The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement and The Irish Times
The Press Council of Ireland has decided not to uphold an appeal from a Complainant against a decision of the Press Ombudsman.
The Press Ombudsman had not upheld a complaint by the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement that The Irish Times breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 29 December 2016, The Irish Times published an editorial which gave readers an overview of world affairs in 2016. The editorial made the following brief reference to events in the Middle East, “The year did see important setbacks for Islamic State, with the recapture of Fallujah and, at terrible costs, of Aleppo in Syria”.
On 4 January 2017, The Irish Times in its Corrections & Clarifications section published the following, “An editorial in the edition of December 29th made reference to Islamic State in Aleppo. It should have referred to al-Nusra which is affiliated to al-Qaeda”
The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement in correspondence with the newspaper claimed that the original reference to Aleppo in the editorial and the subsequent reference in the Corrections & Clarifications section were both inaccurate. Eastern Aleppo before its recapture by government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad was under the control of Syrian opposition forces who had risen up against the Assad regime. The Movement also claimed that the al-Nusra front was “only one of many armed factions that existed in eastern Aleppo”.
The Irish Times offered to meet the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement to discuss the Movement’s concerns about the newspaper’s coverage of the Syrian conflict, but the composition of the meeting could not be agreed. For this reason, it was concluded that the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation and it was sent to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
For the last number of years Aleppo has been a divided city with the government forces of President Assad controlling the western part of Aleppo, the opposition forces opposed to Assad controlling the eastern part of the city, there are also parts of the city under the control of the Kurds. In addition to these groupings there are al-Qaeda followers, including the al-Nusra Front, operating in Aleppo opposing President Assad’s regime. It is, by any account, a confused and fluid situation.
What was published on 29 December and 4 January failed to differentiate clearly which groups were gaining territory and which groups were losing territory in a bitter civil war where external forces were militarily aiding the groups they supported. However, the reference to Aleppo and the factions fighting there was minimal in an overview editorial whose focus was much wider than Syria. I have therefore concluded that any confusion in the editorial or the correction was not of such significance to breach the requirement found in Principle 1 that the “the press shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy”. I have no reason to conclude that the writer of the editorial did not strive to be accurate and truthful. The very small amount of attention given to the situation in Aleppo in the editorial and the subsequent correction and clarification did not provide for a more comprehensive explanation for readers. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement in support of its claim that The Irish Times editorial breached Principles 1 and 2 argued that the “Syrian civilian opposition (to President Assad’s regime) has been consistently denied and downplayed” (by The Irish Times). In adjudicating on complaints, the Press Ombudsman cannot take into account an editorial policy of a newspaper as demonstrated over a period of time. A decision can only be made about individual articles. I can find no breach of the Code of Practice in what was published on 29 December and 4 January.
15 March 2017
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Council
The complainant submitted an appeal on the grounds that there was an error in procedure. The Press Council at its meeting on 21 April 2017 considered the matter and took the view that this was not the case and decided to affirm the decision of the Ombudsman.