Quebec TV network issues apology for now-debunked mosque report

A French-language television network in Quebec has apologized for its now-debunked report that a Montreal mosque tried to have women banned from a nearby work site during Friday prayers.

TVA walked back its report Thursday, issuing an apology late Friday morning

Far-right groups initially planned to hold a demonstration outside the mosque on Friday but those plans were cancelled after the TVA story was debunked. (Radio-Canada)

A French-language television network in Quebec apologized Friday for its now-debunked report that a Montreal mosque tried to have women banned from a nearby work site.

But, for members of the Muslim community, the apology may not be enough to repair the damage caused by the widely shared and ultimately false story.

The original story was broadcast on Tuesday. It quickly sparked outrage, especially within the social media networks of Quebec's far right. One of the mosques mentioned in the report was bombarded by threats of violence. 

"We don't want another tragedy. We're getting close to January 29th, people were afraid," said William Kobartly, a lawyer for Ahl-ill-Bait mosque, referring to one-year anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting, where six men were killed. 

TVA's story initially claimed a mosque in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood signed a contract with a construction company doing work across the street, and included a provision barring women from being on the site during Friday prayers. 

Doubts about the TVA report began emerging almost immediately after it was first broadcast. It said two mosques located near the work site had the same "owner." The mosques are in fact separate non-profit organizations. 

Representatives of one of the mosques, Ahl-ill-Bait, categorically denied the version of events reported by TVA in a news release Tuesday night. They said TVA ignored their side of the story.

TVA says the network has obtained 'new information' that shows the story has 'evolved' to the point where it can no longer definitively say the request to bar women from the work site had ever been made. (CBC)

"When the report was broadcast again the second time, I went myself, even though it was a snowstorm and I live a little bit far from the centre," the mosque's director, Moayed Altalibi, told CBC News on Wednesday. 

"I made a lengthy interview with the same reporter. She did not report any part of it."

An investigation conducted by the provincial construction board, whose findings were released Thursday, found that neither mosque had signed a contract seeking to have women excluded from the work site.

The head of the construction board said that while women workers may have been moved further away from the mosques, this was likely due to work site management issue and not an attempt at accommodating religious sensitivities. 

Both mosques have stressed they have no issues with gender equality. Kobartly said the mosques were standing in solidarity with all women in Quebec.

TVA backs down

TVA initially stood by its story, though it amended its version of events several times. Finally, on Friday, the network apologized to those involved in the story and its viewers. It also pulled the story from its website. 

It says management is conducting an internal investigation into the "steps of the journalistic process carried out as part of this report." But it may not have spared itself a lawsuit. 

"We accept the apology. But will that stop us from suing TVA for the false and defamatory allegations? The mosque leaders will discuss this," said a spokesperson for the Baitul-Mukarram mosque, the other mosque at the centre of the controversy. 

Quebec's press council said Friday it has received "several dozen" complaints about the TVA story and will be doing a follow-up.

Even though Friday's protest was cancelled, some people still showed up outside the mosque. (Radio-Canada)

Far-right groups had initially planned to hold a demonstration outside the Ahl-ill-Bait Mosque on Friday. While those plans were cancelled after the TVA story was debunked, a smattering of protesters still showed up. 

A small contingent of counter-protesters were also present. 

Inside the mosque, several politicians met with community members, including ​provincial Immigration Minister David Heurtel.

"The message today is a message of peace, of solidarity; a message that says clearly 'We say no to hate, no to intolerance," Heurtel said following the meeting. 

There was police presence during Friday prayers outside both the Ahl-ill-Bait and Baitul-Mukarram mosques, which are down the street from each other.

'A wake-up call,' Couillard says

Earlier on Friday, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the erroneous report should serve as a "wake-up call" to the media.

"For once, the media should look at these things and learn from it," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Couillard said the story created a lot of "tension" in the Montreal community, a situation that he called "regrettable."

When the story first emerged, Couillard cited the incident to justify his controversial religious neutrality law, which forces Muslim women to remove their face coverings in order to give and receive public services. 

Premier Philippe Couillard told Daybreak host Mike Finnerty the story created a lot of 'tension' in the Montreal community, a situation that he called 'regrettable.' (Philippe Couillard/Twitter)

The premier said that when the story was first published, he tread carefully and said only that if it were true, it would be problematic because accommodations can't go against the principle of equality between the sexes.

But host Mike Finnerty pointed out that Couillard lent the story credence by commenting on it before it had been verified, and asked Couillard if he should have said "no comment" when he was first asked about it.

"That's what I said, after," Couillard said, admitting he may have said it "a little bit too late."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada