Leaks, lies and sensational headlines: lessons from the Arar case

Regan Ray

After unverified lies published in the media resulted in attacks on his reputation, Maher Arar says the best thing journalists can do is learn from past mistakes. Now back in the news because of an FBI agent’s recent testimony at a Guantanamo Bay court, Arar finds there are still lessons that must be learned.

“What has been done has been done and I think it is important to think forward,” Arar told a Toronto crowd, during a Jan. 29 Canadian Journalism Foundation event called “High-level leaks and undisclosed sources: The case of Maher Arar and lapsed media ethics.”

LISTEN to Maher Arar’s introductory remarks at the panel (4:17).

CJF_PanelArar, the Syrian-born Canadian who was detained, sent to Syria, jailed for nearly a year and tortured about alleged links to al-Qaeda, returned to the media spotlight recently when his name was uttered durring testimony at a military court in Guantanamo Bay.

The agent testified that in 2002 Omar Khadr told him he recognized Arar from “terrorist safe houses” in Afghanistan. This came out in day one of the agent’s Guantanamo testimony. However, the following day it was revealed that Arar was, in fact, in North America during the period of time concerned.

As a part of his prepared presentation, Arar examined the coverage of this court testimony.

“In my opinion, headlines are very important,” he began. “I think most readers, when they read a newspaper, they first read the headline and decide whether they want to continue reading or not.

“I just want you to think about those headlines,” he told the crowd and suggested that “in sensitive cases like this, or important public interest cases” the reporter who writes the story should be involved in the headline writing as well, to avoid any unnecessary confusion. Arar pointed to the damage done by putting the first day’s testimony on A1, but then pushing the second day’s less flashy headline to the inside pages.

Kery Pither, a human rights activist and author of Dark Days: The Story of Four Canadians Tortured in the Name of Fighting Terror who played a big part in the struggle for Arar’s release, was also on the panel. Pither suggested ambition and a desire for sensational news is at the root of the problem.

“Beyond the accreditation of individual journalists and the ethics of individual journalists is this idea that the journalist take responsibility for the headlines on their story when the allegations are as serious as this,” she told the crowd at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. “In my opinion the allegation was sensational, but the fact that we were all intentionally misled with that allegation is just as, or even more, sensational and should have also been on the front page.”

Another member of the evening’s panel, Jeff Sallot, a Carleton journalism professor and former security correspondent for The Globe and Mail, suggested another solution for maintaining a higher standard of ethical journalism: certification of journalists.

“Maybe it’s time for journalistic organizations to be thinking about some kind of a certification program—not that it’s going to prevent others from entering the world of journalism, bloggers and so on,” he said. “But those of us who want to describe ourselves as professionals and who are concerned about our reputations can say, ‘Look, I subscribe to this code of ethics, this organization has a way of sanctioning me if I violate it.’”

Sallot was cautious to note that he is against government licensing of journalists, which can easily lead to self-censoring, but suggests that “you gotta shake your head” at the notion that certification is required to cut hair but not “to destroy reputations as a journalist.”

One of the real problems facing Canadian journalism, according to CBC News security correspondent and Bill Gillespie (also on the panel) is government secrecy.  “In Canada, we have one of the most, if I can use the term, repressive, regimes when it comes to releasing information,” he told the audience. “It is far easier to get information in the United States about Canada than it is to get information about Canada in Canada from our government.” Arar_Podium

Gillespie said anonymous sources have been “cast in a bad light,” as in the tragic case of Arar, but that in many cases they can draw out whistle-blowers who would otherwise remain silent. “What we really need in Canada is to get rid of this farce of a Freedom of Information Act, which is really there to suppress information. We have to catch up with some other countries, such as the U.S., when it comes to a basic respect for the public’s right to know and we don’t have that in Canada from our government,” he finished to cheers from the crowd.

Throughout the evening Arar emphasized the importance of an independent, responsible news media. “I want reporters to consider who they serve, the powerful and the anonymous or the weak and the vulnerable,” he said. “Err on the side of the weak not the strong.”

“This is not to discourage you from writing stories,” he told the
journalists in the audience. “To the contrary, it’s to encourage you to
write stories, but the right ones, and make sure you ask the right
questions and try to get as many facts as possible.”

Regan Ray is associate editor of J-Source.

(Next week on J-Source: CBC
News security correspondent Bill Gillespie recounts the morning FBI
agent Robert Fuller testified and how the group of journalists in
Guantanamo Bay reacted before publishing.)


Read Haroon Siddiqui’s Toronto Star column, “Media duped by anonymous sources”

Listen the CBC’s As It Happens segment on the event. (Part 3 at 13:23)