Incorrect Quotation from the Qur’an and Unfair Treatment of Muslim Callers Violated Broadcast Standards, says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, December 15, 2006 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning the Lowell Green Show of March 31, 2006 on CFRA-AM (Ottawa).  During that episode of the call-in program, the host discussed, among other things, the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who had been condemned to death for converting from Islam to Christianity. 

The host introduced his discussion of apostasy by quoting from a letter to the editor of the National Post published on March 31.  While declaring himself neither in favour of, nor against, the position taken by the letter-writer, Lowell Green quoted the sura (chapter) and ayah (verse) of the Qur’an cited in that letter.  In fact, he quoted the principle allegedly included in that ayah on several occasions in support of his contention that “the Qur’an says that you are to kill those who convert from Islam to Christianity.”  He also encouraged Muslims to call, asking them if they agreed that the Qur’an “instructs Muslims to kill those who switch from Islam to other faiths.”  As a further incentive, he said that he would give Muslim callers “all of the time in the world to talk,” assuring them that “I won’t interrupt.” 

A complainant raised concerns about the host’s comparison of Christianity and Islam, which he considered operated to the detriment of Islam, and the use of rhetorical techniques that had the effect of inciting hatred toward Islam (although he did not impute any intention on the part of the host to do so).  In supporting the discussion of the issue, the CBSC’s Ontario Regional Panel found no abusive or unduly discriminatory comment. 

There is not the slightest disagreement relating to the importance of the discussion of the controversy itself.  The Abdul Rahman story reverberated around the world.  A matter of immense public interest, raising issues of great importance, there was no question but that current affairs talk shows would feature it.  […]  It goes without saying that the CBSC would strongly affirm the relevance and value of debating the controversy on the airwaves.

The question for the CBSC relates not to the subject but to the treatment of the subject.  Just as there can be no doubt about the legitimacy of the broadcast of a show on the consequences of Abdul Rahman’s apostasy, there can be no doubt that broadcasters are not free to launch discussions on that issue that may also have the effect of violating any other standards established in the CAB Code of Ethics (such as, but not limited to, the Human Rights clause).  

Not only did the Panel find no problem with the raising of the issue of apostasy, but it also found no problem with the discussion of numerous other sensitive subjects raised during the episode, including the screening of terrorists by immigration authorities; immigration from Muslim countries; the publication of the controversial Danish Islam-related cartoons in the Western Standard; the treatment of Muslim women when in the North American context; suicide bombers; and so on.  Nor did the Panel find that the broadcast was either abusive or unduly discriminatory vis-à-vis Islam.  It concluded 

that the host was critical of aspects of Islam but it is far from a blanket condemnation or denigration of the religion.  His preoccupations relate to the justification of violence.  While his evident lack of familiarity with the religion led him to conclusions that were, in some cases, unjustified, the Panel does not find that the host’s comments, even in the comparison of the religions, amounted to abusive or unduly discriminatory comment.  [The Panel did, however, find that] the host was so unfamiliar with the Qur’an that the basic characteristic of forgiveness of the Prophet Mohammed appeared to be unknown to him.  Even when given that specific example by caller Alex, he glossed over this description of the forgiving Prophet (and forgiveness in Islam itself).  And caller Jessie referred to both respectfulness and the equivalent of Christian morals in Islam.  The host did not acknowledge either of these positive observations about Islam, preferring in both cases to revert to his non-contextual literal references to the Qur’an.  It is as though he has wielded the moral club of the religion familiar to him against the one less known to him.  While the Panel agrees with the complainant that Green did so to be critical of aspects of Islam, it does not consider that he was attempting to utter abusive or unduly discriminatory comment against Muslims generally. 

The Panel was concerned not with “what was the subject of the program but how […] the host deal[t] with it.”  It was here that the broadcaster was found in breach; “the Council supports talk show hosts’ entitlement to hold and express an opinion.  No problem there.  The issue for the Panel is that a part, the non-opinion part, of the content required accuracy and, on this point, the host, Lowell Green, declared firmly and unequivocally that he was quoting from the Qur’an.  In fact, […] the final problematic sentence on which Green’s argument of the day is based – “Kill him who changes his religion” – is not to be found in the Qur’an at all.”  The result was that the broadcaster was in breach of the CAB Code of Ethics.  As the Panel explained, 

The broadcaster had its own obligation to be certain, at material times, of the accuracy of the material on which it was relying.  Its failure to do so resulted in a construct of an argument or position that appeared to be more defensible than it was.  The Qur’an has an authoritative cachet, as it should, as the Bible does.  Building an argument on the apparent content of Islam’s holy book puts callers and listeners in a defensive, behind-the-8-ball position from the get-go.  The host either knew or ought to have known that his position would appear stronger in such reliance.  He or someone on the broadcaster’s staff ought to have verified such an important point before using that provision as the foundation for almost the entire episode.  Their failure to present the audience with accurate information about the content of the Qur’an was misleading and unfair.  They loaded the dice without disclosing the fact that they had done so, even if that choice was unintentional.  In the end, the broadcaster’s constant reliance on misquoted text from the Qur’an and refusal to bend when advised of the error by Muslim callers rendered the presentation neither full, fair nor proper, and consequently in breach of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics

The Panel also had particular difficulties with the way the host treated a number of the callers, particularly those who had identified themselves as Muslim and had called at the express invitation of the host to explain their perspective on their own religion and its underlying document, the Qur’an. 

The Ontario Regional Panel finds the tactics used by Lowell Green in dealing with the callers and the subject of the meaning of the Qur’anic ayah on which he was relying to have been unfair and improper.  The host was entitled to make his point about apostasy and had every opportunity to do so.  It was not necessary for him to resort to that provision of the Qur’an.  He chose that route.  That was his option.  Then, having invited Muslims to call the program on the basis that they could explain their fundamental religious document to him and CFRA’s listeners, he disregarded their explanations of the very nature of the Qur’an, as well as their arguments about the context of the ayah he had quoted.  When one of the Muslims even explained that the Arabic, that is, the original and definitive, version of the Qur’an, which he had before him, did not contain the words the host relied on, Green changed the subject.  It is parenthetically interesting that the host was more accommodating with caller Mohammed, who was permitted to provide some explanations of the variety of interpretations of Islam (which did not, however, go to the central issue of apostasy).  All in all, the audience was left with a lopsided perspective on the meaning of the Qur’an.  They deserved more.  The broadcaster’s refusal to permit callers in good faith to provide the explanation of the misquoted text from the Qur’an when he had invited them to do so rendered the presentation of that text neither full, fair nor proper, and consequently in breach of Clause 6 of the CAB Code of Ethics

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 600 radio and 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