Friday, January 30, 2009

Maher Arar, leaks, anonymous sources and journalism

On Thursday evening I attended a panel discussion organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation called High-level leaks and undisclosed sources: The case of Maher Arar and lapsed media ethics.

The keynote speaker was Maher Arar, and panelists included human rights activist Kerry Pither, CBC reporter Bruce Gillespie, Carleton professor and former Globe and Mail reporter Jeff Sallot, and the moderator was Globe and Mail columnist Hugh Winsor.

It was a very interesting discussion, focusing on the role that anonymous leaks played in how the Arar case played-out and how media should handle leaks from anonymous sources. Particularly when those sources may end-up being less than truthful, or may have less than noble motives.

Media can do harm

In his presentation, Arar said journalism is essential to the health of the democratic system, but it has the power to be good or bad. And, he added, while there were lessons for the media to have learned from his case, he says how the media played the story when his name was raised last week during the Omar Khadr trial in Guantanamo Bay shows many media still haven't learned anything. But we'll get to that incident in a bit.

Arar said during his case, from his abduction while traveling in the U.S. on a Canadian passport, to his rendition to Syria to face torture, eventual return to Canada, and exoneration by the O'Connor inquiry, the media coverage went through several phases.

When he was first abducted, he said there was very little media interest. He must have done something wrong was the general feeling, as the media accepted the government line and didn't dig any deeper, not wanting to believe the authorities could be wrong. Critical thinking is an important facet of journalism, and Arar said they failed on that here.

In the next stage, as a few isolated journalists began to ask questions and Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, began to campaign for his return, Arar said the leaks to discredit him began. He pointed in particular to a story by Robert Fife (then with CanWest, now CTV) based on anonymous sources that sought to paint him as a terrorist. While the leaks sought to discredit him, Arar said they also helped in a sense, s they called attention to his plight, and caused the media to start to ask questions. And he noted that, throughout his case, the leaks always seemed to come when there were developments that were positive for him. For example, these leaks came when Liberal PM Jean Chretien announced he would intervene on Arar's behalf to bring him home from Syria.

As the case went on and he was eventually repatriated, Arar said the leaks to discredit him continued. And while some media began to question the motivation of the leaks, he said too few did, having already decided his guilt in his own mind. Even after the O'Connor inquiry, on the day of the Canadian government's apology to Arar, he notes the media printed anonymous comments from a U.S. State Department official insisting they have information that proves Arar's guilt. This shows, said Arar, the media has learned little.

He said the publication of leaks from trusted government officials is hard to recover from. Media should consider how easily anonymous sources used them in his case to slur him to cover their own mistakes. Media should err on the side of protecting the individual, he said, and consider the impact what they write could have on individuals before they print it.

Arar and Khadr

Finally, he touched on the media coverage of the situation that unfolded during the Omar Khadr case last week. During testimony at the trial, under prosecution testimony an FBI agent Robert Fuller, testified that during interrogation, Khad ID'd Arar as having been in Afghanistan. This led to sensational media headlines. The next day, under defense examination Fuller admitted it took some prodding before Khadr could ID Arar, and that, in fact, at the time in question the O'Connor inquiry has established Arar was in the U.S., making clear Khadr had just been telling his interrogators what they wanted to hear, and that the story was false. These revelations, of course, didn't get the same front-page treatment.

The media, said Arar, particularly given the history of his case, should have been more skeptical and questioning of Fuller's testimony, and should have put it in more of a questioning context, looking at Fuller's motivations for making the statement hours before the Gitmo trials were to be shut-down by Barrack Obama. They also should have given the same play to the day two testimony that discredited the accusations as they did to the initial accusations.

The CBC's Gillespie, who was part of the media contingent covering the Khadr trial, defended their coverage. He said rather than run the revelations right away, they decided to wait until they could get clarification on some points from the prosecution and defence, and in his coverage he noted that the information should be taken skeptically, given the nature in which it was obtained is often reliable.

The human rights activist, Pither, even went as far as to say the media should not have reported the accusations until the next day, after the defense cross-examination. I utterly reject that, as did Gillespie. It's not the media's job to censor and decide what information the public has a right to know, or not.

And this wasn't a case of anonymous sources whose motivations we don't know. It was testimony in open court, on the record by an FBI agent. What he said was absolutely news and had to be reported, as long as it is put in the proper context of how the information was obtained and the history of the Arar case, including the O'Connor findings and the history of vandicative leaks by government security officials. Then, the public can decide for themselves what credibility to give Fuller's accusations.

Don't protect liars

That's my broader problem with anonymous sources. Media use them too often because they want the scoop, they want the headline, but by granting anonymity they dont' give us the information we need to consider their motivations and therefore consider their credibility. Anonymity gives them a shield to pursue their own agendas, and the media are complicit because they want a story. Anonymous sources have their place, but in the Arar case these weren't whistle-blowers by any stretch.

And what about when a source lies to you. Does that negate the promise of anonymity, or are you still obligated by your promise to protect that person? I'd argue no, if you've been lying to me and deliberately misleading me, then the deal is off. I was disappointed neither Sallot or Gillespie agreed. Sallot, at least, did say that, while it can't be done retroactively, journalists should make clear in the future that, when negotiating anonymity with sources, if they lie you won't protect their identity.

Anyway, a very interesting discussion that, while I'm not sure if it solved anything, was certainly an illuminating exploration of the issues. There's no easy answers to many of these questions but I think that, at the least, media have an obligation to be more questioning of anonymous sources and their motivations, be more circumspect about granting anonymity and using anonymous sources, and willing to hold them to account, publicly, if they're deliberately misled or lied to. And when you get it wrong, own up and take responsibility.

Here's some of the media coverage of the event:

Toronto Star: Arar shocked and depressed by testimony tying him to Khadr
Metro Canada: Arar in ‘deep depression’ over Khadr allegations
CBC News: 'Enough of this', Arar says of name coming up at Khadr hearing
Canadian Press: Arar 'shocked' name came up at Khadr hearing

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Pearce said...

Quite an interesting read. Thanks for posting this. Any idea whether Arar will pursue libel charges against those who painted him a liar and a terrorist? I can imagine not, given he probably just wants to put it all behind him.

I feel anger towards the media and bloggers because he is suffering depression as a result of the Khadr testimony. As you state, the media has the power to cause direct harm to individuals when they fumble a report.

While the media may not have a legal obligation to "do no harm" in reporting on these sorts of unfounded allegations, I believe they certainly have a moral obligation, particularly when they have little to no evidence, and the evidence they have is tenuous at best.

Unknown said...

When we had only print and radio journalism or even in the early days of television (when news was on film) there was an inherent time lag that allowed journalists to do more research and possibly determine what was in fact newsworthy and what was merely gossip or speculation.

You and I know that most folks barely read beyond the headlines or barely listen beyond the intro of the radio and tv newscasts.

Headlines tell the news in this 'twitter-cycle' media world.

Although I don't believe in censorship, I do think that the news should be more circumspect in their reporting in these kinds of matters.

Ti-Guy said...

This issues appear insoluble. I understand the journalist's obligation to get a story out and the value of anonymous sources. Both those things have positive and negative consequences.

I think what I object to most is the absence of journalists revisiting their reporting at a later date, when better information/evidence has come to light to piece together a fuller more accurate story than the wildly divergent versions the public has cobbled together as the story was meted out in dribs and drabs. It never ceases to amaze me to what extent people have an inaccurate understanding of an issue, but it's not even their fault. They remember details reported at a particular point in time and have not revisited the issue since.

The imperative to "get the scoop" however is something that should be seriously marginalised. There are few things of such immediate importance that the public needs to know right away and reporting an event inaccurately is worse than not reporting at all.

lyrical said...

This, it seems, is a never-ending story. I'm sure glad we have some very good alternative media in Canada. Case in point: I tried to post a short, polite, non-libelous comment with a link to this article on some mainstream media sites. My comment was not posted.