A CBC Manitoba reporter, fired after information was taken from his private accounts by a co-worker on a shared company computer, has been ordered reinstated.
In a written decision, arbitrator Lorne Slotnick said Ahmar Khan, who had been working in Winnipeg on contract, was fired in December 2019 for leaking info to media outlets that he had been ordered by management to delete a personal social media post critical of hockey commentator Don Cherry.
CBC management learned this after a fellow reporter searched data on open programs on a shared work laptop Khan had forgot to log off from.
The reporter, identified in the arbitrator's ruling as Austin Grabish, took screenshots of some of the material — including a private chat with friends in which Khan disparaged his manager, and the use of a homophobic slur — and sent them to management.
"Mr Khan's termination amounted to, at most, a minor indiscretion, and are far overshadowed by the breach of his privacy that enabled the employer to discover those activities," Slotnick said. "Consequently, my conclusion is that the CBC acted improperly by dismissing him for cause."
He ordered Khan to be rehired for four months, and be awarded additional financial damages. Slotnick said if Khan doesn't want to return to CBC, the national broadcaster has to pay him four months salary.
Kim Trynacity, the Canadian Media Guild's CBC branch president, hailed the ruling.
"(Khan) feels like he has been vindicated," Trynacity said Thursday. "We are really pleased with the ruling. It has upheld the reasonable expectation of privacy for all of our members."
Trynacity said the union is hoping to meet with CBC next week to discuss financial damages for Khan.
In an email to the Free Press, Chuck Thompson, CBC head of public affairs, said no decision has been made whether the decision will be appealed. He said the ruling shows: "Our actions were not considered discriminatory and there was no breach of human rights law."
Thompson also defended the actions of the reporter and manager who the arbitrator said breached Khan's privacy.
"They acted appropriately and professionally bringing information to the attention of senior management," he said.
Khan could not be reached for comment.
Cherry was fired from Hockey Night in Canada in November 2019, after complaining immigrants don't wear Remembrance Day poppies.
In response, Khan posted on his personal social media account it was "long due time for Don Cherry's Coach's Corner to be cancelled. His xenophobic comments being aired weekly are deplorable. You know why black and brown kids don't enjoy hockey? Because of the deep-rooted racism which we get to hear every single week on national TV."
The arbitrator said after Khan's post drew attention, CBC management ordered him to delete it. Khan told management Cherry's comments hurt many people and felt they were not only a personal attack on him and his family, but on his "humanity as a brown person."
Khan also said he believed CBC's journalistic policies were being applied selectively and in a way that was harmful to journalists of colour.
According to the arbitrator's ruling, Khan said he then leaked what happened to Maclean's magazine and Canadaland news website, telling both he didn't want to be identified as the source. His goal was to spark a discussion within CBC about how its journalism policies were silencing employees of colour, he said.
Slotnick said because CBC's collective agreement specifically mentions employees "have a right to work in an environment that respects their personal privacy and is free from surveillance," Khan had an expectation of privacy — and the reporter who next used the shared computer should have just shut down any open personal programs, instead of rummaging through the data.
The arbitrator also said some of the material was sent by Grabish to management "in such a way as to distort the timing or meaning of the messages," including some written before he worked at CBC.
Further, Slotnick said messages between Grabish and a CBC manager "suggest a somewhat enthusiastic plan to cause trouble for an employee who was viewed by some fellow employees as a problem... The evidence may suggest that management seized on Mr. Khan's messages and exaggerated their import in an effort to eliminate an unpopular employee."
Grabish disputed the arbitrator's findings in an email Thursday to the Free Press and on his personal Twitter account.
"I did not alter the images in any way. I also did not take the laptop from my former colleague’s desk — two factually incorrect details the arbitrator included," he wrote.
"I’m disappointed I was never invited to testify at the arbitration hearing or given an opportunity to present the facts."
The arbitrator noted Khan testified after the termination he suffered from depression. He has been working as a freelance reporter since March 2020.