Poor Journalism and Disinformation: The Telegraph Group and Sudan

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

The ‘Telegraph’ group, including ‘The Daily Telegraph’ and ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, has been party to what can at best be described as poor journalism regarding Sudan. The group is owned by newspaper magnate Conrad Black, who is the third biggest owner of newspapers in the world. In addition to owning the Telegraph group, his company, Hollinger International Inc. also owns major newspapers in the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia, including ‘The Chicago Sun Times’, ‘The Jerusalem Post’, ‘The National Post’, and ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’. It must be said that the ‘Telegraph Group’ also seems to have been remarkably accident-prone with regard to disinformation, especially regarding Sudan. (2) In 1994, for example, the foreign editor of ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, Con Coughlin, repeated disinformation claims about thousands of Iranian Revolutionary guards being present in Sudan. (3) In his account of his time in Sudan, for example, former United States ambassador to Sudan, Donald Petterson, revealed such claims to be disinformation:

“Reports appeared in the media that hundreds, even thousands of Iranians, many of them Revolutionary Guard military and security police advisers, had come to Sudan. Reports also persisted that the Iranians were training Palestinian, Egyptian, Algerian, and other radical Islamist terrorists at sites in Sudan, some of them quite large. The reports were based in part on information provided by Egyptian intelligence sources, which were conducting an assiduous disinformation campaign against Sudan. The truth was something far less alarming. There were Iranian advisers and technicians in Sudan, and Shiite propagandists and clerics as well, yet their numbers were relatively small, certainly nothing like the numbers being reported by the Western press.” (4)

A year later, in 1995, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ was repeating Christian Solidarity International claims about “slavery” in Sudan. (5) Reputable human rights activist, and Sudan specialist, Alex de Waal, when director of African Rights, was particularly sceptical of the sorts of claims made by CSI:

“(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage. Christian Solidarity International, for instance, claims that ‘Government troops and Government-backed Arab militias regularly raid black African communities for slaves and other forms of booty’. The organization repeatedly uses the term ‘slave raids’, implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy. This despite the fact that there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.” (6)

In August 1998, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ claimed that the Iraqi air force had somehow been flown to Sudan to avoid its destruction in the Gulf War. (7) The newspaper did not explain quite how several hundred Iraqi bombers were able to fly over Saudi Arabian or Israeli airspace without being challenged or destroyed at that somewhat sensitive time. In an equally inventive 1999 article, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ claimed that Osama bin-Laden was buying child slaves from Ugandan rebels and using them as forced labour on marijuana farms in Sudan in order to fund international terrorism. (8) When asked about this claim, the British government stated they had seen no evidence for such allegations. (9) And, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ was one of the first newspapers to repeat discredited United States government claims of Iraqi links to the al-Shifa medicine factory following the disastrously inept attack on that facility in 1998. (10)

Aficionados of disinformation may be amused to learn that in July 2000, in an article written by its diplomatic correspondent Christina Lamb, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ published claims that the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had sent specially-trained belly-dancing assassins, including one by the stage name of Maleen, to London to kill Iraqi dissidents. (11) When asked in Parliament about these serious claims, the British government stated that there was no evidence to support this allegation. (12) ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ subsequently retracted the article and publicly apologised to Ms Maleen for the claim, admitting that “she is not linked in any way to the regime, has never been employed by the Iraqi intelligence service, and has never been trained as a terrorist or assassin”. (13)

On 26 August 2000, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ newspaper published an article, also written by Ms Lamb, alleging that China was deploying 700,000 soldiers to Sudan to protect Chinese interests in the Sudanese oil project. (14) When asked in Parliament asked about this allegation, the British government stated that “We have no evidence of the presence of any Chinese soldiers in Sudan, let alone the figure of 700,000 alleged in one press report”. (15) Even the Clinton Administration, as hostile as it was to the Sudanese authorities, dismissed the claims, stating that even “the figure of tens of thousands of troops is just not credible based on information available to us”. (16)

In September 2000, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ published an article alleging that Abdel Mahmoud al-Koronky, a senior Sudanese diplomat who had served as Sudan’s Charge d’Affaires in London between September 1998 and April 2000, had kept a “slave girl” in his house. (17) This article was also written by Christina Lamb. Legal action against the newspaper established that the Sudanese woman said to have been the “slave” had come to London as an au pair for the diplomat’s family. Ms Lamb did not even speak to the au pair before writing the article, relying instead upon Sudanese opposition members and Baroness Cox’s Christian Solidarity Worldwide for the “story”. ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ subsequently admitted the article was untrue, and acknowledged that they had “greatly wronged” the diplomat in question, “unreservedly” withdrew the allegations, and “sincerely and unequivocally” apologised for the “distress and gross hurt” the article had caused. The newspaper also paid “very substantial” damages to Mr al-Koronky. (18)

The al-Koronky “slave girl” story was a variant on similarly untrue claims made in ‘The Observer’ newspaper in London that the Sudanese president had four slaves in his home. (19)

A Entrenched Disregard for Facts?

‘The Daily Telegraph’ in particular provides observers with a clear example of how a newspaper of record, Britain’s largest circulation title, has repeatedly, and perhaps even knowingly, seriously misrepresented the issue of Christianity in Sudan and southern Sudan especially. The newspaper has referred to the “Christian” south in Sudan for a number of years, since, for example, 1995. (20)

Christians make up perhaps between 10-15 percent of the southern population. Christians therefore account for less than one-fifth of the southern population, and there appear to be marginally more Christians than Muslims. Christians comprise 4 percent of the national population. (21) Speaking in 1970, Joseph Garang, perhaps the most prominent southern politician in the 1960s, a former Minister of Southern Affairs, stated that “less than one per centum of the Southern population is Christian.” (22) Muslims make up well over 75 percent of the Sudanese population. (23)

The newspaper has also repeatedly referred to the SPLA as a “Christian” organisation, ignoring the fact that if that were the case it would be representative of a small minority within southern Sudan itself. (24) It has made these claims, at least since 1998, having been made perfectly aware that its assertions were widely inaccurate and distorted perceptions of the Sudanese conflict. (25) It cannot be said that it is inexperienced, cub, reporters who are making such elementary mistakes. A ‘Daily Telegraph’ article, “The Church in Rags”, written by the veteran reporter Lord Deedes, demonstrated a continuing disregard to facts in speaking of “the Christian south”. (26)

‘The Daily Telegraph’ is also the same newspaper that claimed Islamic sharia law was applied to southern Sudan, whereas the South has been exempt from sharia law since 1991. The Sudanese civil war is about the political status of southern Sudan. It is not a religious war. The conflict predates the present Islamic government by 34 years, and the most recent phase of the war started six years before the present government came to power. The most recent phase of the war also predates the imposition of Islamic sharia law in 1983.

‘The Daily Telegraph’ has provided other examples of questionable claims. The previously mentioned article, “The Church in Rags”, demonstrated clearly biased reporting. The article referred to the Sudanese Catholic Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako being released from a police cell in Khartoum, “having been arrested on a trumped-up charge involving an unpaid grocery bill.” There are several facts with regard to this which Lord Deedes appeared to have ignored or missed. The “grocery bill” in question was more than US$ 660,000. This bill was incurred by Sudanaid, the Sudanese Catholic Church’s own relief agency, in 1988-90, and was owed to the private Sudanese trading firm Abu Huzaifah. The firm has gone to court on numerous occasions over the past decade to recover the US$ 660,000, and in 1998 secured a court order freezing Sudanaid’s accounts as well as seizing several Sudanaid vehicles to be held against the outstanding bill. The civil court on learning that Sudanaid personnel had resisted the seizure of vehicles ordered the arrest of the head of Sudanaid, Archbishop Zubeir, on 1 May 1998. In considerably more accurate coverage of the issue Agence France Presse on 1 May 1998 reported that:

“Sudanaid…was unable to get the Omdurman civil court ruling overturned when it first went to the appeal court and then to a tribunal of five judges set up by the chief justice. Under the initial ruling, the Omdurman court ordered the freezing of Sudanaid’s accounts with Citibank and the seizure of the relief agency’s vehicles. The court ordered Wako’s arrest after being informed by police that Sudanaid personnel had ‘resisted’ the taking away of the vehicles.”

That this was a civil rather than a political decision was evident in the Sudanese government’s embarrassment given that Archbishop Zubeir was to be present during peace negotiations that month in Kenya. The Sudanese President intervened to request the suspension of the arrest, but the local courts went ahead. The Archbishop was subsequently bailed.

One can only hope that the Telegraph group may start to take stock of its many mistakes in reporting on Sudan. Balanced coverage of Sudanese affairs can only but enhance attempts to ensure a peaceful solution 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. It should also be noted that it was ‘The Daily Telegraph’, in an article on 5 September 1990, which first ran with the claims that following their invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi soldiers had been removing babies from incubators in premature baby units in order to take the incubators back to Iraq, action said to have resulted in the deaths of many babies. This was subsequently exposed as disinformation – see John MacArthur, New York Times Op-Ed, 6 January 1992 and ABC’s ’20/20′ program, 17 January 1992, and “Did PR Firm Invent Gulf War Stories”, ‘In These Times’, 22 January 1992, p.2.

3. “Sudan Trains Terrorism’s New Generation”, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London), 15 May 1994.

4. Donald Petterson, ‘Inside Sudan: Political Islam, Conflict, and Catastrophe’, Westview Press, Boulder, 1999, pp.42-43

5. See, “Villagers in Sudan ‘sold as slaves'”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 24 August 1995.

6. Alex de Waal, “Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War”, ‘Covert Action Quarterly’, Spring 1997.

7. “Did Saddam pull the strings of the terrorist bombers?”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’, 12 August 1998.

8. David Blair, “Bin Laden Buys Child Slaves for his Drug Farms in Africa”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’, 29 March 1999. This particular story was also carried in other articles, such as “Bin Laden and his Quest for Slaves”, ‘The Chicago Tribune’, 23 January 2002, and “Searching for Slaves in bin Laden’s Attic”, ‘Jewish World Review’, 25 January 2001.

9. House of Lords Official Report, Written Parliamentary Answer, 5 March 2001, column WA 10.

10. “Iraqi scientists ‘helped Sudan make nerve gas'”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 26 August 1998.

11. “Saddam Sends Female Assassins on London Murder Mission”, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London), 30 July 2000.

12. House of Lords Official Report, Written Parliamentary Answer, 7 March 2001, column WA 31.

13. See published apology, “Sanna Karim, aka Maleen”, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, 5 August 2001.

14. “China Puts ‘700,000 Troops’ on Sudan Alert'”, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London), 26 August 2000.

15. House of Lords Official Report, Written Parliamentary Answer, 5 March 2001, column WA 10.

16. “U.S.: Reports of China’s Role in Sudanese War Are Overstated”, News Article by UPI, 29 August 2000.

17. “Sudan Diplomat ‘Kept Slave Girl in London Home'”, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London), 17 September 2000. The story was also carried internationally. See, for example, “Sudan Diplomat Kept Servant Girl as Slave in London Home: Report”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 17 September 2000.

18. “Statement in Open Court”, Case No. HQ006869, In the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, between Abdel Mahmoud al-Koronky and Dominic Lawson, Christina Lamb and The Sunday Telegraph Limited, 4 July 2002.

19. See, “Sudan Revives the Slave Trade”, ‘The Observer’ (London), 9 April 1995.

20. See, for example, “Ugandans ‘helping rebels’ in Sudan”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 31 October 1995, which refers to “the Christian south”; “Rebel victories revive ‘forgotten war'”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 11 January 1996, refers to “the predominantly Christian south”; “Sudan rebels take control of south after key victory”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 9 May 1997, refers to “the largely Christian African south”; “Talks on Sudan offer scant hope of averting famine”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 5 May 1998, refers to “largely Christian southern rebels”; “Charities buy freedom for Sudan’s child slaves”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 24 May 1998, refers to “mainly-Christian southern Sudan region”; “The Church in rags”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 30 March 1999, refers to “an African Christian south”; “Old War claims new victims”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 15 February 2000, refers to a “mostly Christian south”.

21. There is a certain amount of divergence in respect of estimates of the religious breakdown of the southern population. Human Rights Watch states that 4 percent of the population are Christian and that about 15 percent of southern Sudanese are Christian (Testimony of Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch, Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Africa, 25 September 1997). The Economist Intelligence Unit in its report entitled ‘Sudan: Country Profile 1994-95’ also puts the Christian population of southern Sudan at 15 percent. The definitive United States government guide, ‘Sudan – A Country Study’, published by the Federal Research division and Library of Congress, states that “In the early 1990s possibly no more than 10 percent of southern Sudan’s population was Christian.” Muslims may make up a similar percentage in southern Sudan.

22. “An Historical Perspective”, in ‘Horn of Africa’, Vol. 9, Number 1, 1985.

23. See, for example, ‘Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Sudan’, U.S. Department of State, Washington DC, 9 September 1999.

24. “Little faith in Sudan’s Islamic regime”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 15 July 1995, refers to “Christian rebels in the south”; “Sudan regime ‘blocking food aid'”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 2 August 1995, refers to “Christian rebels”; “Spectre of famine creeps up on Sudan”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 12 April 1998, refers to the SPLA as “a largely Christian southern rebel group”.

25. There were several letters from the British-Sudanese Public Affairs Council to the foreign editor of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ outlining in detail the independently-verifiable facts of the religious composition of southern Sudan and Sudan itself.

26. “The Church in Rags”, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (London), 30 March 1999.

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

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