Reports about Failed Refugee Claimant’s “Illegal” Stay in Canada Were Accurate, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, September 18, 2008 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning two different news reports about a deportation order broadcast on Global’s national newscast Global National and on CTV British Columbia (CIVT-TV)’s regional newscast CTV News at Six, both on January 9, 2008.  A group identifying itself as Media Watch complained “about the lack of accuracy and comprehensiveness in recent media coverage” of a particular refugee case.  The complainants added that the broadcasters had “reported falsely that [the refugee claimant] ‘came to Canada illegally’ or that he ‘was illegal’ in Canada prior to receiving his first deportation date.”  The CBSC disagreed, concluding that the reports did not violate the accuracy in the news standards of the CAB Code of Ethics or the RTNDA Code of (Journalistic) Ethics.

Both reports were about Laibar Singh, who had requested refugee status in Canada in 2003, but whose claim had since been rejected.  In 2006, Singh had suffered an aneurysm that left him paralyzed.  A number of his supporters felt that the Canadian Government should allow Singh to remain in the country on compassionate grounds and they did their best to prevent Canada Border Services (CBSA) agents from deporting Singh.  The focus of the newscasts was the CBSA’s second failed attempt at deportation.  The Global report stated that Singh had “entered Canada illegally”, while the CTV B.C. newscast said, “while here illegally he suffered an aneurysm.”

Media Watch argued that using the word “illegally” was an inaccurate characterization because many refugees travel with false documents out of necessity.  The group concluded that, because the use of such documents “cannot be held against him” under Canadian law, Laibar Singh had been in Canada “‘legally’ for the entire duration of his stay […] from 2003-2007.”  The Media Watch group also requested that the broadcasters air a report that explained the refugee claim process in more detail.

The CBSC’s National Conventional Television Panel and British Columbia Regional Panel each examined the complaint that fell under their respective jurisdictions and issued a joint decision.

The Panels pointed out that the reports were “thorough, balanced and reasonably sympathetic to the plight of the failed disabled refugee claimant,” including such details as the fact that Singh had: arrived with false documents, been denied refugee status, suffered a stroke, and been ordered to leave the country.  The reports also contained interviews with individuals who supported both sides of the debate.  With respect to the use of the word “illegally”, the Panels made the following comments:

[I]t [is] clear that the use of the adverb “illegally” does not either colour or unbalance the thoroughness and accuracy of the two news reports.  […]  It is instructive to consider that document [the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees mentioned by the complainants]’s clear references to the issue of illegality.  The Convention deals with the central principle that the complainants correctly underscore, namely, the frequent, anticipated need for refugees to escape their terrible predicament by fleeing with false or forged documentation in Article 31(1), under the heading “Refugees Unlawfully in the Country of Refugee”.  The Article itself also uses the term “illegal” twice.  […]  Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides in Sec. 122(1) that the use of false documents to enter Canada is an indictable offence, punishable in the relevant circumstances by imprisonment for up to fourteen years.  Thereafter, in order to take into account the particular case of refugees and in recognition of the international Convention relating to the Status of Refugees cited above, the Act provides, in Sec. 133, a deferral of prosecution under Sec. 122 “in relation to the coming into Canada of the person, pending disposition of their claim for refugee protection or if refugee protection is conferred.”  In other words, there is no change in the illegality of the original possession or use of false documents, but only a protection from prosecution for a refugee claimant.  Moreover, it should be noted that, in the event that refugee protection is not ultimately conferred, the illegal nature of the entry into Canada remains while the shelter from prosecution disappears.

The Panels also added that

While it is fair for the Media Watch signatories to assert that the story of refugee claimants is more thoroughly told by explaining that, by reason of their fear of prosecution in their country of origin, refugees are often forced to travel on false or even no documents, that is not the story the broadcasters chose to tell in this case.  It was a different tale, namely, that of a conflict between the interests of an individual seeking to remain in Canada on compassionate grounds and a Government seeking to enforce its laws and decisions.  It was also a tale of the effectiveness of the peaceful placard-waving sympathizers against the Canadian Border Services personnel attempting to deport the ailing Laibar Singh in the pre-dawn hours.  It was not the tale of the nature or the process of a refugee claim, much less an appreciation of appropriate terminology used in such analyses.  It was the right of each broadcaster to choose which story to tell, and neither was under any obligation to treat every aspect of the story it decided to tell, much less every aspect of a story it had not chosen to recount.  Nor had the broadcasters any duty, as a general principle, to educate the audience in detail on procedural issues that might have been material in reporting a different matter.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence 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 ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 690 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