VisionTV re Dil Dil Pakistan

NATIONAL SPECIALTY SERVICES PANEL
R. Cohen (Chair), T. Rajan (Vice-Chair), E. Duffy-MacLean, M. Hogarth, V. Houle, G. Phelan

THE FACTS

VisionTV is a multi-faith and multi-cultural specialty service whose broadcasts are of one of two kinds; they are either Cornerstone programming (programming of various types produced by VisionTV or licensed by VisionTV from independent producers and distributors, including drama, documentaries, sitcoms, music programs, and lifestyle series) or Mosaic programming (programming provided to VisionTV by various faith groups that have either produced or acquired that programming and purchase time on VisionTV to broadcast it, the programming often being in the form of sermons, readings from scripture, talk shows, or short form documentaries).  Dil Dil Pakistan was, at material times, a weekly English-language religious program of the Mosaic variety that included Arabic-language elements in its broadcasts.  The foregoing being said, it should be noted that VisionTV is responsible for the broadcast content of both Cornerstone and Mosaic programming in the same way that any broadcaster is responsible for every moment of content it broadcasts.

The Challenged Episodes

On the July 14, 2007 episode, which aired from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm, VisionTV broadcast an imam named Israr Ahmad giving a lesson or sermon that dealt with Sura 2 of the Qur’an, which is entitled Al-Baqara (it appears, from the Islamic, or Hijri, calendar year provided by the imam during the broadcast, namely, 1421, that the lesson was originally recorded, and possibly broadcast, in 2000, being the approximately equivalent Gregorian calendar year).  Al-Baqara means “the cow” or “the calf”; it derives its name from the story of the sacrifice of a cow in a parable about Prophet Musa (Moses) and the Israelites.

Ahmad presented his interpretation of the Sura in a manner and tone typical of a religious sermon.  He spoke of the oneness of religions by providing the historical context of the Qur’an and that of preceding scriptures, including the Torah, and the early links and divergences between the Jewish and the Muslim peoples.  He underscored the importance in the Qur’anic context of Sura 2 both on the basis of its length and its substance; it encapsulates many of the other messages found throughout the Muslim Holy Book.  He spoke about receiving guidance from prayer and patience, including abiding by the rules set out in the Qur’an.  Ahmad explained that, on the day of judgment, each person would be judged on his deeds, including whether he had tried to convey Allah’s message.  As a part of his didactic message, he explained that a section of the Sura has multiple “strands” or themes, including Sharia (Islamic law), human interactions, and jihad.  He addressed each of these in turn, but the complainant’s concerns relate only to the discussion of jihad, which Ahmad discussed in the following terms (a fuller transcription of the lesson of the episode can be found in Appendix A; the Arabic phrases he used are italicized and their translation is given in brackets) (note that, although there may be some grammatical inconsistencies in the following transcript, no sic has been added; it may be assumed that the paragraph was spoken as it is transcribed):

Now the other two strands are that is jihad fi sabili-Allah [sacrifice for the sake of Allah].  But jihad can be divided again into two: qital fi sabili-Allah [fighting for the sake of Allah]; infaq fi sabili-Allah [spending for the sake of Allah].  Because whenever you find jahadu fi sabili-Allah bi amwalikum wa anfusikum [sacrifice for the sake of Allah with your resources/wealth and your lives].  So jihad in this way of Allah, for the order of Allah, can be pursued either with your financial resources or your bodily strength when you go to fight the enemies of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’alla [glory and exultation be to Him]) on the battlefield.  So jihad bi-nafsi [sacrificing oneself], the highest form is: fighting in the cause of Allah.  Yuqatiluna fi sabili-Allah, qaatiluuhum hataa la takuunana fitnatun wa yakuna diinu Allah [And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (variously translated as disbelief, persecution or tumult) and worshipping of others along with Allah].  And to give your contribution so as the requirements of tabligh [propagation], the propagation of the Islamic message and the requirements of the struggle to establish the diin [faith] of Allah that can be fulfilled.  You need money for that.  And for that is infaq fi sabili-Allah [spending for the sake of Allah].  Spend for the cause of Allah.  Spend for the cause of Allah.  So these two subjects are also, they come after, you know, these four strands are interwoven.  One issue comes, then the other comes, then again the third issue is addressed.  Maybe then the third comes forward.  Then the fourth one.  So these are, are intermittently.  These four subjects are repeated in the second half of the Sura Baqara.

Ahmad went on to reiterate that one must make both physical and financial sacrifices in the exercise of one’s responsibility to spread the word of Allah and live a virtuous life.  The imam suggested that one way to ascertain if someone is truly faithful is to observe whether he makes such sacrifices.  He concluded by emphasizing the need to believe in and follow the message of Muhammad.

Another episode of Dil Dil Pakistan aired the following week, on July 21; it again featured Israr Ahmad giving a sermon.  At the beginning of that episode, VisionTV aired a viewer advisory which stated

The opinions expressed on the following program are not necessarily those of VisionTV.

In the second episode, Ahmad talked about how the Suras of the Qur’an are grouped together; how the Qur’an is part of a series of Books from Allah which provide guidance to humanity and therefore must be obeyed; how Allah administers the universe with justice; how Muslims must make a pilgrimage to Mecca; and how there is a difference between people who seriously practise Islam and those who identify as Muslim in name only.  He also again mentioned how one must “spend for the cause of Allah.”  Both episodes carried a G rating.  As noted above (in analogous circumstances) in the context of the Cornerstone/Mosaic programming discussion, the presence of the advisory does not relieve the broadcaster of responsibility for the program content, although the Panel does support the utility of its presence in assisting audiences to make informed viewing selection choices.

The Complaints

The CBSC received a total of 29 complaints about Dil Dil Pakistan; only 14, however, provided sufficient information for the CBSC to pursue them.  The complainants’ primary concern was the encouragement of jihad made on the July 14 episode and the very presence of Israr Ahmad on the program.  According to some complainants, Ahmad had previously written works that had been deemed anti-Semitic.  Some complainants also objected to the fact that Ahmad was permitted to appear on the July 21 episode after VisionTV had already received complaints about the contentious appearance of the imam on the previous week’s episode.

Only one of the 14 eligible complainants filed a Ruling Request.  His initial complaint, dated July 21 and originally sent to the CRTC, read in part (the full text of his and the broadcaster’s correspondence can be found in Appendix B):

Given as your mandate includes the protection of the Canadian public from the electronic transmission of hate messages via the media you regulate, I ask that you either significantly and publicly discipline VisionTV or revoke its licence, as the result of broadcasting the speech of Israr Ahmad on the afternoon of July 14/07.

VisionTV’s representative, [M.P.]’s rationalization that the preacher’s remarks were acceptable due to their historical context is incorrect and irrelevant.  VisionTV bypassed its own code of ethics and its social responsibility and has stooped to the propaganda messaging of hate and violence.  […]

This is not an issue requiring an examination of sensitivities or political correctness.  It is one that requires recognition of brainwashing efforts in our midst and the courage to exercise the responsibility that has been given to CRTC.

The Broadcaster’s Correspondence

VisionTV responded to all complainants in the following terms:

On behalf of VisionTV, please accept our sincere apologies for the delay in responding in detail to your complaint regarding the program Dil Dil Pakistan and the appearance of Israr Ahmad on that program on July 14 and July 21, 2007.  We have received a large volume of correspondence following the stories in the National Post and are working to reply to each and every letter, phone call, or email.

It is important for us to emphasize that the hateful comments attributed to Israr Ahmad were not broadcast on VisionTV.  He did appear on the program Dil Dil Pakistan and in reading from the Qur’an made passing reference to the concept of Jihad.  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.

[…]

In addition, we have initiated a Task Force including representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams and other faith institutions to review our ethical standards and procedures for reviewing program content.

We have also broadcast on-air apologies for any offence caused and have suspended broadcast of the Dil Dil Pakistan program while we work to resolve the issues that gave rise to this incident.

For almost 20 years VisionTV has been celebrating the diversity of faiths and cultures that are fundamental to Canadian society.  We take our responsibilities as a broadcaster very seriously and will continue to strive to maintain the highest standards of religious broadcasting in Canada.

VisionTV also sent a letter to the CBSC on September 5:

We are writing in response to various complaints about two episodes of the program Dil Dil Pakistan broadcast by VisionTV on consecutive Saturdays July 14 and July 21 at 3 p.m. EST.  The complaints follow coverage in the National Post regarding the appearance of Israr Ahmad in the two episodes of the program.  Mr. Ahmad is alleged to have made hateful comments about Jewish peoples in past writings and other published works.  It is important to note that no such comments were broadcast on VisionTV.

VisionTV is very sorry for any offence the appearance of Mr. Ahmad caused to Canadian viewers.  Our goal as Canada’s multi-faith network is to build bridges of understanding and to encourage dialogue among people of different faiths. Shows like Dil Dil Pakistan and others contribute to the achievement of those objectives by providing windows into a diversity of cultures and religions.  It is our hope to enlighten and entertain, and certainly not to offend, the VisionTV audience.

[…]

Dil Dil Pakistan was a one-hour Mosaic Program on VisionTV exploring Islam and sharing insights into the Muslim faith.  As with many Mosaic programs, Dil Dil Pakistan was produced and submitted to VisionTV on a weekly basis.  […]  The format of each episode of Dil Dil Pakistan was a blend of hosted segments, readings from the Quran, and often included guest presenters offering their perspectives on Islam.  Dil Dil Pakistan was broadcast weekly on VisionTV for a number of years without incident and offers what could generally be described as a moderate view of the Muslim faith experience.

It is the broadcaster, however, that has ultimate responsibility for all content that goes to air.  VisionTV has a long history of maintaining the highest standards of religious broadcasting and strives at all times to adhere to its own Code of Ethics that is more substantive than the ethical requirements set out in the Religious Broadcasting Policy of the CRTC.  […]  Since 2002, there has not been a single complaint about programming on VisionTV that has required a Ruling from the CBSC.  Given the controversial nature of religious content, VisionTV’s success in maintaining high standards of programming is exemplary.

All Mosaic Programs on VisionTV are screened by VisionTV staff prior to broadcast to ensure compliance with our Code of Ethics.  While it is not always easy to maintain an appropriate balance between the fundamental rights of all Canadians and our ethical standards, we appreciate that there must be reasonable limits on the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion to avoid the broadcast of hate speech and other content that offends Canadian broadcasting standards.  But, the existing focus of the VisionTV Code of Ethics and our screening procedures is to evaluate the message of the program proposed for broadcast.  It has not been our practice to judge the messenger based largely on the premise that each individual in Canada has the right to express their religious beliefs openly and the right to do so on VisionTV so long as that expression occurs within a framework of respect and understanding.

[…]

The July 14 Broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan

The July 14 broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan was comprised almost entirely of a presentation by Israr Ahmad offering interpretations from the Qur’an.  Mr. Ahmad is a citizen of Pakistan and the rights to the Canadian broadcast of his readings of the Qur’an were acquired by the producer of Dil Dil Pakistan.  In the July 14 episode, the visual presentation is almost exclusively of Mr. Ahmad sitting behind a desk with the Qur’an open in front of him as Ahmad speaks to the camera.  The tone of the presentation is similar to an educational lecture and is relatively moderate and steady throughout.

There is no derogatory comment about Jewish people and no comment targeting people of Jewish heritage.  The only controversial commentary we have been able to discern, both from viewing the program and from the complaints received, is a passing reference to the concept of Jihad.  […]

We appreciate that Jihad is a sensitive subject, as it has been used by extremists as a call to arms and a justification or rationale for violent acts.  But, not all references to Jihad fall within this category.  For the majority of the more than one billion Muslim people around the world and the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Canada, Jihad is about being faithful and living a life that is true to the lessons of Allah and to propagating the Islamic faith.  A reasoned discussion of the Qur’an might well include reference to Jihad as it is raised in the Qur’an to be a central component of Islamic history and the Muslim faith.  Indeed, an argument can be made that Canadian broadcasters, and religious channels in particular, have an obligation to explore concepts such as Jihad in an effort to educate viewers and to promote a better understanding of different faiths.

During the July 14 episode of Dil Dil Pakistan, after reviewing the historical connection of the Abrahamic faiths, the presentation emphasizes the importance of family values and strong families being the foundation of society.  Jihad is then noted as another strand “in the way of Allah for the cause of Allah” as part of the propagation of the Muslim faith.  The program then points out that there are different forms of Jihad, and that it can be pursued “when you go to fight the enemy in the battlefield” or “with your financial resources”.  The section then concludes by stressing “the most profound part” being the importance for followers of Islam to propagate the faith.

In reviewing the tone of the presentation and reading the text, the July 14 broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan does not appear to offend current broadcast standards.  It does not target any group or individual and does not promote violence or conflict.  There does not appear to be a “call to arms” or an attempt to incite viewers to cause harm to others.  In the context of the overall presentation, the references to Jihad relate to the passages from Holy Scripture being discussed in the program and are fair comment in a society that upholds the freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

The July 21 Broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan

The only apparent issue in the July 21 broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan was the inclusion of Israr Ahmad in a brief segment of the show.  Again, there was no derogatory comment about an individual or group, the program did not promote violence or incite religious conflict, and in this episode there was no reference to Jihad.

The Appearance of Israr Ahmad in the Dil Dil Pakistan Program

The appearances of Israr Ahmad in the episodes of Dil Dil Pakistan, in and of themselves, offended a number of complainants.  Ahmad is alleged to be the leader of an organization that strives to make Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state.  As noted previously, other published works of Ahmad make derogatory and arguably hateful comments about people of Jewish heritage.

An argument has been advanced that the appearance of Israr Ahmad on VisionTV added an “air of legitimacy” to these other views of Ahmad and that Ahmad, because of his radical view of Islam, when referencing Jihad was encouraging the use of violence by Muslims to propagate their faith.

If we accept this line of reasoning, then the appearance of Israr Ahmad, as part of the content of the programs, may be viewed as having provoked violence against non-Muslims and incited discrimination or hatred against Jews, contrary to the VisionTV Code of Ethics.  And, on the same premise, the programming may have failed to demonstrate the “tolerance, integrity, and social responsibility” required by the CRTC’s Religious Broadcasting Policy and failed to promote “spiritual harmony” set out in the CAB Code of Ethics.  Although an assessment of the transcript and tone of the presentations on Dil Dil Pakistan may not lead to such conclusions, a review of Israr Ahmad as the messenger may prompt a different evaluation.

Response of VisionTV to this Issue

VisionTV, with the support of the producer of Dil Dil Pakistan, has already broadcast on-air apologies for any offence caused by the appearance of Israr Ahmad […].  Neither VisionTV nor the producer of Dil Dil Pakistan intended to encourage or promote, directly or indirectly, violence, hatred, or discrimination.

We have also established a Task Force, including representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams, and other faith institutions, to review VisionTV’s Code of Ethics and procedures for reviewing programs, as current broadcast standards do not address the issue of giving “legitimacy” to individual viewpoints not expressed on-air.  Our screening of the programs in question, which focused on the tone and message conveyed in the broadcast, did not identify an issue with the content.  To what extent the viewpoints of individuals held or expressed outside the program should influence our review of the content to be broadcast on-air is the subject of ongoing discussion with the Task Force.

VisionTV welcomes a review by the CBSC of these episodes to help guide our analysis of similar shows in the future.

Subsequent Visiontv Steps

At the beginning of the Dil Dil Pakistan episodes of July 28 and August 4, VisionTV aired the following statement:

During our program, Dr. Israr Ahmad appeared as a presenter on Dil Dil Pakistan to offer his interpretation of excerpts from the Quran.  The National Post subsequently reported that Dr. Ahmad had made offensive remarks about people of the Jewish community in past speeches and writings.  His appearance on this program deeply troubled a number of people and we apologize for any offence that was unknowingly caused.

Dil Dil Pakistan has a long history of promoting the teachings of the Quran and celebrating the many positive aspects of Islam.  It is our Mission to share the beauty and lessons of the Holy Quran with Muslims and non-Muslim members of our audience.  It was never our intention to offend viewers or to suggest in any way that hatred or violence towards people of other faiths is acceptable.

Each week Dil Dil Pakistan strives to inform the viewing audience about the message of the Holy Quran.  Our program is not affiliated with, nor does it intend, to promote any individual, organization, sect or particular school of thought in Islam. We will strive in future to ensure that individuals appearing on Dil Dil Pakistan have demonstrated, through their writings and public statements, that they share our peaceful interpretation of the message of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet.

We have therefore voluntarily removed Mr. Ahmad as a speaker on any future broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan, and will make alternate arrangements with other speakers to continue to present explanations relating to the Quran in the very near future.

Please pray with us that God Almighty guide us all on the straight path and we cherish our short presence on this earth as true truth seekers, and not be enjoined by hatred, malice or evil in our beautiful homeland we call Canada.

In addition, at various times during the week commencing July 24, VisionTV broadcast the following statement:

Recently, Dr. Israr Ahmad appeared as a presenter on the program Dil Dil Pakistan, broadcast on Saturdays on VisionTV.  The National Post subsequently reported that Dr. Ahmad had made offensive remarks about people of the Jewish community in past speeches and writings.  His appearance on this program deeply troubled a number of people and we apologize for any offence that was unknowingly caused.

The producer of Dil Dil Pakistan has voluntarily removed Mr. Ahmad as a speaker on any future broadcast of Dil Dil Pakistan.  It was never the intention of the producer, or of VisionTV, to offend viewers or to suggest in any way that hatred or violence towards people of other faiths or cultures is acceptable under any circumstances.

VisionTV’s goal – one which we have been successfully pursuing for decades – is to build bridges of understanding amongst Canadians of different faith and cultural backgrounds.  Dil Dil Pakistan and programs like it provide windows into other cultures and religions.  Dialogue is the best solution.  We may from time to time make mistakes but we will not waver from this focus.

The Ruling Request

When the complainant filed his Ruling Request on September 15, he accompanied it with the following note:

In my opinion, VisionTV is in breach of the CRTC codes of conduct under which it is compelled to operate and, accordingly, I request a Ruling by a CBSC Panel.

Israr Ahmad is not a benign educator, as VisionTV knew, or should have known, before broadcasting him giving a monologue, repeatedly (July 14 and July 21) and despite a negative public reaction in the meantime.  This individual carries an established and highly controversial reputation as a promoter of a form of Islamic faith that is inconsistent with the stated ethics of the Broadcaster, CRTC and the values espoused within Canadian human rights.  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.  Surely if Osama bin Laden was available to VisionTV for the same purposes and if he only discussed the weather, implicit approval would be evident by virtue of the invitation.  My point is that Israr Ahmad should not have been presented in the first place.

The general tone of Mr. Ahmad’s presentation is instructional.  There is no attempt to place his remarks in historical context or to differentiate them from contemporary thought.  He makes direct reference to Jihad (not passing references to the concept, as [VisionTV] says) as the highest form of fighting in the cause of Allah, asking viewers to give their contribution to the propagation of the Islamic message the struggle, clarifying that, “You need money for that.  A heavy responsibility has come to your shoulder.  This is your duty, as a means of fulfilling your responsibility when you go to fight the enemy in the battlefield.”  This messaging is directional and vaguely threatening.  It amounts to one-sided propaganda which is in violation of the stated codes of conduct.

Further, VisionTV demonstrates an appalling lack of judgment and sensitivity regarding the need to take careful measures not to incite impressionable youth.  This is a matter of national security.

THE DECISION

The National Specialty Services Panel examined the complaint under the following provisions of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 2 – Human Rights

Recognizing that every person has the right to full and equal recognition and to enjoy certain fundamental rights and freedoms, broadcasters shall ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material or comment which is based on matters of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 7 – Controversial Public Issues

Recognizing in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue, it shall be the responsibility of broadcasters to treat fairly all subjects of a controversial nature.  Time shall be allotted with due regard to all the other elements of balanced program schedules, and the degree of public interest in the questions presented.  Recognizing that healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions, broadcasters will endeavour to encourage the presentation of news and opinion on any controversy which contains an element of the public interest.

CAB Code of Ethics, Clause 8 – Religious Programming

Broadcasters should endeavour to make available to the community adequate opportunity for presentation of religious messages and should also endeavour to assist in all ways open to them the furtherance of religious activities in the community.  Recognizing the purpose of the religious broadcast to be that of promoting the spiritual harmony and understanding of humanity and of administering broadly to the varied religious needs of the community, it shall be the responsibility of each broadcaster to ensure that its religious broadcasts, which reach persons of all creeds and races simultaneously, shall not be used to convey attacks upon another race or religion.

The Panel Adjudicators reviewed all of the correspondence and watched the two challenged episodes of Dil Dil Pakistan.  The Panel concludes that the broadcasts did not violate any of the aforementioned Code provisions.  One of the Adjudicators, T. Rajan, being concerned about missing nuances in the Arabic components of the monologue, abstained solely on the determination of the issue discussed under “The Substance of the Challenged Programming”.

Religious Programming

While it is accepted as a given that VisionTV is a religious broadcaster and that Dil Dil Pakistan is a religious broadcast, the Panel considers it useful to make certain observations regarding religious programming.  The CRTC’s position on this subject is laid down in Religious Broadcasting Policy, Public Notice CRTC 1993-78 (3 June 1993), which is based on the fundamental principle that “the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.”  Without touching on issues that are basic to that policy but not to this decision, such as balance, discretionary services, solicitation of funding and so on, the Panel notes that the section of the P.N. establishing “Guidelines on Ethics for Religious Programming” declares their purpose, in part, “to protect viewers and listeners against intolerance and exploitation.”  They add:

These guidelines recognize and support the freedom and rights of individuals and groups to state their beliefs freely and clearly, and are intended to enable individuals and groups to communicate these beliefs in an appropriate and meaningful manner. The Commission, however, expects that programming of a religious nature, like any programming, must demonstrate tolerance, integrity and social responsibility.

Finally, under “Programming Practices”, the Guidelines require that licensees who broadcast religious programs shall ensure that “No programs shall have the effect of abusing or misrepresenting any individual or group.”  Reflecting those precepts, the religious programming clause of the CAB Code of Ethics provides in part that

it shall be the responsibility of each broadcaster to ensure that its religious broadcasts, which reach persons of all creeds and races simultaneously, shall not be used to convey attacks upon another race or religion.

The foregoing principles provide the Panel with the context for its appreciation of the challenged program.

The Appearance Of Israr Ahmad

Complaints treated by the CBSC almost invariably relate to what was said or shown on radio or television, rarely, if ever, by whom the content was uttered.  This complaint is conceptually a step beyond that point.  It focuses on the mere presence of a person on a broadcast.  That person was Israr Ahmad, who, even VisionTV acknowledged, may have had something of a controversial reputation.  The broadcaster did admit that the challenged episodes of Dil Dil Pakistan in which he played a part generated numerous negative reactions, largely on the basis of his apparent history of anti-Semitic comments (not necessarily in a broadcast context, whether in Canada or elsewhere).  In any event, from a procedural perspective, the CBSC has only been called upon to deal with the one complaint from an individual who had filed a Ruling Request.  On the point related to Ahmad’s presence on Dil Dil Pakistan, the complainant wrote:

Israr Ahmad is not a benign educator, as VisionTV knew, or should have known, before broadcasting him giving a monologue, repeatedly (July 14 and July 21) and despite a negative public reaction in the meantime.  This individual carries an established and highly controversial reputation as a promoter of a form of Islamic faith that is inconsistent with the stated ethics of the Broadcaster, CRTC and the values espoused within Canadian human rights.  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.  Surely if Osama bin Laden was available to VisionTV for the same purposes and if he only discussed the weather, implicit approval would be evident by virtue of the invitation.  My point is that Israr Ahmad should not have been presented in the first place.

The Specialty Services Panel does not share the complainant’s perspective.  Even assuming that Israr Ahmad was not a “benign educator”, did have a “highly controversial reputation” as a promoter of an unethical and incompatible form of Islam, and had made hateful comments about identifiable groups in other fora (the CBSC hastens to add that it has done no research and has no opinion on these allegations), 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 such as the complainant’s facetiously suggested individual, Osama bin Laden, 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.  Moreover, the prospect of controversy with its attendant counterweights of plus and minus, positive and negative, in favour of and against, agreement and disagreement, are an anticipated and acceptable part of the broadcast firmament.  Clause 7 of the CAB Code of Ethics recognizes “in a democracy the necessity of presenting all sides of a public issue [emphasis added]” and specifically provides that “healthy controversy is essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions.”  And this concept is consistent with the provisions of the federal Broadcasting Act, which, in Section 3, refers to programming that is “varied and comprehensive” and that “provides a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern.”

The foregoing should not be understood as being the equivalent of a “blank cheque”.  Those broadcasters that are members of the CBSC are also obliged not to contravene the Council’s codified standards.  They must, in other words, respect the Human Rights Clause of the CAB Code of Ethics, as well as all other Code clauses.  What this means is that, as 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. The bottom line is that, absent circumstances that do not arise in the present file, a broadcaster will not find itself in breach of a codified standard as the result of the mere presence of a controversial individual on its airwaves.

The Substance Of The Challenged Programming

The question for the Specialty Services Panel, then, is the nature of the statements made by Israr Ahmad.  In this respect, there were, as alleged by the complainant, only two potentially contentious issues, which he characterized as “propaganda messaging of hate and violence”.  As to the first, 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 of the CAB Code of Ethics on this account.  The only potentially contentious issue, therefore, is that related to the discussion of jihad, which, it should be noted, 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.

In the view of the Panel, there was no call to arms or indeed any form of incitement of violence.  Indeed, the only reference to physical conflict of any kind is found in Israr Ahmad’s discussion of the strand of jihad when he said “either with your financial resources or your bodily strength when you go to fight the enemies of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’alla [glory and exultation be to Him]) on the battlefield.”  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 and worshipping of others along with Allah.”  This is not to suggest that there may not be some persons who interpret those words in a violent way and use them as a spur to hostile acts.  That is not, however, the Panel’s understanding of Israr Ahmad’s comments in the challenged episode.  Whatever he may have said in other venues on other occasions (and the CBSC does not know what that may have been), he said nothing in either the July 14 or July 21 programs that would lead the Panel to conclude that there has been a breach of any of the foregoing codified standards.  (On this issue, as noted above under The Decision, one Adjudicator has abstained.)

Broadcaster Responsiveness

Since broadcasters are required, as a part of their membership requirements, to respond in a thoughtful and fulsome way to the complainant(s), it is the practice of the CBSC to include, as a part of its decisions, an assessment of the broadcaster’s responsiveness.  In the matter at hand, the broadcaster took considerable initiative with respect, not only to the complainant who filed the Ruling Request, but also with respect to all others that were forwarded to VisionTV by the CBSC.  In addition to explaining to each complainant that, in VisionTV’s view, the hateful comments attributed to Israr Ahmad had not appeared on the service, VisionTV broadcast on-air apologies for any offence that may have been caused, suspended broadcast of the program while working on the resolution of the issues, established a Task Force to review their own standards and content verification procedures, and requested themselves that the CBSC review the broadcasts to determine conformity with codified standards.  In the view of the Panel, VisionTV could not have responded more quickly or more thoroughly to the complaints they faced.  The specialty service has more than fulfilled its obligation of responsiveness with respect to the complaints about the challenged broadcast.

This decision is a public document upon its release by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.  It may be reported, announced or read by the station against which the complaint had originally been made; however, where, as in the present case, the decision is favourable, the station is under no obligation to announce the result.