Confronting and Addressing Islamophobia and Anti-Palestinian Racism Within CBC

6 juin 2024

The following letter was sent to CBC Executives on June 6th, 2024 signed by over 500 members of the Canadian documentary and larger cultural community.

See the full list of signatures and add your own name

June 6, 2024

Dear Catherine Tait, Sally Catto, Jennifer Dettman, and CBC Values and Ethics Commissioner,

Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism exist throughout Canadian society and its institutions; they are not limited to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But as the country’s national broadcaster and a leading producer of news and documentary content, CBC is mandated to “reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada,” which creates a special duty to acknowledge, confront and eliminate these forms of racism within its internal culture, including within its news and documentary departments.

While manifestations of Islamophobia in Canada are well documented, the impacts of anti-Palestinian racism are less widely understood. In 2022, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association provided a detailed report on anti-Palestinian racism in Canada, including this definition:

Anti-Palestinian racism is a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives. Anti-Palestinian racism takes various forms including:

  • denying the Nakba and justifying violence against Palestinians;
  • failing to acknowledge Palestinians as an Indigenous people with a collective identity, belonging and rights in relation to occupied and historic Palestine;
  • erasing the human rights and equal dignity and worth of Palestinians;
  • excluding or pressuring others to exclude Palestinian perspectives, Palestinians and their allies;
  • defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander such as being inherently antisemitic, a terrorist threat/sympathizer or opposed to democratic values.

We, the undersigned documentary professionals, cultural workers, and other concerned parties, are publicly calling upon CBC to address an apparent pattern of anti-Palestinian bias, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism within the corporation’s news and documentary culture.

In so doing, we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian-Canadian Artists and Academics Network (PCAAN), and echo their recent call for accountability.

We are writing this letter because we value CBC and sincerely believe in its mandate. We believe that a thriving and truly inclusive public broadcaster is pivotal to a healthy democracy and a pluralistic society. But we are also sharing this letter publicly because members of our community have made several good-faith attempts to seek accountability for previously unreported instances of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism within CBC’s documentary unit, to no avail.

Below, we outline recent examples of anti-Palestinian bias and anti-Palestinian racism at CBC News, to contextualize the Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism we have witnessed within CBC’s documentary unit:

August 2020: CBC Radio program The Current deletes the word “Palestine” from the online record and later broadcasts of an episode; the show host later issues an on-air apology for having used the word “Palestine” at all.

April 2021: In notable contrast to The Globe & Mail, BBC, and NPR, CBC declines to cover Human Rights Watch’s groundbreaking report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.

May 2021: Hundreds of Canadian journalists sign an open letter to Canadian newsrooms calling for fair, nuanced and contextual reporting on Palestine and for the inclusion of Palestinian voices; CBC journalists who sign the letter later report that CBC had barred them from working on stories related to Palestine-Israel; leaked emails from CBC management to all staff ask them to refrain from using “Palestine” even in casual conversations.

June 2022: The Review of Journalism publishes “CBC’s Palestine Exception. » It contains numerous direct accounts from current and former CBC staff, illustrating a culture of fear that prevails in relation to the organization’s reporting on Palestine, and how that chill contributes to anti-Palestinian bias in CBC coverage.

Since the Hamas attacks of October 7 and the subsequent Israeli military operations in Gaza, this pattern of discriminatory coverage has become more pronounced. In December 2023, a report from The Breach and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Review of Journalism found that CBC News’ The National featured 42% more Israeli voices than Palestinian in its first month of coverage following October 7.

In January 2024, another report in The Breach detailed the double-standard in CBC’s description of killings of approximately 1,200 Israelis by Hamas (“murderous,” “vicious,” “brutal,” “massacre,” and “slaughter”) vs more neutral language (“intensive,” “unrelenting,” and “punishing”) to describe the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians by Israeli forces.

And then, most comprehensively, in May 2024, The Breach published a first-hand account from a Jewish former CBC reporter, detailing numerous specific instances of anti-Palestinian bias within CBC News, as well as a clear double standard with respect to the CBC’s framing of Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. The article sets out how, since October 7th, CBC News staff have, among other things:

  • repeatedly canceled or pre-taped Palestinian guests;
  • brought scrutiny to Palestinian guests’ statements that was not applied to Israelis;
  • allowed Israeli guests to make false claims on-air without pushback because “time was limited”;
  • avoided airing uses of the word “genocide” in the context of Gaza;
  • drawn up an unofficial list of “banned” Palestinian guests to avoid;
  • made dehumanizing comments about Palestinians in the newsroom;

and minimized examples of anti-Palestinian racism while emphasizing examples of antisemitism in their reporting.

After the story was published, Canada’s Special Representative on Combating Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby, called it an “extremely disturbing read that resurfaces serious questions about anti-Palestinian bias” at CBC. She announced that she would seek to meet with CBC President Catherine Tait in an effort to “ensure Canadian Muslim voices are fairly reflected and included in CBC coverage.”

Later, in its News Editor’s Blog, the general manager and editor in chief of CBC News, Brodie Fenlon, sought to deny the article’s general contentions of pro-Israeli whitewashing and censorship. But Mr. Fenlon also conceded that the instances of bias cited in the article will “ring true” to some journalists at CBC, and that CBC has, at times, failed to “[live] up to our values of inclusivity.”

Islamophobia & Anti-Palestinian Racism within CBC Documentaries

These failures to live up to CBC’s values are not unique to CBC News. We must also call attention to evidenced instances of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism within CBC’s documentary unit, indicating that these forms of discrimination may be endemic across CBC more broadly.

In January 2024, members of our community learned that since October 7, in clear contravention of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, a CBC documentary production executive had shared dozens of racist, discriminatory and often factually incorrect social media posts about Muslims, Palestine, and Palestinians. Some of these posts directly confronted filmmakers who expressed support for Palestinians during South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice — a case that resulted in a determination that Palestinians have plausible rights to protection from genocide in relation to the Israeli Defense Forces’ siege of Gaza.

Per CBC policies, this behaviour would be inappropriate for any CBC employee. But the posts were especially shocking coming from a production executive with major editorial oversight, who plays a central role in determining which filmmakers and documentary projects CBC will commission.

In late January, the executive’s behavior was privately brought to the attention of the executive’s manager, the CBC Ombudsman, and the CBC Values and Ethics Commissioner. But, consistent with accounts of a double-standard, these Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian posts, which plainly violated CBC policies, were not immediately curtailed. Instead, over a span of months, these policy violations were allowed to continue and even intensify.

It was this apparent impunity that prompted a formal letter of complaint on February 26, laying out this executive’s evident breaches of the social media provisions of CBC’s journalistic standards, including screenshots of the posts in question. Even then, this executive continued to violate those policies, posting publicly via a secondary social media account that CBC failed to discover for a further four weeks. This executive eventually went on leave, but only after CBC received a second letter of complaint on March 28, signed by over 130 documentary professionals, which revealed the existence of the secondary account, along with its inflammatory Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian contents. Sadly, CBC’s apparent lack of urgency and rigour in addressing these repeated policy violations left the community with a clear impression: combating Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism is not a priority for CBC.

Since early March, advocates representing documentary filmmakers and racialized screen creators have held several meetings with senior CBC management, urging the organization to publicly disavow the discriminatory attitudes evidenced in the social media posts, and to take concrete steps to ensure that Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism will not be tolerated within CBC’s documentary unit going forward. Unfortunately, those managers have not been prepared to openly voice such commitments.

Within the same timeframe, we have heard multiple stories from documentary filmmakers of their experiences of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian discrimination in working with CBC over many years. These filmmakers have also expressed reluctance to report these instances of discrimination to CBC executives for fear of reprisal. This understandable reluctance makes it difficult to quantify the impacts of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism on CBC’s documentary programming — a difficulty compounded by the fact that CBC does not currently publish equity data on its documentary unit.

In private, senior CBC managers have candidly acknowledged the breach of community trust caused by the Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism demonstrated by the above-referenced production executive, and have professed a desire to repair that breach.

One potential avenue to begin that repair was the recent CRTC-mandated consultation with racialized producers convened on May 22, inviting responses to the question: “How can CBC nurture our relationships with independent racialized producers and creators in Canada? » And yet, when participants in the consultation attempted to raise concerns about Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, they were effectively shut down on the basis that CBC could not address such concerns in a public forum.

If CBC is to regain the community’s trust, nurture positive relationships with racialized creators, and truly live up to its mandate to reflect Canada’s multicultural and multiracial composition, CBC leadership must embrace transparency and accountability.

To that end, we are seeking the following five commitments from CBC:

  1. CBC must give substance to its senior managers’ private statements by publicly acknowledging the harms and breaches of trust caused by the Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian behavior of CBC staff.
  2. CBC must publicly set out the steps it will undertake to ensure that Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism will no longer be tolerated within CBC, including specific steps to ensure that these forms of discrimination will not continue to influence which films and filmmakers are supported, or restrict Palestinian voices from being platformed on CBC News. Further, these steps should be undertaken in consultation with representatives of the impacted communities.
  3. CBC must commit that, going forward, all CBC news and documentary staff will receive training on Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.
  4. CBC must commit to a 10-year historical audit disclosing data relating to the commissioning and licensing of productions by independent racialized and Indigenous creators. Going forward, CBC must annually publish equity data on representation within CBC programming, the directors and producers whose work is commissioned and acquired, and among its staff and editorial decision-makers. Further, assessments of the data to be collected and shared should be undertaken in consultation with representatives of the impacted communities.
  5. CBC must establish a clear channel for independent creators to report instances of discrimination, including how those who seek to report discrimination will be protected, and what kind of procedures and timelines for resolution they can expect.

We understand that CBC is a large and multifaceted organization, and that some of these measures may require time to implement. We also understand that accepting these commitments will require courage from CBC leadership in withstanding the inevitable external anti-Palestinian pushback. But we stand ready to support CBC in these efforts, as we ultimately share the same goal: a truly pluralistic, transparent, and anti-discriminatory public broadcaster, of which Canadians can be proud.

We respectfully look forward to an initial public response by June 14, 2024.