Journalists should come clean on Maher Arar smear

by ANDREW MITROVICA, Toronto Star

Aspiring journalists I teach will write an important exam later this week. One of the questions they will consider deals with the guiding principles of journalism. To prepare, my students and I have vigorously debated the meaning and significance of these principles. Almost unanimously, the class concluded that a journalist's paramount duty is to tell the truth.

I agree with my students. Journalists must, above all else, be servants of the truth.

Canadian torture survivor Maher Arar, shares this fidelity to the truth. To that end, he called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week to convene an independent inquiry to ferret out the anonymous government and security officials who spread lies about who and what he is.

The intent of the smear campaign, Arar insisted, was to destroy his name and reputation despite the fact he had been abducted, illegally deported and subsequently tortured for more than 10 months in a grave-like Syrian cell. Arar is determined to prevent these shadowy officials from harming other Canadians as they have harmed him.

On behalf of the citizens and government of Canada, Harper should finally apologize to Arar and heed his call for a probe into the sources of the smears.

But as Justice Dennis O'Connor reasoned in his damning report into Arar's ordeal, there are always two parties to a smear: those who initiate the falsehoods and those who give sustenance to them.

Regrettably, prominent reporters at some of Canada's most powerful news organizations perpetuated the myth that Arar was a terrorist and thus, in large measure, deserving of his fate.

I recently conducted an exhaustive review of media coverage of the Arar affair from mid-October 2002, when word first broke that the soft-spoken engineer had been secretly shipped to Syria, to October 2006.

The investigation revealed that while there were journalists who challenged the official story peddled by anonymous sources, there was little examination of media complicity in the blackening of Arar's name and reputation.

Writers often denounced state officials and the RCMP when it became clear that misinformation was leaked, but rarely condemned the reporters and news agencies that published or broadcast the accusations.

These stories included charges that Arar was "a very bad guy" who had received extensive terror training in Afghanistan; that he had provided authorities with the names of other Canadians plotting mayhem in Canada; and that despite his repeated and consistent expressions of innocence, the new father was an unrepentant liar.

All of the accusations and the stories turned out to be untrue.

In repeating the falsehoods offered to them by their still concealed sources, some reporters failed, I believe, another core journalistic duty — verification.

My lengthy career as an investigative reporter has made me cognizant of the potential hazards of relying on the word of anonymous sources. I wrote a book exposing corruption and incompetence inside Canada's spy service. My editors and I decided that since the book's central character was pointing an accusatory finger at senior intelligence officers, he needed to move out of the shadows and into the public light.

Convincing my source to reveal his identity and motives was just the first step.

The information he offered up had to be checked against authentic documents and the testimony of other human sources who could corroborate and, perhaps even more importantly, challenge his version of events. This vital system of checks and balances, I am convinced, collapsed in the reporting that labelled Arar a liar and terrorist.

The consequences of this have left a profound and enduring psychological, emotional, and financial imprint on Arar and his family.

It is time the reporters and editors who published or broadcast falsehoods fed to them by anonymous sources publicly acknowledge their egregious errors and apologize to Arar. They might also want to revisit the journalistic convention stipulating that promises of anonymity are voided when sources are revealed to have lied.

The independent inquiry that Arar is demanding may prove to be unnecessary. It is clear from my examination of the media record that there are many reporters and editors in the Ottawa press corps who know the leakers' identities.

They would do well to remember that the first obligation of journalism is to serve the truth and not the interests of state officials who caused grievous damage to an innocent man's life. In particular, the journalists who were complicit — wittingly or unwittingly — in smearing Arar should do the right thing and expose their discredited sources. The truth demands it.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey