By Murray Brewster
The summons from Foreign Affairs early last May was hasty and almost had a whiff of panic. Members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, although accustomed to being herded, are rarely cowed and that’s what made the command performance of the denizens of the Lester B. Pearson building so memorable.
The world’s outrage over the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls was in a full Twitter mode at the time. West Africa’s Boko Harem, the jihadists of the moment, had captured the attention of our attention deficit disordered society. We watched for a few weeks last spring, until we got bored, and then moved on to some other international outrage in a year that has — so far — been full of them.
Virtually all of the 250 girls remain as captive sex slaves, cooks and porters, despite our hashtag frenzy. Abubakar Shekau’s army continues its march of the undead, bombing and harassing authorities in the name of Islam in at least two countries. But it was at the height of their notoriety in the Western media that Foreign Affairs demanded an audience with the ink-stained set, including yours truly.
What had them exercised was a CTV report that suggested Canada had dispatched JTF2 to assist in the counterterrorism operation taking shape in Nigeria. But the plight of the school girls was far from their minds. Instead, the Foreign Affairs counterterrorism team said it was skittish about what publicity might mean for Sister Gilberte Bussière.
Bussière, 74, was a Quebec nun who — along with two Italian priests — had fallen into the clutches of “two armed groups,” on April 5, or so the initial statement from her parish had said. Foreign Affairs, at that time, offered its usual taciturn or tongue-tied comment, saying it was aware of the reports and then proceeded to leave the heavy lifting of public accountability to the Italian foreign ministry.
Turns out she was being held by Boko Haram.
What followed in this meeting (I participated by conference call, as did most journalists) was among one of the most bizarre passive-aggressive displays I’ve ever witnessed in Ottawa, one of those ‘I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’’’ conversations. We were essentially told to stop reporting or “speculating” about the counterterrorism activities “that may or may not be true” because it could endanger Bussière.
Officials seemed offended we would put such a fine point on it.
“I most certainly did not say anybody should shut up,” said a senior official, who spoke on deep background. “What I wanted to do was inform you about the risk about the level of detail that’s available. You can make whatever decisions you deem are appropriate.”
The session was deemed off the record and it’s no wonder. Not only did officials claim there was a threat to the captive nun, but the mere mention of a Canadian response put diplomats and other civilians at risk in the Nigerian capital of Abujia.
“It’s really the reporting itself that is the issue here,” said another official who also wouldn’t speak publicly. “Putting Canada in the headlines puts the girls in danger and the Canadian citizen.”
Fair enough. Despite what some cynics may think, no journalist worth knowing wants to get anyone killed for the sake of a headline. We have respected – albeit grudgingly sometimes — information embargoes for reasons of decency, national security, as well as life and death.
Embedded media in Kandahar out of consideration withheld notification of combat deaths until the families of the fallen were notified. There were news blackouts on some combat operations until troops were safely behind the wire. And the blanket of secrecy cast over special forces operations, for the most part, is obeyed.
Even in kidnappings we’ve been known to play ball, especially when it struck a little too close to home. The snatching of CBC-TV reporter Mellissa Fung in October 2008 by a criminal gang in Afghanistan saw a wholesale conspiracy to keep silent among the Canadian media. In fact, the public broadcaster went to extraordinary lengths to keep the story out of the news when it looked like an American publication was about to break ranks.
Mention the Fung kidnapping to some senior managers who were around at the time and it makes them fidgety. It was an extraordinary event that took place three days before the end of a closely fought federal election in which the growing unpopularity of the war had featured prominently, if only for its enormous cost.
What happened to Fung was news. More than that, it was news that might have affected the outcome of the election. The Canadian public didn’t even know she was missing until almost a month later when she was released. The silence had been so complete, it was almost spooky.
Would we have backed off so firmly and decisively had it not been one of our own? Unlikely. Was there more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the grumbling of those who grumbled about being told to keep silent in the Bussière case? You bet. Did we accord former deputy defence minister and UN envoy Bob Fowler the same courtesy when he and Louie Guay were captured by an al-Qaeda offshoot in Niger a few months after Fung? Nope.
Security consultants told the CBC that silence was the best policy to get their reporter back alive and it is pretty much the boilerplate advice those in the burgeoning hostage-negotiating business give to decision-makers. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone disputes the need for some degree of silence when lives — both the hostage’s and the rescuers’ — are at stake.
What is missing is a fair degree of accountability following these events. Those who operate in the shadows naturally disagree.
“There’s always accountability for the use of Canadian assets, whether or not it’s reporting through the minister to the House or to committees,” said the senior official.
When was the last time you saw a minister stand in the House and answer questions about the action or inaction of Canadian counterterrorism authorities, including JTF2? When was the last time you saw a Commons committee delve into such details or challenge the level of funding?
Both the RCMP and CSIS have their watchdogs and the NDP, when it gets worked up, calls for an oversight body for special forces. I’m not sure another bureaucracy is needed when the military already has a great, big, shining one of its own.
In case you believe these are abstract arguments, consider the events of the last few months and how the new jihadists of the moment — ISIL or ISIS — have elevated hostage-taking and brutal YouTube executions into a powerful weapon of war, one capable of moving nations.
How long will it be before we see a Canadian in an orange jumpsuit? Heaven forbid, but if we do, you can bet the questions won’t be very polite and there won’t be much silence.