Controversial Persons on Air Do Not on that Account Breach Code of Ethics, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, February 5, 2008 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning VisionTV’s broadcasts of Dil Dil Pakistan in July 2007.  The complaints focussed principally on the on-air presence of Israr Ahmad, an imam who had, according to complainants, allegedly published anti-Semitic statements on previous occasions.  On the challenged show, in the format of a religious “lesson” or sermon, Ahmad had discussed Sura 2 of the Qur’an and dealt briefly with jihad.  In its replies to complainants, VisionTV pointed out:

It is important for us to emphasize that the hateful comments attributed to Israr Ahmad were not broadcast on VisionTV.  […] Many readers of the National Post were under the impression that hateful comments targeting Jewish people and comments questioning the Holocaust were broadcast on VisionTV.  That is not the case.

VisionTV also pointed out the steps it had taken to respond to the complaints, including the establishment of a Task Force to look into the issue, the interim suspension of the broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan, and the broadcast of apologies for any offence caused.  The complainant argued in reply that:

Even if Israr Ahmad was not offensive in the identified broadcast (and he was), having him appear at all is tantamount to complicity on VisionTV’s part.  […]  My point is that Israr Ahmad should not have been presented in the first place.

The Specialty Services Panel found no Code breach.  Even if Israr Ahmad “had made hateful comments about identifiable groups in other fora” (a matter on which the CBSC expressed no opinion), the Panel concluded that

no broadcaster has an obligation to forbid access to its airwaves on that account.  While any broadcaster may choose to avoid the provision of a platform to persons who are likely to make abusive or unduly discriminatory comments, that station or service is only required to ensure that such comments are not in fact aired.

There are many individuals who have chequered reputations, some with publicly-admitted terrorist affiliations, some with judicially-determined criminal backgrounds, some with perspectives that are overtly antithetical to democratic principles and the application of, say, the rule of law, and others likely to express different sorts of exceedingly controversial viewpoints on the airwaves.  Such individuals are not thereby excommunicated from the regulated airwaves.  They do not on any of those accounts forfeit the opportunity to appear on air when invited by a broadcaster.  Even a notorious figure […] could be an acceptable invitee to discuss appropriate subject matter in controlled circumstances.  Indeed, the CBSC Panels have always supported the fundamental notion that broadcasters have the right to determine which programming they will run, which news they will report, which guests they will invite, as a function of their programming perspectives and their perception of their audiences’ tastes.  Their one constraint is that, in the exercise of those choices, they may not breach the CBSC-administered codified standards.

The Specialty Services Panel, of course, understands that not every invitee or program broadcast will make all viewers happy or even comfortable.  That is inevitable.  The Panel understands that to be an ancillary consequence of the fullest exercise of the democratic principle of freedom of expression.  […]

[A]s a part of their determination of worthy program participants, broadcasters will wish to assess the risk of on-air disrespect of broadcast standards by those individuals.  The more inevitable the problem, the less likely the invitation.  But that is the broadcaster’s call.  It may well be that an individual “with a reputation” will toe the line in order to access the air time.  On the other side of that equation, a broadcaster may choose not to air a program or interview with an individual who, it considers, will offend its audience, even when there is an understanding that no Code breach will occur.

On the issue of the substance of the imam’s comments, the Panel found, first, that

there was barely a mention anywhere in the episode of any other identifiable group than, of course, the Muslim community.  Although there is a reference in the broadcast of July 14 to the “enemies of Allah”, nowhere has the imam directly identified any group.  Consequently, there were no aggressive, much less abusive or even discriminatory, comments levelled at any identifiable group and no breach of the Human Rights Clause […]

On the second issue, namely, the discussion of jihad, the Panel noted that the term “has no exclusive or limited meaning as a holy war.  It is at least as understandable as referring to struggle or strife, with no necessary implication of battle or hostility.”  The Panel concluded that there had been no Code breach, in that the

entire “lesson” was purely didactic and tonally monochromatic; Ahmad did not even raise his voice to make his point.  He merely referred to the different modes of sacrifice or struggle, one of which appears to be physical.  Even there, the call is not to violence; the sense is more of struggle in a cause, specifically in the cause of Allah, and then only “until there is no more Fitnah (variously translated as disbelief, persecution or tumult) and worshipping of others along with Allah.” 

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970.  More than 625 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab