Peter Verney and Sudan Update: How Objective a Source?

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The new and significant moves towards a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese civil war, as outlined in the July 2002 Machakos peace protocol (1), must go hand in hand with a concerted attempt to stem some of the media mis-reporting that, together with the repetition of propaganda and disinformation, may have artificially prolonged the conflict.

Peter Verney, and ‘Sudan Update’, the newsletter that he edits, is a case in point. ‘Sudan Update’ claims to be “an independent media review” which operates “on an independent, non-partisan basis”. (2) It claims to provide “an information and referral service for individuals and organisations seeking a politically non-aligned briefing on the situation in Sudan” and that it “conducts research and liaison work for the media, non-governmental organisations, lawyers, parliamentarians, academics and human rights bodies.”(3) Verney has spoken on Sudan at conferences throughout western Europe.

Verney worked in Sudan until shortly after the 1989 coup d’etat. For some time he was a staff writer with ‘Sudanow’, a publication of the Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Information. Verney has been a bitter, public opponent of the present Sudanese government since 1989, signing anti-government statements as early as March 1990. (4) He also worked as a teacher and for an aid agency. Verney’s opposition to Islamic government may well stem in part from the fact that he was punished for breaking Islamic law in Sudan prohibiting the possession and drinking of alcohol.

Despite claims on the ‘Sudan Update’ website that the publication is required “to maintain an objective, non-partisan stance” and that it cannot “promote…particular political, religious or other ideological viewpoints”(5), ‘Sudan Update’ has nevertheless forwarded rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) press releases (6) as well as statements by anti-government groups such as the New Sudan Council of Churches (7) and Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad. (8) In February 2002 ‘Sudan Update’ “urgently” circulated details of a protest against the Chinese national petroleum corporation – the company being involved in the Sudanese oil industry. (9) This hardly constitutes a “politically non-aligned” stance.

‘Sudan Update”s claim to be independent, “objective” and “non-partisan” is also difficult to sustain given that it was specifically set up as an anti-government publication by Emma McCune, a British aid worker who subsequently married SPLA leader Riek Machar. (10) In her biography of her daughter, Maggie McCune states that Emma and others “set up a four- page newsletter called ‘Sudan Update’ which attempted to disseminate information coming from the front lines, and whose sympathies ran counter to the official government in Khartoum…’Sudan Update’ survives to this day.” (11)

In any event Verney has constantly projected questionable images of Sudan. In July 2000, Verney, as editor of ‘Sudan Update’, referred to the Sudanese government as “an illegitimate and murderous regime”. (12) In 2001, Verney pledged his “strong support” for a statement which spoke about the government’s “terrorist rule” and the “very non-civilized nature” of the regime. The statement also spoke of the “savage nature and practice of the NIF rulers and ideologues.” (13) Verney claims that the government is “unrelenting in its Islamist ideology”, and that it has resisted “any substantial change”. (14) Associated Press, however, has reported that “the changes in this country…are too sweeping and popular to be rolled back. Human Rights and civil society groups operate openly. Press censorship has been lifted and independent newspapers freely criticize government policies.” (15) Four years earlier, in 1998, seasoned BBC reporter Barbara Plett observed: “What was I to make of signs that Sudan is liberalising? Was this the beginning of glasnost in Africa’s largest state? The IMF seems to think so…This year it congratulated Khartoum for carrying out economic reforms and took it off the blacklist…And political debate is open and fierce. The growing number of private newspapers freely criticise the government…We have more political freedoms than almost any other country in Africa, one university professor told me. The change in atmosphere from previous visits is truly remarkable.” (16) Verney prefers to describe Sudan as “a totalitarian… society”. (17) The divergence in perspectives is clear. And, once again, one would be hard pressed to describe ‘Sudan Update”s statements as “politically non-aligned”.

‘Sudan Update’ has also focused on the Sudanese oil industry, publishing, for example, ‘Raising the Stakes: Oil and Conflict in Sudan’. This report was hostile to the oil project, citing, amongst other things, claims that there was massive forced displacement of civilians from Sudan’s oil regions. In a section titled “Human Casualties”, it published claims that six thousand homes were burned in attacks. (18) The source cited was an article by Damien Lewis, the accuracy of whose claims about Sudan has already been questioned. (19)

Faced with these sorts of claims, one of the partners within the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Corporation (GNPOC), the Sudanese oil consortium, commissioned a leading British satellite imagery analysis company, Kalagate Imagery Bureau, to independently study a series of satellite photographs taken of oil concession areas in Sudan. The images analysed by the Kalagate Imagery Bureau included military and civilian satellite images collected over several years. Ground resolution in the images varied between about three feet and 10 feet, that is to say very detailed indeed. (20) The images were analysed by Geoffrey Oxlee, a former head of the United Kingdom Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre and Britain’s leading expert in the field. (21) Mr Oxlee stated: “there is no evidence of appreciable human migration from any of the seven sites examined.” (22) On the contrary, he further stated that analysis revealed that “once the sites were developed, then people did come into the area, and in fact it looked as if people developed around the oil sites rather than going away from it.”(23) He further stated that he was prepared to stand by his conclusions in court. It is inconceivable that massive “scorched earth” displacement on the scale claimed by Verney, Lewis and others would not have been immediately noticeable in the satellite pictures studied. Responding to somewhat lame suggestions that the images may have been tampered with, Mr Oxlee stated that the satellite photographs examined “are genuine pictures. Having looked at hundreds of thousands of satellite pictures, there’s no way these pictures have been doctored. Absolutely none. We check these things out.” (24)

‘Sudan Update’ has also seen fit to repeat a wide variety of subsequently discredited claims about Sudan, including allegations that Iraq had moved weapons of mass destruction technology to Sudan (25), that black southern children were being drained of their blood in return for sweet lemon juice, that the Sudanese President kept four slaves in his household (26), and that Osama bin-Laden was using Ugandan child slaves as labour in his marijuana plantations in Sudan. (27) Verney has also alluded to Sudanese government involvement in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. (28) This sort of claim was comprehensively contradicted in 1996 by Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox Jr., the Department of State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism. Despite serving an Administration noted for its anti-Sudanese stance, an Administration eager to portray Sudan as a sponsor of terrorism, in April 1996, after three years of intensive investigations and lengthy trials, Ambassador Wilcox made it very clear that there was no Sudanese involvement whatsoever in the first World Trade Center bombings:

“We have looked very, very carefully and pursued all possible clues that there might be some state sponsorship behind the World Trade Center bombing. We have found no such evidence, in spite of an exhaustive search, that any state was responsible for that crime.” (29)

‘Sudan Update’ has also claimed, for example, that the Sudanese government is hostile to music and stated that Mohammed Wardi, the famous Sudanese singer, and an opponent of the government, would probably be arrested if he returned home. (30) Wardi did return home. (31) Not only was he not arrested, but, as Associated Press reported, Cabinet members attended his sold-out concerts. (32)

A further insight into the bias that has marred Verney’s “reporting” on Sudan emerged in the days following the announcement in July 2002 of the landmark Machakos peace protocol for Sudan. Although hailed by rebels, the government and the rest of the international community, Verney was critical of the provisional peace agreement. (33) From his comfortable office in England, it appears he believes that the international community, United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Sudanese rebels and opposition and Sudanese government are wrong on this key Sudanese issue, and that he is right. It is for the reader to judge.

Despite the obvious divergence between the reality of events within Sudan and the views held by Verney and reflected in ‘Sudan Update’, it is worth noting that ‘Sudan Update’ claims that it “has become the first point of reference for a broad variety of inquiries relating to Sudan from all over the world.” Verney also states that the newsletter is sent to Australia, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Libya, Malawi, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, USA, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There can be little doubt that it is the sort of skewed perspective of events within Sudan offered by Verney and ‘Sudan Update’ that has led to distorted pictures of Sudanese affairs.

Events in Sudan appear to have overtaken Peter Verney and ‘Sudan Update’ quite some time ago. His is a reactionary perspective on Sudan that is out of keeping with political and constitutional developments in that country.

Notes:

1. See, for example, “Rebels Welcome Sudan Peace Plan”, News Article by BBC News, 5 July 2001. See, also, “Sudan Opposition Welcomes Deal”, News Article by Associated Press, 21 July 2002; “US Says Deal Between Sudan, Rebels is ‘Significant Step’ Towards Peace”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 22 July 2002; “Sudanese Joy Over Peace Between Government and Rebels”, News Article by Deutsche Press Agentur, 22 July 2002; “Sudan Truce Monitors Optimistic on Peace Prospects”, News Article by Reuters, 23 July 2002.

2. See, “About Sudan Update”, ‘Sudan Update’ website, available at www.sudanupdate.org

3. See, “About Sudan Update”, ‘Sudan Update’ website, available at www.sudanupdate.org

4. See, “In Sudanese Jails”, ‘The New York Review of Books’, 15 March 1990.

5. See, “About Sudan Update”, ‘Sudan Update’ website, available at www.sudanupdate.org

6. See, for example, ‘Sudan Update’ posting of SPLA material on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected] , 2 May 2000. The SPLA is the principal rebel movement in southern Sudan. The NDA press release was posted by ‘Sudan Update’ on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected], 8 November 2000. The NDA is a coalition of Sudanese rebel movements.

7. ‘Sudan Update’ posting on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected], 4 May 2000.

8. ‘Sudan Update’ posting on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected], 10 May 2000.

9. Peter Verney/Sudan Update, “Protest in London at PetroChina 18th February”, Posted on New Sudan Mailing-Discussion List, 13 February 2002.

10. Riek Machar and two other SPLA commanders subsequently left the SPLA and formed other rebel movements in Sudan.

11. Maggie McCune, ‘Till The Sun Grows Cold’, Headline, London, 1999, p.146.

12. ‘Sudan Update’ posting on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected], 27 July 2000.

13. “Letter of Solidarity”, Sudan Human Rights Organization, Cairo, 16 April 2001.

14. Peter Verney, ‘Displacement Activity? Don’t Mention the War’, Parliamentary Brief, December 2001.

15. “Seeking Friends in the West, Sudan Tempers its Islamic Zeal”, News Article by Associated Press, 13 July 2002.

16. Barbara Plett, “From Our Own Correspondent”, Broadcast by the BBC, 25 April 1998.

17. See, “Reports: Music in Sudan. Northern Sudan – A Crisis of Identity”, ‘Sudan Update’ website, available at www.sudanupdate.org

18. ‘Raising the Stakes: Oil and Conflict in Sudan’, Sudan Update, Hebden Bridge, 1999.

19. See, for example, ‘Damien Lewis, Sudan and “Death in the Air”: A Case Study in Irresponsible Television’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London,. August 2001, and ‘Damien Lewis and Sudan: Questionable Journalism on “Chemical Weapons”‘, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, July 2001, available at www.espac.org

20. “Talisman Fights Back on Sudan Displacement Claims Releases Aerial Images”, ‘The Financial Post’ (Toronto), 19 April 2001.

21. It should be noted that Mr Oxlee retired from the Royal Air Force with the rank of Group Captain (in American terms a full Colonel). He has 45 years experience as an analyst and is the author of ‘Aerospace Reconnaissance’, (published by Brasseys in 1997). Mr Oxlee is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Institute of Expert Witnesses. He lectured at the United Kingdom School of Photographic Interpretation for six years.

22. “Talisman Energy Says Study Disproves Sudan Allegations”, ‘Dow Jones Newswire’, 18 April 2001.

23. “Talisman Fights Back on Sudan Displacement Claims Releases Aerial Images”, ‘The Financial Post’ (Toronto), 19 April 2001.

24. “Talisman Fights Back on Sudan Displacement Claims Releases Aerial Images”, ‘The Financial Post’ (Toronto), 19 April 2001.

25. ‘Sudan Update’, Vol 9, No. 4, 28 February 1998.

26. ‘Sudan Update’, Vol 6, No. 7, 15 May 1995.

27. ‘Sudan Update’, Vol 10, No. 7, 14 April 1999.

28. ‘Sudan Update’ posting on Sudan internet discussion group [email protected], 19 August 2002.

29. ‘Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1996 Briefing’, Press briefing by Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox Jr, Washington-DC, 30 April 1996 on US Government Home Page, at http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/960430.html

30. See, for example, “Reports: Music in Sudan. Kafka by the Nile”, ‘Sudan Update’ website, available at www.sudanupdate.org

31. See, “Sudanese Singer Returns From Exile to Tumultuous Welcome”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 22 May 2002.

32. See, “Seeking Friends in the West, Sudan Tempers its Islamic Zeal”, News Article by Associated Press, 13 July 2002.

33. See, for example, his comments on “Sudan’s Shaky Deal”, News Article by Radio Netherlands World Service, 22 July 2002.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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