Media Culpa
Media outlets are too eager to root out terrorists

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, media outlets seem hell-bent on rooting out terrorists -- despite the needed proof


When will it end? When will the media's irresponsible rush to judgment end? When will reporters and editors in Canada stop relying on police and intelligence sources to tar the names and reputations of the innocent? When will common sense, fairness, and, dare I say, a hint of decency, return to our newsrooms?

I ask these questions because since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it appears that many journalists -- including those toiling at tabloids, prime-time newscasts, and sober-thinking major newspapers -- have all but abandoned the notion of due diligence before splashing the names and pictures of "suspected terrorists" on their front pages and our television screens.

Scores of men, women and their families -- mostly Islamic or of Arabic descent -- have been, in effect, charged, tried and convicted as "terrorists" by newspapers and television networks thirsting after a scoop in the media hysteria Sept.11 has spawned.

The disturbing scenes are becoming all too familiar. Harried "suspected terrorists" shielding their faces from cameras feeds the indelible impression of guilt. Well-choreographed raids by police hauling belongings from a "terror" suspect's home offer the supposed "seal" of proof.

Aided and abetted by a coterie of self-anointed security experts and police and intelligence "insiders," who conveniently hide behind the cloak of anonymity, newspapers and newscasts have been filled with ominous news of yet another nest of terrorists "linked" to Osama bin Laden lurking in our midst, poised to strike with lethal ferocity.

The stories follow a familiar arc. First, news leaks of the arrest or detention of an Arab or Muslim whom "well-placed" authorities insist has "ties" to terrorism. Then the usual gang of Opposition MPs, former intelligence officers and sound-bite-proficient academics offer up the predictable whipping boys to explain away the latest "Canadian connection" to terror; namely, Canada's "lax" immigration policy and the "under-funding" of police and intelligence services.

But the alarmist voices, headlines, intelligence experts, and reporters are, more often than not, simply wrong.

We saw an example of this regrettable saga play itself out several months ago. CNN -- the self-proclaimed "world's most trusted news source" -- sounded the alarm, reporting that five Arab men carrying false travel documents and bent on terror had infiltrated the United States via Canada. That the "link" to Canada rested on a shred and was unsubstantiated had little bearing on news editors north of the border. Newscasts and newspapers were filled with the "threat" posed by the illusive and potentially dangerous gang of five.

The story gained even greater cachet in Canada when police sources "confirmed" that the alert for the stealthy terrorists was triggered by information supplied by a man holed up in a Toronto jail. More banner headlines dutifully followed suit.

But there was more. The informant had information that many more terrorists had slipped into the United States from Canada. The story hit the media stratosphere, with the pictures of the five suspected terrorists shown over and over again in the neverending cycle of rumour that increasingly passes for news on all-news channels.

The story eventually imploded. The FBI admitted it was all based on a house of cards and blamed its ineptitude on its once-prized informant, turned hoaxer. The world's pre-eminent law enforcement agency sheepishly removed the pictures of the five men from its Web site and called off its hound dogs. The FBI acknowledged that it didn't even know if the men ever stepped foot inside the United States. Despite its colossal faux pas, the FBI has yet to offer an apology.

Not surprisingly, media outlets north and south of the border that were unreservedly complicit in this disgraceful episode weren't inclined to offer the men an apology either.

So the five men now join a long list of others media outlets -- working in cahoots with CSIS and the FBI -- have accused of being terrorists, despite lack of proof. Among them:

• Nabil al-Marabh, a Syrian refugee claimant who worked as photo clerk in Toronto;

• Liban Hussein, a Somali immigrant who operated a money-transfer business in Ottawa;

•Najeeb Al-Hadi, a Yemeni national arrested at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Sept. 11, 2001.

After a query from an enterprising Associated Press reporter in Washington, the U.S Justice Department acknowledged that 99 per cent of the individuals it has detained since Sept. 11 have been released after no evidence could be found connecting them to any terror group or terrorist activity.

Editors should keep that unassailable fact in mind the next time they're inclined to stamp "terrorist" on someone's forehead.

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* This article is reproduced from MEDIA, the magazine of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Fall/Winter 2003. Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Covert Entry: Spies, Lies and Crimes Inside Canada's Secret Service.

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