Toronto Star coverage of Omar Khadr since his trial week (Oct 25, 2010)

by Heather Marsh

In a case like Omar Khadr’s, where one full decade of complicated legal evidence and misinformation have combined to make a quick assessment of the facts impossible for the average Canadian, the tone of everyday mainstream media coverage is all important. Every quick article updating news on the case also serves as an opportunity to present a simple sketch of Khadr.

This is the first installment of what will be a very large spreadsheet charting coverage of Omar Khadr for the last ten years. Subjective keywords with emotional impact are tallied by article. The spreadsheet can then be sorted, by date, author, media outlet etc, to get a picture of where Canadian mainstream media has stood on this debate and how well they have attempted to show different points of view or just stick to accurate facts. The only media we are charting are the respected mainstream outlets with the greatest distribution and trust; no blogs and not Sun Media.

No, a word count does not tell everything; sometimes a word is used when the writer is arguing against its use or because it is necessary to a certain story. More often however, these words are slipped in as insidious descriptors, in article after article, until the person who could easily have been ‘Canadian child torture victim Omar Khadr’ is forever in the public memory as ‘convicted war criminal Omar Khadr’. Taken overall, the words show the context in which Omar’s name is mentioned, the popular story being framed around him.

Unfortunately, there is almost no diversity of message in Canada’s one voice mainstream media which uses a faux debate over Omar’s return to drum the identical message about Omar from almost every single outlet. The Toronto Star is Canada’s highest-circulation newspaper, and the one popularly depicted as the most liberal, Omar Khadr supportive paper. The paper is meant to be guided by the six Atkinson Principles which include ‘social justice’ and ‘individual and civil liberties’. It’s primary reporter on the Khadr case wrote a popular book about the case, and the reporting is widely relied on by liberal minded Canadians to give a fair or favourable depiction of Omar Khadr.

The spreadsheet so far includes all of the Star coverage since the trial week, beginning in October 25, 2012. The ‘trial’ was held with the most widely derided court and procedures since the Salem witch trials and a newly created ‘military commission’ instead of either of the two legitimate US courts (civilian or military), but the word ‘convicted’ occurs uncontested 34 times in 24 articles. The crimes Omar Khadr was charged with include one which the US calls a war crime. None of the rest of the world, including Canada, recognize the impossible ‘murder in violation of the laws of war’ as a war crime, and it could not be legitimately applied to Khadr’s case anyway since it was invented in 2006 and he was captured in 2002. Nevertheless, the words ‘war crime(s)/criminal’ occur 40 times in 24 articles as factual detail of the case. He is accused of ‘five war crimes’ 16 times, even though even the US did not call the others war crimes. The highly suspect plea deal which Omar signed after eight years of torture as his only path out of a legal black hole has been rubbed in his face by the Star 40 times, in the words ‘pleaded guilty/admitted/confessed’, presented without qualifiers. Despite there being absolutely no evidence to point to Khadr killing anyone, and a great deal of evidence that shows it would have been impossible for him to throw the grenade, the words ‘murder/killer’ are used against him 50 times, more than two times per article. In 24 articles, the word ‘jihad’ was worked in eight times, ‘al Qaeda’ 25, and ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ (the word terror was not included in the count) 30 times.

One third of the 24 articles paint a negative image right from the title or photo caption, and nine of them from the first sentence. (The article word count includes the title and photo captions as well, and the caption writers are often much more negative than the article writers.) The US renaming conventions were apparently not Orwellian enough for the Star caption editor, who renamed the Guantanamo military commission a “US war crimes tribunal” and post trial jail time, which the Pentagon has named ‘punitive post conviction confinement’ becomes the softer restrictive post-conviction custody in the Star.

Of the 24 articles, 16 are by Michelle Shephard, who recently won an award from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association “to celebrate her contribution to the better knowledge for Canadians on issues about civil liberties, the repercussion of Sept. 11 and Omar Khadr.” Shephard managed to use ‘convicted’ 24 times, ‘war crime(s)/criminal’ 30 times, ‘pleaded guilty/admitted/confessed’ 32 times, and ‘murder/killer’ an amazing 43 times in 16 articles. This feat was made possible by referring to the subject nearly always as some variation of “convicted war criminal Omar Khadr, who pleaded guilty to five war crimes including murder,” a more subtle but far more damaging attack than the Sun Media’s “Killer Khadr” headings. The word ‘medic’ appears 6 times since the trial, always from Michelle Shephard (the special forces fighter Omar is accused of killing was not acting as a medic). In Shephard’s reporting since and during the trial, there is one thoughtful analysis of the case in which the words used are part of a larger balanced view; all the rest of the articles are simply news, and the words are descriptors being applied as factual detail.

While Colin Perkel’s two articles have the worst statistics, they do attempt to include some nuance from both sides, and incorporate sentences such asCritics of the military commissions have long held that the charge of murder in violation of the rule of war — the most serious conviction against Khadr — has no basis under international law. They have also been fiercely critical of prosecuting Khadr, who was 15 years old at the time of his crimes.This does not seem sufficient in an article which used the phrase “five war crimes” three times in one article, and it is unclear why these facts need to be presented as  the opinion of ‘critics’ when they are the opinion of international law, but it is something.

Omar’s first interrogator, when he had bullet wounds the size of fists in his chest and eyes wounded by shrapnel, was convicted murderer Joshua Claus who is mentioned once (by Shephard); Bagram is never mentioned, Geneva Conventions also never. ‘Torture’ appears a mere three times, once in the name of the UN Committee Against Torture and never referring specifically to what happened to Omar.

‘Child’ appears 28 times (excluding the very high number of mentions of children of US special forces fighters), but 8 of the mentions appear in a very uninformed and backhanding article by Craig and Marc Kielburger which warns of dire consequences since Omar has not been ‘rehabilitated’ and assumes his guilt as a child soldier.

So this, in the Canadian media, is as good as it gets for Omar, the paper with the reputation of standing up for Omar’s rights and the reporter who has won awards for getting the truth out about his case. There has not been one article in the Star since the trial that discussed the problems with the evidence, the court, the crimes, the witnesses or the plea deal. The opinions of Omar’s three highly accredited psychologists, Dr. Marc Sageman, Dr. Stephen Xenakis, and Dr. Katherine Porterfield are not mentioned, and the highly suspect credentials of dissenting psychiatrist Welner are not questioned.

While a random al Qaeda story was mined salaciously for a link with Khadrs, no article was written regarding the United Nations Committee Against Torture criticizing the Canadian government for delaying Omar’s return to Canada and recommending that Canada (presumably including the largest circulation newspaper) raise awareness of the Convention against Torture requirements amongst judges and members of the public.

While every article lately carefully mentions opposition to Omar’s return, none have told Canadians about the terrifying stalking of Omar’s grandparents by both media and racist hate groups. Despite the opposition to Omar’s return being openly funded by and created by the Jewish Defense League and the Hindu Advocacy Group, who have a “multi faith coalition” with each other and the Christian Heritage Party, none are mentioned by name. The JDL is the Canadian chapter of a US group which is on the FBI terrorist watch list; in 1994 a US member killed 29 Palestinians at prayer, and in 2011 the RCMP launched an investigation against at least nine members of the Canadian JDL with regard to an anonymous tip that they were plotting to bomb the Palestine House in Mississauga. The Star does not point out this irony to Canadians, even though it would certainly seem to be essential information in stories that report on the ‘opposition groups’. It would also surely be an essential message for public safety that racist extremists are openly targeting seniors at their homes in Toronto.

Because of the abhorrent plea deal he was forced to sign, Omar cannot sue any of the Canadian media for libel. This leaves only the court of public opinion to stop the bullying and false coverage of this case. Please help us to correct the public record with the facts of this case and stop the insidious lies.

Coming soon … all the rest of the mainstream Canadian media.

UPDATE: Here is an April 18, 2020 article that does not appear in the Star’s Khadr archives. In this article Michelle Shephard reported Khadr’s appeal for clemency (along with the obligatory “Khadr pleaded guilty to committing five war crimes in Afghanistan in 2002, admitting at the age of 15 he trained with Al Qaeda and threw a grenade that fatally wounded U.S. commando and medic Christopher Speer.”). For this, Welner threatened to sue the Star. “Welner also emailed the Star a three-page notice of intent to sue for defamation concerning articles published last October after a Star journalist asked him to respond to Sageman’s letter.” As anyone who questions, writes about or is in any way connected to Guantanamo can attest, threats and lawsuits are part of every story that attempts to tell the truth.

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