A Black and White War on the Dark Continent

October 6, 2009

 khalidmedia.jpgNo-one reported the second press release:

Shegeg Karo village in North Darfur was bombed repeatedly by an Antonov aircraft on Sunday, May 4th. The bombing happened between 2-3pm, not at 4pm as reported in the May 5 press release from “Darfur Diaries”.

The Shegeg Karo market was hit directly and was completely burned, as confirmed by a UNAMID press release on May 10th. The school facilities, which had been reported as hit in the May 5 press release, we are now informed were unaffected. We have since been told that the six school children who were killed had already left the school and were in the adjacent market when the bombs dropped.

A week earlier the wires and broadcasters had reported the first press release from Darfur Diaries, a hardy bunch of aid workers trying to make a small difference in Sudan. This is how the BBC reported it

A Sudanese government air strike on a school in Darfur has killed at least seven children, according to the aid organisation Darfur Diaries.

Reuters, AP, newspapers and other broadcasters all reported the atrocity. The UNHCR picked up on the tale as did the impressive Julie Flint, over at Making Sense of Darfur. Only the school hadn’t been bombed.

This stuff happens in war. The story can often look different by the time the dust settles. At the end of the day, six children were still dead along with at least seven adults after an Antonov bombed a civilian target. Journalists will sometimes make mistakes – we are only human. And did it make a real difference anyway? By the time Darfur Diaries had issued a correction, the world had moved on.

I was reminded of this episode by a discussion over at Wronging Rights, which has been checking out the identity of one Mr Abu Sharati who has been quoted in a number of stories about Darfur, claiming to be a representative of the region’s displaced people. Anyway it turns out that Abu Sharati may well be a pseudonym for a member of the Darfur rebel movements and that none of the people who had apparently interviewed him had bothered checking who he might be.

In other words, a number of usually reliable journalists (these are all very good reporters incidentally) had apparently been duped into quoting a rebel placeman as if he was representing the interests of people living in the aid camp. So how could this happen?

Well I have a degree of sympathy. We all have to use contacts recommended by other contacts, stringers, fixers, taxi drivers and colleagues. Deadlines are tight. Conflicts are confusing. And we – well, most of us – are human. We make mistakes. If someone had offered me a number of someone speaking for the victims of Darfur’s conflicts, I would have used it too.

Then again, there’s something else going on here. Three things I think that make this something other than a random, human error: Two relating to Africa and one to Darfur in particular.

The first is that this is Africa. Reporters are not used to this sort of scrutiny. Well done to Wronging Rights for investigating Abu Sharati. But this happens pretty rarely. By and large, we do our thing and our stories disappear into a big black hole of indifference. No-one really cares. And if that means taking short cuts, well who’s going to know? Africa’s a big place. Maybe there is an Abu Sharati somewhere. Maybe there isn’t. He was articulating a reasonable point of view, representing a strand of opinion that certainly exists, so does it matter exactly who he is?

This first came to my attention a couple of years ago when following up a story by one of Britain’s best-known feature writers. I’ll gloss over some of the details (in order to protect my job), but I was tasked with finding a woman who had walked miles to the nearest hospital so that her baby son could have an operation to save his sight. Only when I got there, the baby was a girl. Oh, and her mother had used the bus laid on by the hospital. She hadn’t walked. Had the story been embellished? Or was it a simple mistake? Didn’t matter. It fitted our idea of Africa as a place where mothers walk miles with a baby on her back. And in such a big place, who is ever going to check? So too with Abu Sharati.

The second point is that when it comes to conflicts, the errors all work in one direction. The sort of scrutiny given to claims from guerilla movements is regularly less than that given to governments, such as Khartoum. Had Abu Sharati been a government stooge claiming to speak for the displaced then you can bet he would have been sniffed out much faster.

The problem here is that journalists all too often side with the rebels. And why not, when they are taking on an oppressive regime. But you don’t have to know too much about Africa to know that rebels tend to be barely better than the people they seek to replace. They and their claims should be subject to just as much scrutiny as Khartoum, Addis Ababa or whichever government they are fighting. They often aren’t in Darfur, as Julie Flint has pointed out. I’ve also cringed at pieces written about the ONLF in Ethiopia, which have ignored their links to Eritrea or Islamists in Somalia, or about the Islamic Courts when they held power in Mogadishu in 2007.

In the case of Sudan this amplified by the increasingly dubiously-intentioned people at the Save Darfur Coalition and their narrative that portrays one side as good guys, the innocent victims of a genocide led by evil-doers, Islamists and nuts. Against this backdrop it is difficult to sell stories that paint an alternative picture, one in which Arab tribes are suffering and rebels are responsible for atrocities too. Instead dubious claims and rumours that support the accepted wisdom are often offered as news, without any checking and which later turned out to not be true, such as areport in The Independent which claimed that foreign Arabs were moving on to land cleared by the Janjaweed.

The bombing of Shegeg Karo is another example of the way all of these factors came together to skew reporting of Darfur. Abu Sharati also told us what we wanted to hear, in a context of general indifference.

I don’t blame the reporters involved. I’ve done it too. And much as we all try to be as courageous in our reporting as possible, we are ultimately beholden to the prejudices of our editors and readers who want Africa served up in a particular way – if they are to think about the continent at all.

It’s just that Africa deserves better from all of us but it’s difficult to see how things can change until Africa matters and people pay more attention.

You couldn’t imagine this sort of thing happening in the West Bank for example. Earlier this year, the BBC found itself investigating Jeremy Bowen, its Middle East editor, over charges his reporting of West Bank settlements had been unfair because he had referred to a valley now covered by a "concrete housing development". In fact, said the complainant, the buildings were unfinished and would eventually be covered with stone.

That particular complaint was not upheld but others were. And maybe that complaint was part of continuing Israeli attempts to intimidate reporters into watching their step. Maybe that sort of scrutiny is a step too far.

On the other hand, while Africa remains the Dark Continent in terms of international media attention, ghosts like Abu Sharati will prosper. Just like the Comoros minister of information who managed a couple of years as a stringer for Reuters without anyone noticing. He was only rumbled when he filed a story on being reshuffled out of government.

(Image above is Khalid, part of the Justice and Equality Movement’s media team in Darfur)