WINNIPEG — A group of Manitoba native chiefs is urging that hate charges be filed against the CBC for what it called “racist and hateful” comments posted on the broadcaster's website.
The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents dozens of bands in Manitoba, made the allegations yesterday after a year-long study of several online news sites.
While the chiefs are targeting CBC, their charges have potentially far-reaching implications.
The issue of who is responsible for comments posted on online message boards remains a legal grey area in Canada and affects virtually every media outlet in the country.
The group has not made any formal complaint against the CBC and legal experts doubt that charges would ever be laid.
Generally, site hosts are not held legally responsible for user comments unless they refuse to remove disputed comments.
The CBC has removed all posts in question and has a policy of blocking commentators who repeatedly write anything offensive.
Still, the broadcaster says it sympathizes with some the chiefs' concerns.
“We are interested in doing a better job of ensuring that the stuff that crosses the line is dealt with appropriately,” said CBC spokesman Jeff Keay, adding that Cecil Rosner, managing editor of CBC Manitoba, has apologized to anyone offended by the site's contents.
The chiefs decided to publicize their grievances after online CBC Manitoba news stories about an aboriginal girl who died in a house fire attracted a string of racist comments from anonymous web posters.
Those comments included the following:
“Native people do not have the knowledge to look after a house. Build them a teepee seeing they were better off 300 years ago.”
“No one reports that the house went up completely in 15 minutes due to the large amount of alcohol in the building.”
In all, the SCO identified 25 comments on the CBC site dating back to April 2008 they deemed to be hateful.
Grand Chief Morris Swan Shannacappo called on the Manitoba government to launch an investigation into CBC and said “charges should be laid.”
Acting Attorney-General Steven Ashton called the posts “racist and offensive,” but said the claims lie outside provincial jurisdiction.
He advised the chiefs to take their case to the RCMP and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Winnipeg-based ICUC Moderation Services moderates the roughly 200,000 online comments that the CBC receives every month.
One media law professor said that by moderating the comments, CBC could be liable for all posts on its website.
“If you are screening the comments, you are responsible,” said Dean Jobb, assistant professor of Journalism at King's College in Halifax and author of Media Law for Journalists.
Other legal experts said odds were long that the allegations would ever see a court, but couldn't predict a legal outcome with any certainty.
“Crystal ball-gazing is very difficult in terms of hate cases,” said Michael Geist, professor of e-commerce and Internet law at the University of Ottawa.