| Published March 2001
| ISBN: 1-903545-00-0
THE BBC AND SUDAN: A CASE STUDY IN PREJUDICE AND POOR
Civil war has raged in Sudan off and on since 1955 between
the Sudanese government and rebels in southern Sudan. Since
1983 the war in the south has been fought by the Sudan People's
Liberation Army (SPLA). The essence of the claims made by
Baroness Cox is that as a consequence of this war there is
a flourishing "slave trade" in Sudan. She claims
that Sudanese government and its northern forces raid southern
villages and "enslave" Dinka tribesmen, women and
children and that the people involved in the "slave trade"
are northern Arab "slave traders" and "militiamen".
Baroness Cox further claims that on visits to parts of southern
Sudan she has bought back or "redeemed" thousands
of slaves, often several hundred at a time. Leaving aside
the issue of whether she is actually buying "slaves"
or people kidnapped for ransom, what Baroness Cox claims to
be doing has been heavily criticised by groups such as UNICEF,
whose executive director has stated that "the practice
has encouraged more trafficking and criminality ", Anti-Slavery
International and the Save the Children fund.
"Slavery" and "Slave Redemption" versus
Kidnapping, Abduction or Fraud?
The unchallenged claims of large scale "slave redemption"
made by Baroness Cox in the course the BBC programme can be
clearly assessed against more objective sources. One of these
is the report by the Canadian government's special envoy to
Sudan, John Harker, into human rights abuses in Sudan, a report
commissioned by the Canadian government. The Harker report,
Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment
Mission, was published in February 2000. One of the two
missions with which John Harker was tasked was to:
independently investigate human rights violations,
specifically in reference to allegations of slavery and
slavery-like practices in Sudan.
While Harker was critical of many human rights abuses in Sudan,
he clearly questioned claims of large scale "slave redemption".
He specifically touched on the credibility of such claims:
[R]eports, especially from CSI, about very large numbers
were questioned, and frankly not accepted. Mention was
also made to us of evidence that the SPLA were involved
in "recycling" abductees.
Serious anti-abduction activists.cannot relate the claimed
redemptions to what they know of the reality. For example
we were told that it would be hard not to notice how passive
these "slave" children are when they are liberated
or to realize how implausible it is to gather together
so many people from so many locations so quickly - and
there were always just the right number to match redemption
The Harker Report also detailed how fraudulent "slave
redemptions" were being used to raise money for the SPLA,
money which he stated is used to purchase arms and ammunition:
Several informants reported various scenarios involving
staged redemptions. In some cases, SPLM officials are
allegedly involved in arranging these exchanges, dressing
up as Arab slave traders, with profits being used to support
the SPLM/A, buy weapons and ammunition.
The Harker Report documented the deliberately fraudulent nature
of many "slave redemptions":
Sometimes a "redeeming group" may be innocently
misled, but other groups may be actively committed to
fundraising for the SPLM/A & deliberately use "slave
redemption" as a successful tactic for attracting
We did speak with an eyewitness who can confirm observing
a staged redemption and this testimony conformed with
other reports we had from a variety of credible sources.
The "redeeming group" knew they were buying
back children who had not been abducted or enslaved. The
exchange was conducted in the presence of armed SPLA guards.
The "Arab" middle man/trader delivering the
children for "redemption" was recognized as
a member of the local community even though he was dressed
up in traditional Arab costume for the event.
It is not just the Canadian government that has questioned
the sort of process to which Baroness Cox was an all too willing
party, and which was so unquestioningly recorded by the BBC.
The respected human rights expert, and Sudan specialist, Alex
de Waal, while co-director of the human rights group African
Rights, has stated with regard to claims made by Baroness
(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.
In a July 1999 article entitled 'The False Promise of Slave
Redemption', published by The Atlantic Monthly, American
journalist Richard Miniter provided unambiguous first hand
evidence that there was fraud and corruption in the process
of "slave redemption" in Sudan, whereby southern
Sudanese tribesmen, women and children were supposedly "bought
back" from northern Sudanese tribesmen said to have abducted
them during raids on southern villages.
Miniter documented that SPLA officials are involved in fraud
with regard to "slave redemption":
[They] set themselves up as bankers and insist that
redeemers exchange their dollars for Sudanese pounds,
a nearly worthless currency.The officials arrange by radio
to have some villages play slaves and some play slave-sellers,
and when the redeemers arrive, the Sudanese pounds are
used to free the slaves. When the redeemers are gone,
the pounds are turned back over to the corrupt officials,
who hand out a few dollars in return. Most of the dollars
stay with the officials, who now also have the Sudanese
pounds with which to play banker again.
This was not the first time that an American journalist has
questioned rebel involvement in the whole issue of "slavery"
and "slavery redemption". William Finnegan, in his
article 'The Invisible War', which appeared in The New
Yorker in January 1999, tells of having himself come across
a "slave trader" at Nyamlell similar to the one
spoken of by Miniter:
To me, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the mystery
surrounding Nyamlell's slaver rescuer was his relationship
with the S.P.L.A. If he was in fact a double-dealer, running
a nefarious business, could the local rebels be in league
with his operation? They certainly seemed to endorse his
Miniter was accompanied during a visit to southern Sudan by
James Jacobson, the president of Christian Freedom International.
Jacobson, a former Reagan Administration official, had previously
served as Christian Solidarity International's Washington
representative. In 1998, the American branch of Christian
Solidarity International USA went its own way as Christian
Freedom International, with Jacobson at its head. He was an
enthusiastic supporter of "slave redemption" until
he actually visited southern Sudan to see the "slave
redemption" situation for himself. Jacobson subsequently
publicly disowned "slave redemption" because the
financial incentives involved encouraged both the taking of
captives as well as fraud and corruption.
Interviewed after his visit to Nyamlell, James Jacobson told
the Denver Post of his clear reservations about "redemption":
"I just felt everything was not as it appeared to be.
You don't know if after several days these groups of people
get reabducted." The Denver Post reported that
the leaders of major human-rights organizations were stating
that abductions are "not only.increasing but that the
increases almost certainly are related to the sudden availability
of Western money for buybacks":
It's like paying hostage takers ransom, they say, arguing
that any payment lends credibility to the notion of buying
and selling human beings. They say the money encourages
A Reuters report in July 1999 confirmed the "massive
corruption" reported by Jacobson:
Local aid workers.say that they have seen children
who they have known for months passed off as slaves.And
Reuters interviewed one boy in Yargot who told a completely
implausible story of life in the north, a story which
he changed in every respect when translators were swapped.
In May 1999, the Christian Science Monitor also clearly
There are increasingly numerous reports that significant
numbers of those 'redeemed' were never slaves in the first
place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local
populations, often children, available to be herded together
when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.
Perhaps the final word on the "redemption" of abductees
should be given to those closest to the issue. Anti-Slavery
International cited a source close to the Dinka retrieval
committee, the Dinka community's own grouping which exists
in the affected areas to secure the return of abductees, as
saying that they were concerned that: "Such outside intervention
with big sums of money may make matters worse and can encourage
others to capture and "facilitate" the retrieval
of more children for economic motives."
The BBC programme did not deal with the issue of whether the
people said to have been "slaves" were "slaves"
or rather people kidnapped or abducted for ransoming to Westerners
with large amounts of cash. The programme also did not deal
with the issue of whether or not "slave redemption"
actually encouraged further kidnapping and abduction specifically
for that market. Nor did the programme even touch upon let
alone discuss the well-documented issue of simple misrepresentation
or fraud within the "slave redemption" issue. The
BBC's inability to adequately present the issues they claimed
to document in this program is clear. It is clear that "overeager
and misinformed" also applies to BBC personnel and their
unquestioning acceptance of terms such as "slavery"
and "slave redemption" in the Sudan. This is all
the more surprising given that the programme makers were provided
on request by the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council
with a wealth of materials detailing public concerns about
this very issues.
Has the BBC Encouraged Racial Prejudice?
What is perhaps equally disturbing about this BBC programme
is that it may have encouraged prejudice against Arabs and
Muslims. The sort of claims given free rein in the BBC programme
have disturbed groups such as Anti-Slavery International,
the world's oldest human rights organisation. In a submission
to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva,
Anti-Slavery International stated:
There is a danger that wrangling over slavery can distract
us from abuses which are actually part of government policy
- which we do not believe slavery to be. Unless accurately
reported, the issue can become a tool for indiscriminate
and wholly undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.
[We] are worried that some media reports of "slave
markets", stocked by Arab slave traders - which [we]
consider distort reality - fuel such prejudice. (emphasis
Anti-Slavery International would seem to believe that talk
of "Arab slave traders", as unreservedly echoed
by the BBC, distort reality and fuel prejudice against Arabs
and Muslims. In Everyman: The Dangerous Adventures of Baroness
Cox, there are fifteen specific references to Arabs.
These appear in statements such as "Arab slave traders",
"Arab raiders", "Arab traders", "Arab
militia" and "Arab militiamen".
The BBC, Baroness Cox and Credibility
The BBC programme makers showed an amazingly lackadaisical
approach to Baroness Cox's credibility regarding Sudanese
affairs. On issue after issue her accuracy has previously
been found to be wanting, and her claims are or have been
contradicted by the British and American governments, UNSCOM
and human rights groups such as African Rights and Anti-Slavery
International. Even more caution should have been exercised
given the fact that, as the program itself states, she was
"going off to help the rebels" and that she herself
admits that there is "a one-sidedness" in her work.
Even The Times newspaper review of the programme described
her as looking "ever so slightly unhinged".
It is not just Baroness Cox's judgement that has been called
into question. The veteran southern Sudanese politician Bona
Malwal directly challenged claims made by Baroness Cox to
have "redeemed slaves". In a letter to her Malwal
On at least three different occasions, you have come
into Twic County without the permission of the local leadership,
using Messrs Stephen Wondu and Martin Okeruk [SPLA officials]
as your license to do so. You then say each time that
your mission was to redeem slaves and that indeed you
have done so, when in each instance this had not been
the case. The latest episode was in October 
when you landed at Mayen Abun without even the courtesy
of informing the local area representative..
I know that you have put out for propaganda, and maybe
for fundraising purposes as well, that you redeemed slaves
at Mayen Abun in October when nothing of the sort happened.
I sincerely hope that this type of game stops.I sincerely
hope that you do see the harm that could be caused and
that you will refrain from this activity in the future.
Malwal's standing within the southern Sudanese community is
unassailable. Malwal is the publisher of the Sudan Democratic
Gazette. He is a former Minister of Information and Culture
and was the editor of the Sudan Times, the largest
English-language newspaper in Sudan before 1989. He went into
exile when the present government in Sudan came to power a
decade ago, and teaches international affairs at Oxford University.
Baroness Cox has herself previously described him as "one
of the well-respected elders of the Dinka tribe". The
implications of Bona Malwal's letter to Baroness Cox are clear
and it is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Why then did the BBC allow Baroness Cox what was to all intents
and purposes an unchallenged opportunity to make controversial
and deeply questionable claims? Was the BBC not aware of Bona
Malwal's challenging of Cox's claims? Surely the BBC had a
professional duty to be even more careful in dealing with
such very delicate and controversial issues. No such caution
or professionalism was evident.
Leaving aside the clear criticisms of Baroness Cox with regard
to her claims about "slavery" in Sudan, her track
record of making other unreliable claims concerning Sudan
is a clear one. On 17 February 1998, in the British Parliament,
for example, Baroness Cox claimed that four hundred Scud missiles
(including support vehicles well over one thousand vehicles)
had been secretly transferred to Sudan from Iraq since the
Gulf War in the face of unprecedented satellite, electronic
and physical surveillance of that country by the United States,
the United Nations and other concerned members of the international
community. It is a matter of record that Reuters reported
that on the same day that Baroness Cox made this claim, the
White House clearly stated: "We have no credible evidence
that Iraq has exported weapons of mass destruction technology
to other countries since the (1991) Gulf War." The British
government stated in relation to these claims that: "We
are monitoring the evidence closely, but to date we have no
evidence to substantiate these claims.... Moreover, we know
that some of the claims are untrue...". The British Government
Minister also cited UNSCOM, stating that: "Nor has the
United Nations Special Commission reported any evidence of
such transfers since the Gulf War conflict and the imposition
of sanctions in 1991."
In May 1998 Baroness Cox claimed that genocide was taking
place in the Bahr al-Ghazal region of southern Sudan. She
was commenting on inter-tribal fighting. When the British
government was asked in Parliament if they had any evidence
to verify Baroness Cox's claims of genocide in Bahr al-Ghazal
the government replied: "The situation was very complicated
and the picture unclear, making it difficult to verify facts.these
killings should be seen in the context of a long history of
tribal conflicts. It would appear from the information available
to us that no one side was entirely to blame."
In October 1999, Baroness Cox stated that Sudanese Government
forces had used chemical weapons in locations in southern
Sudan in July 1999. On 17 October the United Nations revealed
that tests conducted by the laboratories of the Center for
Disease Control in Atlanta on medical samples taken by Operation
Lifeline Sudan members in the areas cited by Baroness Cox
"indicated no evidence of exposure to chemicals".
Baroness Cox supplied further samples which she claimed proved
her case. In June 2000, the British government revealed the
results of the "very careful analysis" of the samples
provided by Baroness Cox and all other evidence. The samples
had been tested by the British Defence Ministry's world-renowned
chemical and biological weapons establishment at Porton Down
(CBD). The results showed that the samples provided "bore
no evidence of the CW [Chemical Weapons] agents for which
they had been tested". The British government also pointed
out that in addition to the American tests, further samples
had been tested by the Finnish institute responsible for chemical
weapons verification. These too had been negative. The Government
commented on the "consistency of results from these three
independent sets of analysis".
In October 1999, Baroness Cox claimed that the Sudanese Government
had been involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center
in New York. Any Sudanese involvement was unambiguously denied
in 1996 by Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox Jr., the Department
of State's Coordinator for Counterterrorism when he stated:
"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. Our information indicates
that Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and his gang. did not rely on support
from any state."
As a general view on Baroness Cox's reliability, it is worth
nothing that in Andrew Boyd's sympathetic biography of her,
Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless, Dr Christopher
Besse of Medical Emergency Relief International, a humanitarian
aid organisation with which Cox is closely associated (Dr
Besse and Baroness Cox are both trustees of Merlin), is quoted
She's not the most popular person in Sudan among the
humanitarian aid people. She has her enemies, and some
of them feel she is not well-enough informed. She recognizes
a bit of the picture, but not all that's going on.
It must be emphasised that Dr Besse was referring specifically
to the "humanitarian aid people". That the BBC chose
to rely upon claims made by Baroness Cox, of whom even her
friends say that she only "recognizes a bit of the picture"
with regard to Sudan is disturbing.
It is not just Baroness Cox's credibility as a commentator
that is deeply questionable. She is a self-evident partisan
for one side of the Sudanese conflict. Even, the BBC stated
that she was off to "help the rebels". It should
be noted that The Economist has summed up the
general image of the SPLA rebels in question:
[The SPLA] has.been little more than an armed gang
of Dinkas.killing, looting and raping. Its indifference,
almost animosity, towards the people it was supposed to
be "liberating" was all too clear.
The New York Times, a vigorous critic of the Sudanese
government, states that the SPLA: "[H]ave behaved like
an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging." It
also described the SPLA leader John Garang as one of Sudan's
"pre-eminent war criminals".
Why No Regard for the BBC Code of Ethics?
The BBC has a clear code of ethics for programme makers. This
is the Producers' Guidelines and it advises on issues
such as fairness and impartiality. It is worth outlining what
these guidelines are in order for Everyman: The Dangerous
Adventures of Baroness Cox to be assessed with them in
mind. With regard to "impartiality", they declare
Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. All
BBC programmes and services should be open minded, fair
and show a respect for truth. No significant strand of
thought should go unreflected or under represented on
The Producers' Guidelines state that:
The Agreement accompanying the BBC's Charter specifies
that the Corporation should treat controversial subjects
with due accuracy and impartiality both in news programmes
and other programmes that deal with matters of public
policy or of political or industrial controversy.
With regard to "accuracy" the Producers' Guidelines
We must be accurate and must be prepared to check,
cross-check and seek advice to ensure this. Wherever possible
we should gather information first-hand by being there
ourselves or, where that is not possible, by talking to
those who were. But accuracy is often more that a question
of getting the facts right. All relevant information should
be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or
With regard to "Giving a Full and Fair View of People
and Cultures", the Producers' Guidelines state
that "When portraying social groups, stereotypes should
In what could at best be described as lacklustre reporting
on a intensely sensitive subject, is for the reader to decide
whether the producers of Everyman: The Dangerous Adventures
of Baroness Cox followed the Producers' Guidelines
or exercised anything like the requisite caution necessary
in making this programme. There are a number of questions
that need to be answered:
On 29 January 2001, the British Broadcasting Corporation
Television screened Everyman: The Dangerous Adventures
of Baroness Cox. This programme followed Baroness Cox,
President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (formerly Christian
Solidarity International or CSI), on one of her controversial
visits to southern Sudan. She was filmed there claiming
to have "redeemed" several hundred Sudanese "slaves".
In dealing with what is a very controversial issue, the
BBC chose to give those questioning the claims made by Baroness
Cox 60 seconds in a programme that was one hour in length.
In so doing, the BBC demonstrated not just poor journalism,
but also in effect allowed the unchallenged articulation
of deeply questionable claims. The BBC is also in danger
of having fuelled undeserved prejudice against Arabs and
Muslims. The programme clearly ignored the BBC's own guidelines
with regard to impartiality, accuracy and its handling of
people and cultures.
- Why was the clear issue of exactly what constitutes
"slavery" not examined?
- Why were clearly articulated international concerns
about the possibly fraudulent nature of precisely the
sort of "slave redemption" claimed in the programme
- Were the BBC aware of the public challenging of Baroness
Cox's claims by southern Sudanese politician and Dinka
elder Bona Malwal? If not, why not?
- Why were those who held legitimate opposing views to
Baroness Cox only given 60 seconds of air-time in an hour-long
programme? Does this constitute "due accuracy and
impartiality" as outlined in the Producers' Guidelines?
- Can the BBC categorically state the "slave redemption"
it claimed to have been party to was not one of the "staged
redemptions" as outlined in the Harker Report?
- Can the BBC categorically state that thousands of dollars
it filmed being passed to "traders" for "slave
redemption" was not simply a kidnapping for ransom
scheme or part of a deeper fraud?
- Could it be that the BBC was "misled" in believing
that they were witnessing a "slave redemption"?
- Was the BBC not concerned that it was fuelling undeserved
prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in its stereotyped
portrayal of "Arab slave traders"?
- Was the BBC not concerned that Baroness Cox had repeatedly
made unsubstantiated or untrue claims with regard to Sudan?
She has made very serious claims about Sudan and the Sudanese
government which have been dismissed by sources that cannot
be described as being supportive of the Sudanese government.
- Given that they may have self-evidently been "overeager
or misinformed" in accepting questionable claims
about Sudan and that they may have been guilty of "lazy
assumptions" with regard to the country, how does
the BBC intend to address this issue?
- Does the BBC really think that such unquestioning
acceptance of claims described as being rooted in "lazy
assumptions" is really the best way of covering events