Saturday, May 30, 2009

Canadian media : Lapdogs vs watchdogs

An opinion piece in yesterday's Star, Learning from media mistakes in the Arar case, castigates the Canadian media for its role in uncritically passing on anonymous government leaks intended to vilify Maher Arar in the eyes of the Canadian public, both before and after he was exonerated.
As author Mariam Sheibani states : 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 :

"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 he was being used to smear the men."

"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 Chr├ętien 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 U.S. embassy in Ottawa.
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."

"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. 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. 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."

Following Arar's national news conference on his return to Canada, a sympathetic public was demanding an inquiry. Then just days later :
"On Nov. 8, 2003, 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."

"Near the end of December 2003, Robert Fife was once more the vehicle that Canadian and U.S. intelligence officials used to inform the public that they were "100 per cent sure" that Arar trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan."

I'll stop there before I wind up quoting the whole thing.

The stated purpose of the piece is to warn the press against relinquishing its role of independent watchdog in favor of becoming merely a lapdog purveyor of leaked government propaganda, but what I took away from it was the realization that none of these public service leakers of strategic falsehoods have ever been called to account for their attempts to ruin a citizen's life in the service of their government. Presumably they are still secure in their work behind the scenes, dripping the poison of the day into the public discourse via a mostly complicit and largely uncritical media.

One last quote from Sheibani:

"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."

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 Charkaoui's case and that of Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen currently being held in Sudan."

And so it goes ...
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