CBC not obligated to use 'terrorists' instead of 'militants' to describe Hamas: Ombudsman

The decision to describe Hamas as militants has led to hundreds of complaints against the public broadcaster

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CBC is not obligated to use “militants” instead of “terrorists” to describe Hamas but it makes the task of describing its attack on Oct. 7 “more difficult,” its ombudsman said.

In an internal review, posted on CBC’s website on Nov. 23, Jack Nagler said the Crown Corporation’s coverage of the attack was “executed well” in some but not all instances, including in a flagship radio program.

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Nagler highlighted two policies outlined in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, which functions as a style guide and framework for best practices in its reporting. The passages state the need to “clearly explain the facts to our audience” without “promot(ing) any particular point of view.”

“There was no breach of the JSP, but there is room for improvement, nonetheless,” Nagler noted.

The review looked at CBC’s coverage across its radio, online and broadcast news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. The decision to describe Hamas as militants has led to hundreds of complaints against the public broadcaster.

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Nagler found that CBC’s decision to adopt the term militant “makes sense when it is able to provide a comprehensive and clear depiction of events” but said this standard was not always met, notably describing its online coverage as a “mixed bag.”

He also singled out the CBC’s main radio program World Report the day after the attack for being “antiseptic.”

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“Hamas launched a wave of rocket attacks and its fighters stormed into Israel, sparking the biggest escalation in violence between militants and Israel in decades. Israeli media is now reporting between five and six hundred dead in Israel, and Palestinian officials say at least 300 Palestinians have been killed, but that number is likely higher,” the program said during its introduction.

The event was reported “as though this had been a normal clash between two rival military forces,” Nagler noted. “I’m not confident that someone who relied exclusively on this program would be likely to grasp the significance of the previous day’s events,” he said.

Nagler contrasts this with CBC’s coverage of the Oct. 7 attack on its nightly news program The National, which used “vivid, descriptive language that meets a high standard of accuracy, and that is not undone by the absence of the label ‘terrorist.’”

CBC journalists are free to use militants instead of terrorists to describe Hamas as long as the report properly “depict(s) reality sufficiently,” Nagler said.

“There is no inherent journalistic obligation to use any particular word, including ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ — even if it is a word that would have been entirely suitable,” he said. “The obligation is to report the story with enough information, context and specificity that the reader/viewer/listener is able to draw some informed conclusions about its nature.”

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The review also contains excerpts of messages Nagler received opposing CBC’s stance.

“The Hamas massacre and kidnappings fit these definitions of terrorism as a glove fits a hand. Definitions btw not made in the passion of a horrible moment in time, but rather carefully constructed by responsible governments,” one such letter explains.

National Post previously reported on a leaked internal memo from George Achi, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards, which stated: “Do not refer to militants, soldiers, or anyone else as ‘terrorists.’”

“The notion of terrorism remains heavily politicized and is part of the story. Even when quoting/clipping a government or a source referring to fighters as ‘terrorists,’ we should add context to ensure the audience understands this is opinion, not fact. That includes statements from the Canadian government and Canadian politicians,” the memo stated.

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