The Washington Times Wrong Again on Sudan

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On 23 June 2003, The ‘Washington Times’ published an article on Sudan entitled "The Fight Against Genocide and Slavery". Written by Nat Hentof, the article focused on claims made by Dennis Bennett, the director of Servant’s Heart, an American Christian group working in southern Sudan. Echoing these claims, the paper alleged that "government of Sudan-led military forces attacked the village of Longochok (in Southern Sudan), and nine nearby villages in a night assault…. Many of (the 59 villagers) killed were burned alive in their homes as they hid from government-led forces."

The paper further claimed that in addition to having "massacred" 59 civilians, government forces abducted ten children and six women. ‘The Washington Times’ article also alleged that Presbyterian Pastor Jacob Manyal was burned to death by government soldiers, and that two of his children were killed in captivity.

‘The Washington Times’ also cited the self-styled, Boston-based, American Anti-Slavery Group. [1] The group’s president, Charles Jacobs, stated that the village "was clearly not a military target." He claimed that the villagers were "victims of jihad" and that "There were no Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army soldiers in surrounding areas."

Furthermore, the newspaper article also cited another Servant’s Heart allegation that Sudanese government forces had killed "3,000 civilians in Liang and surrounding areas" in April 2002.

‘The Washington Times’ also clearly sought to claim that there was a religious dimension to the alleged attacks: "The president has often spoken of the strength he gets from his religious faith. That faith was shared by many black Sudanese Christians who have been murdered or enslaved as the jihad continues."

These were clearly very serious allegations for the paper to have made. These have been typical of claims made about Sudan in ‘The Washington Times’. On the basis of these and other claims, ‘The Washington Times’ has called on the American government to impose punitive sanctions on Sudan.

Sudan has been at war, off and on, since 1955. It has been a conflict marked by often vicious propaganda. Inaccurate or distorted claims are dangerous at any time. They are particularly regrettable now as they come at a critical moment within the Sudanese peace process. At a time when the focus has been on reconciliation these allegations have reinvigorated prejudice, mistrust and hatred regarding Sudan – especially within political and Christian constituencies in the United States.

Previously, many of sorts of claims made by ‘The Washington Times’ have been taken at face value within the United States. As a result perceptions of Sudanese affairs have been grotesquely distorted. For the first time since the war began, however, there is now an independent mechanism in place able to investigate the allegations that have been levelled at the combatants. As part of the peace process initiated by former Senator John Danforth, the United States Department of State was instrumental in ensuring that both the Government and rebels signed an
Agreement to Protect Civilians from Military Attack. This established the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team (CPMT) to investigate any allegations of attacks on civilians. The team was became operational at the end of November 2002. The CPMT is funded by the United States Government, and consists of an international team of experienced professionals serving as monitors. It is headed by a United States army brigadier-general.

Those interested in accuracy in media reporting on Sudan are fortunate as both of the claims made by Servant’s Heart and published by ‘The Washington Times’ were extensively investigated by the CPMT.

The Findings of the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team

The Civilian Protection Monitoring Team conducted on-site field investigations in the areas of the incident from 6-10 June and 12-13 June 2003, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses in Kosti, Adar, Bolgok, Pagak, Daga Post, Buong, Longochok and its surrounding villages, and Wan Tau. The CPMT "determined the allegation that the [Government of Sudan] lead militias forces launched an attack on 27 May 2003 is unsubstantiated. The claim that 59 persons were killed as a result of this attack is also unsubstantiated. Finally the claim that the [Government of Sudan] abducted 16 persons was also found to be unsubstantiated."

The CPMT interviewed with the representatives of Servant’s Heart who had made the allegation. It reported that "The alleger stated that he received the information third hand from Pastor John Wiyul. Neither he, nor Pastor John Wiyul had been to Longochok, Wan Tau or any of the villages that were attacked to verify the details with the remaining residents." [2]

With regard to the death of the Presbyterian pastor, the CPMT concluded that "the body of evidence… strongly suggests that it was the SPLM/A and an element of the Fellata NOT the [Government of Sudan] or its militia that contributed to the death of Pastor Jacob Manyiel as well as indeterminate number of people, the displacement of civilians, and the destruction and looting of civilian property. Although it could not be conclusively proven that the SPLM/A or the Fellata were respectively responsible for all of 59 civilians reported to have been killed, there is eyewitness testimony supporting that each is responsible for an indeterminate number of the deaths." (emphasis added by CPMT). [3]

It was also ascertained that the Pastor’s wife and children were alive and well, and that his house had not been burned. Pastor Manyiel had died of gunshot wounds.

The CPMT pointedly called on the rebels and their allies to "refrain from targeting or intentionally attacking non-combatants civilians. [Furthermore] they should take all precautions feasible to avoid the incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and danger to civilian objects." [4]

With regard to its claims about the Longochok area Servant’s Heart was wrong on several counts. Any civilians that may have been killed in any attacks on villages in the area were killed by the rebels or nomads – not government forces. Servant’s Heart’s sensationalist claims that Pastor Manyiel and his family were burned alive were burnt alive by government forces was untrue. Pastor Manyiel was killed by rebels or nomads. His wife and children are alive and well. The Civilian Protection Monitoring Team revealed that Servant’s Heart made its very grave accusations on the basis of third-hand claims that it had not taken the trouble to verify.

With regard to the allegations in ‘The Washington Times’ that 3,000 civilians had been killed by government forces in Liang, The CPMT investigation concluded: "The claim…that up to ‘2,500 people were killed’ has not been substantiated." [5]

The fact that the very serious claims about Sudan made by Servant’s Heart and others – echoed by ‘The Washington Times’ – were subsequently shown to be essentially baseless is disturbing enough. The motivation for such claims has also been questioned. It was reported, for example, that CPMT investigators were privately very critical of the claims made by Servant’s Heart. A CPMT member was said to have referred to its claims about Longochok as "a pack of lies" and implied that it had been designed to "derail the peace process in Sudan". [6] It is true that Servant’s Heart’s allegations – allegations which certainly cast the Khartoum government in a bad light – were made at key phases during the Sudanese peace process, and may have been designed to adversely effect Sudanese-American relations. [7]

The article in question is important for several reasons.

Firstly is demonstrates how ‘The Washington Times’ journalism on Sudan has been flawed. In journalism sources are all. Poor sources results in poor journalism. Partisan sources results in partisan journalism. Servant’s Heart and the so-called American Anti-Slavery Group are demonstrably unreliable in the claims they have made about Sudan.

Secondly, it also explains the hostile editorial line taken by ‘The Washington Times’ towards Sudan. A charitable interpretation of ‘The Washington Times’ position on Sudan is that it has been adversely influenced by flawed and questionable claims. The interest in Sudanese affairs shown by that paper is welcome. With it, however, comes a responsibility. Peace and reconciliation need truth and clarity. This must be demanded of those newspapers, organisations and individuals claiming to inform the outside world about Sudan.

Thirdly, the article goes quite some way towards explaining why these allegations may have been made. The claims may well have been released in an attempt to damage Sudanese-American relations. The article pointedly referred to US-Sudanese meetings at which the American Secretary of State Colin Powell was said to have stated that the Bush administration was "pleased with steps Sudan has taken in the war on terrorism and in efforts to end (the war) with the rebels in the South of Sudan." It is would appear that ‘The Washington Times’ and groups such as Servant’s Heart and AASG are unhappy with any progress made in Sudan-US relations.

There was also what appears to be an anti-Islamic motive, with both Servant’s Heart and the AASG claiming that this is an example of "black Sudanese Christians" being "murdered or enslaved" as part of a jihad.

It is worth noting that having thoroughly investigated the claims made by Servant’s Heart – and repeated by ‘The Washington Times’ – the Civilian Protection Monitoring Team made the following recommendation: "That all sources carefully screen future allegations for credibility, source of information, accuracy, and the feasibility of such an allegation being truthful so as to cautiously avoid inflaming the situation and reality on the ground." [8]

It should be very evident that these words of caution apply equally to ‘The Washington Times’ and its coverage of Sudan.

Notes:

[1] For a detailed critique of the American Anti-Slavery Group, see ‘Self-Serving Propagandists: The American Anti-Slavery Group and Sudan’, The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, August 2002, available at http://www.espac.org

[2] "The Report Of Investigation: Longochok Area", Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, Khartoum, 30 June 2003.

[3] Executive Summary, "The Report Of Investigation: Longochok Area", Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, Khartoum, 30 June 2003.

[4] ‘The Report Of Investigation: Longochok Area’, Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, Khartoum, 30 June 2003.

[5] Executive Summary, ‘The Report Of Investigation: Liang, Dengaji, Kawaji and Yawagi Villages’, Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, Khartoum, 19 June 2003.

[6] Comments reported in ‘Three Abductees Killed in Government of Sudan Captivity’, Press Release by Servant’s Heart, 11 June 2003.

[7] If the aim was to adversely influence perceptions of the government’s commitment to the peace process it had its successes. See, for example, the statement made by Baroness Cox, president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, that Servant’s Heart’s Longochok allegations "raise serious questions about the NIF regime’s sincerity of commitment to genuine peace" (‘Christian Leader Burned to Death with Wife and Four Children’, News Article by ANS, 5 June 2003) and the statement made by Release International, a Christian advocacy group, that they were "the clearest evidence yet that the Sudanese authorities are not serious about the peace talks they are engaged in. That atrocities of this magnitude are occurring in the midst of such negotiations, is pure hypocrisy."

[8] ‘The Report Of Investigation: Liang, Dengaji, Kawaji, And Yawagi Villages’, Civilian Protection Monitoring Team, Khartoum, 19 19 June 2003.

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