It is a matter of simple fact that a significant amount of the international press coverage of Sudan over the past decade has been questionable. Disinformation and propaganda war have been particular features of most, if not all, wars over the past fifty years or so. The international news media has clearly been a target for those who wish to manipulate the way in which conflicts are presented. The reasons for this are obvious. International "reporting" is in many instances the only image many outside observers will have of the country itself. International press coverage is also sometimes the only material many commentators and even legislators will have in mind when addressing issues either directly or indirectly related to Sudan. Journalists have in many instances managed to get away with some appalling reporting on Sudan. There has been a mixture of simply bad journalism, misinformation and deliberate disinformation.
The latest examples of questionable journalism have focused upon the war in Darfur, a conflict begun by rebels in 2003.
It is worth placing the reporting on Darfur into context. Over the past decade or so the international news media have carried a number of deeply questionable claims about Sudan. These have included allegations that Sudan possessed and manufactured weapons of mass destruction. These were, of course, particularly grave allegations to have been made. On 20 August 1998, the Clinton Administration launched cruise missile attacks on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum alleging that the plant was making chemical weapons as part of Osama bin-Laden’s infrastructure of international terrorism. The Clinton Administration made several, widely-reported, claims about Sudan and the factory. Every one proved to be false. After carefully assessing the claims ‘The Observer’ newspaper spoke of "a catalogue of US misinformation, glaring omissions and intelligence errors about the function of the plant." (1) The claims are now internationally accepted to have been unfounded.
It has also been "reported" that Khartoum had used weapons of mass destruction in the course of the then civil war in southern Sudan. These allegations were also shown to be baseless. In this instance anti- government rebels claimed in July 1999 that Sudanese armed forces had used chemical weapons in attacks on their forces in southern Sudan. (2) These claims were repeated by several British newspapers as well as the BBC. They were also carried in other international media. (3) The United Nations investigated the claims and arranged for detailed tests which "indicated no evidence of exposure to chemicals." (4)
One of the other sensationalist claims about Sudan has been allegations of government-sponsored "slavery" and "slave trade" in Sudan. As "proof" for this, a great number of newspaper articles "reported" instances of "slave redemption" in which alleged "slaves" were said to have been "bought" back from "slave traders". These sorts of claims began to be exposed as questionable, where not simply false, as early as 1999. (5) In February 2002, in an unprecedented international focus, and as the result of some excellent investigative journalism, ‘The Irish Times’, London’s ‘Independent on Sunday’, ‘The Washington Post’ and the ‘International Herald Tribune’, chose to publish, or republish, articles definitively exposing the deep fraud and corruption at the heart of claims of "slave redemption" in Sudan. (6) ‘The Washington Post’ reported that in numerous documented instances "the slaves weren’t slaves at all, but people gathered locally and instructed to pretend they were returning from bondage". (7) ‘The Independent on Sunday’ reported that it was able to "reveal that ‘redemption’ has often been a carefully orchestrated fraud". (8) ‘The Irish Times’ reported: "According to aid workers, missionaries, and even the rebel movement that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate scam." (9)
The Latest Sensationalist Claim – "Genocide" in Darfur
The international media has carried a number of reports alleging "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur. This has been despite the fact that such claims have been challenged by seasoned aid workers with hands-on experience of events within Darfur. Once such observer is Dr Mercedes Taty, the deputy emergency director of the world-renowned Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). Dr Taty has worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge in the heart of the Darfur emergency. Asked if comparisons between events in Darfur and Rwanda were justified, her answer was blunt: "I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself." (10)
The international media’s coverage of the Darfur conflict has been self- evidently lacklustre. The very dynamics of the conflict have not even been adequately analysed or reported. Most coverage has taken at face value rebel claims that they are fighting against underdevelopment and marginalisation in Darfur. The simple fact is that the insurgency is, at least in large part, the brainchild of the Islamist radical leader Dr Hasan al-Turabi. Dr Turabi has openly admitted his support for the rebellion: "We support the cause, no doubt about it…we have relations with some of the leadership." (11) He has also admitted that 30 members of his party have been arrested for their involvement in the insurgency. (12) Turabi’s name, and the Islamist involvement, is noticeably absent from all reporting.
That many news reports have accepted rebel propaganda is unsurprising. Much of the reporting has been done by journalists who were taken on guided tours by the rebels in Darfur. (13) Only one of these journalists subsequently contacted the government of Sudan stating that he wished to visit government areas to give the government’s position. That the reporting by these journalists in large part reflected claims made by the rebels is self-evident. This despite the fact that, as also noted by Reuters, "it is hard to independently verify claims by government or rebels in Darfur." (14) It is also clear that some of these journalists are long-time anti-Sudan activists, such as Julie Flint, who have previously made several questionable claims about events in Sudan. (15)
The media would once again appear to have gone for the sensationalist story in Sudan – at the expense of professionalism. Andrew Buckoke, a British foreign correspondent who has written for ‘The Guardian’, ‘The Economist’, ‘The Observer’, ‘The Financial Times’ and ‘The Times’, has provided an insight into the mindset – even on non-controversial issues – which should be borne in mind when reading claims of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur. He cited the example of the sensationalistic coverage of the floods in Sudan in August 1988. Torrential rain on the headwaters of both the White Nile and Blue Nile had resulted in intense press prediction and speculation that Khartoum "would disappear under a gigantic whirlpool". (16) Buckoke was sent to cover this impending disaster and found there was none to report on: "The Nile never did burst its banks, nor was any significant damage due to the downpour evident in central Khartoum". (17) This, however, did not stop the story "still being taken very seriously in the outside world," and Buckoke "was rebuked by a telex demanding more drama and detail". Despite there being a non-event, "the floods were the biggest story out of black Africa". (18) Buckoke questioned the international coverage: "How did the coverage…get so distorted and imbalanced, as they so often do when Africa is involved?" (19) He also noted that "the whole story was out of control. Journalists, aid agency workers, the government and donors had been caught from the beginning in a self- sustaining spiral of exaggeration." (20)
It is obvious that Andrew Buckoke’s use of the term "self-sustaining spiral of exaggeration" applies equally to sensationalistic claims of "genocide" in Darfur. What has happened there is bad enough. Nevertheless, given the expected story-line set by editors it would be a brave journalist indeed who returned from a week of milling around in the sands of Chad or along the border with Sudan without filing some sort of story of "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide". This does not, of course, in any way excuse the unprofessional way in which Sudan continues to be covered by many journalists. Given the track record of questionable claims about Sudan, one would expect professional journalists to take a much more cautious approach to events in Darfur.
Notes:. "Sudanese Plant ‘Not Built for Weapons’", ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 August 1998. . "Sudan Rebels Accuse Government of Using Chemical Weapons", News Article by Reuters, 30 July 1999. . See, "Sudan ‘Chemical’ Attack on Rebels", News Article by BBC Online News, 31 July 1999; "Sudan Denies ‘Chemical’ Attack", News Article by BBC Online News, 1 August 1999; "UN Teams Investigate Sudan Gas Attack", News Article by BBC Online News, 5 August 1999; "UN Investigates ‘Chemical’ Attack", News Article by BBC Online News, 5 August 1999; and "Warning On Sudanese ‘Chemical Attack’", News Article by BBC Online News, 23 August 1999. . "Note for the Spokesman of the Secretary-General on Sudan", Note delivered by the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Mr Philippe Borel, to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, 17 October 1999. The on-site inspection by United Nations medical teams had also found no evidence to support the claims made by Norwegian Peoples Aid: see, "UN: No Evidence of Serious Symptoms in Alleged Chemical Attack", News Article by CNS, 13 August 1999. . Richard Miniter, "The False Promise of Slave Redemption", ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, July 1999. . "The Great Slave Scam", ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002; "Scam in Sudan – An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners", ‘The Independent on Sunday’ (London), 24 February 2002; "Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers’: Rebels Exploit Westerners’ Efforts to Buy Emancipation for Sudanese", ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002; "Sudan Rip-Offs Over Phony Slaves", ‘International Herald Tribune’, 27 February 2002. "Slave Redemption" has also been extensively questioned. See, for example, Richard Miniter, "The False Promise of Slave Redemption", ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, July 1999; ‘The Reality of Slave Redemption’, European- Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2001; ‘The Use of Intertribal Raiding as "Slavery" Propaganda in Sudan: A Statement of Concern to Mrs Mary Robinson, The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2001, all available at www.espac.org. Christian Solidarity International’s Sudan activities have long been seriously questioned. See, for example, ‘Time to Speak out on Christian Solidarity International and Sudan: An Open Letter to Anti-Slavery International’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, June 2001; ‘Prejudiced and Discredited: Christian Solidarity International and Sudan’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 2000, available at www.espac.org; David Hoile, ‘Sudan, Propaganda and Distortion: Allegations of Slavery and Slavery-Related Practices’, The Sudan Foundation, London, March 1997. . "Ripping Off Slave ‘Redeemers’: Rebels Exploit Westerners’ Efforts to Buy Emancipation for Sudanese", ‘The Washington Post’, 26 February 2002. . "Scam in Sudan An Elaborate Hoax Involving Fake African Slaves and Less-than-Honest Interpreters is Duping Concerned Westerners", ‘The Independent on Sunday’ (London), 24 February 2002. . "The Great Slave Scam", ‘The Irish Times’, 23 February 2002. . "Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis", News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004. 11 "Peace Still Some Way Off in Sudan", ‘Middle East International’ (London), 8 January 2004. . "Al-Turabi Denounces US Role in Peace Process", News Article by ‘Al-Hayat’ (London), 26 January 2004. . See, for example, "Sudan. A Triumph Marred by Terror", ‘The Economist’, 29 May 2004; ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ (London), 16 May 2004; "Inside Sudan’s Rebel Army", Philip Cox, BBC ‘Focus On Africa’, 5 April 2004. Cox also appeared on "Inside Africa: Battle for Sudan’s Western Darfur Region", Report by CNN, 17 April 2004. . "Pressure Seen as Key to Ending Sudan’s Western War", News Article by Reuters, 28 January 2004. . See, for example, ‘Questionable Sources, Questionable Journalism: The Observer and Sudan’, The British-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, May 2000. . Andrew Buckoke, ‘Fishing in Africa: A Guide to War and Corruption’, Picador, London, 1992, p.42. . Ibid., p.44. . Ibid., p.43. . Ibid., p.44. . Ibid., p.44.