaign by anonymous officials, demands inquiry," The National Post, December 30, 2003, A1
16 Arar, Media Ethics and Coverage of Muslims in a Time of Terror.
17 Inquiry, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 47.
18 See Kevin Steel, "What really happened to Maher Arar?," The Western Standard, February 26, 2007 http://www.westernstandard.ca/website/article.php?id=2333&start=0, and Ezra Levant, "Maher Arar, liar," Ezra Levant, January 20, 2009, http://ezralevant.com/2009/01/maher-arar-liar.html
19 Robert Hackett and Yuezhi Zhao, Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1998), 55.
20 R. Hackett et al., The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada's Press (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Toronto: Garamond Press, 2000), 51.
21 Siddiqui, Prejudice in a post-9/11 world.
22 Arar, Media Ethics and Coverage of Muslims in a Time of Terror.