Caabu welcomes PCC decision against a complaint by Ribal al-Assad

Posted by Caabu on 30 Jul 2013

Caabu welcomes the findings of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) against a complaint by Ribal al-Assad against an article in the Guardian by its Director, Chris Doyle in 2011.  The PCC stated that there had been no breach of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The original article had argued that it was inappropriate for the son of Rifaat al-Assad, the man widely accused of the 1982 massacre in Hama in Syria,  to be feted in Parliament. Doyle has pointed out that Ribal has been acting an apologist for his father in numerous media interviews, even claiming that Rifat had been a democrat since the 1970s when he had been at the right hand of Presdient Hafiz al-assad, his brother and dictator.

Doyle said, "I am delighted that the PCC has found that what I wrote about Rifat al-Assad and his son was fair comment. Ever since writing this, I and my family have been subjected to various smears and intimidation but this will not stop us from speaking out, either about past atrocities in Syria, or those that are currently taking place."

Here are the full findings of the PCC:

 

Commission's decision in the case of al-Assad v The Guardian

The complainant was concerned about an article which criticised the fact that he had been invited to speak at the Houses of Parliament, in the light of allegations made about his father, Rifaat al-Assad, in relation to the massacre in Hama, Syria, in 1982. He said that the allegation that his father was responsible for the Hama massacre was false, and had been fabricated by his uncle, the then President of Syria. In this regard, he was particularly concerned about two statements in the article concerning his father, namely that “few in the region have more innocent blood on their hands” and that “the city with which Rifaat will always be associated is Hama”. The complainant considered that these were inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice; he further considered that, in reporting the allegations against his father, the newspaper had failed to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1(iii) of the Code.

The newspaper explained that the claim that “few in the region have more innocent blood on their hands” was supported by a report by Human Rights Watch, a link to which was embedded in the article. It did not consider that it had been inaccurate to state that Rifaat al-Assad will always be associated with Hama, in the light of the numerous published sources which attributed responsibility for the massacre to him; a number of which it provided in support of its position. The newspaper maintained that the article had made clear that these were allegations; it was stated in the sub-headline that “Rifaat al-Assad may be responsible for the deaths of thousands”, and later on that he was “accused of masterminding [the massacre]”. In its view, the complainant’s visit to Parliament was a legitimate subject of comment in the light of the allegations against his father, this was clearly a comment piece, and the author had not failed to distinguish clearly between comment conjecture and fact.

Clause 1(i) states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. Under Clause 1(iii) “the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

The Commission noted the complainant’s position that the allegations against his father had been fabricated. Whilst the article had repeated the allegations, and presented the columnist’s view that the complainant’s father should have been put on trial over these, the Commission did not consider that the article had failed to make readers aware of the fact that the allegations remained unproven. It was clear that Rifaat al-Assad had not faced trial over these, and the equivocal use of the word “may” in the sub-headline and the reference to these being accusations later in the article were sufficient to demonstrate that, in repeating the allegations, the article had distinguished clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

The Commission noted that it was accurate to report the existence of these allegations; this was accepted by the complainant, and the newspaper was able to present a number of sources, including the Human Rights Watch report which was embedded in the online article in support of its position. The Commission was satisfied that the newspaper had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the article for the purposes of Clause 1(i). Whilst the complainant clearly disputed the allegations, the Commission was not ultimately able to come to a finding of fact in relation to his father’s role in events which took place in Syria over 30 years ago.Under such circumstances, the Commission was not able to establish a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concerns that it was offensive for the article to have suggested that MPs should not welcome him to Parliament as a consequence of the allegations relating to his father. However, it made clear that the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence. The Code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the Code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised.  In this instance, the article’s author had been entitled to express his opinion that the complainant was an inappropriate guest at Parliament; and in the absence of any breach of the Code, the Commission did not comment further on the matter.

Reference No. 131956