On 14 November 2004, the BBC screened a Panorama programme on Darfur entitled "The New Killing Fields". Made by American journalist Hilary Andersson, and ostensibly examining whether or not genocide was happening in the first century of the 21st century, the report was both sensationalistic and shallow in the serious assertions it made. It also shamelessly echoed questionable claims made by the Bush Administration.
The background to the conflict in Darfur is clear. In February 2003 two armed groups, the 'Justice and Equality Movement' (JEM) and the 'Sudan Liberation Army', started a war in Darfur, a region in the west of Sudan. These groups launched attacks on policemen, government garrisons and civilians in the area, and these in turn led to a spiral of war and inter-communal violence which has seen the displacement of over a million civilians. Darfur is an ecologically-fragile area and had already seen growing - and often armed - conflict over natural resources between some 80 tribes and ethnic groups loosely divided between nomads and sedentary communities. In April 2004, the government and rebels signed a humanitarian ceasefire agreement as a first step towards a lasting peace. In November 2004 the Government and rebel movements extended ceasefire and aid access agreements. (1)
In order to make her sensationalist case that genocide and ethnic cleansing had occurred or was happening in Darfur, Ms Andersson sought at every turn to present the conflict in Darfur as a racial and ethnic one between "black" Africans and "Arabs". The programme is littered, for example, with references to "black African rebels", "black African population" and "African" villages - referring to the "African" tribes from which most of the rebels appear to have been drawn. These sorts of claims are journalistically sloppy and inflammatory. Both of the communities affected are black and African. This reality has been confirmed by prominent anti-government critics such as Alex de Waal. (2) De Waal, for example, has stated that "[c]haracterizing the Darfur war as 'Arabs' versus 'Africans' obscures the reality. Darfur's Arabs are black, indigenous, African Muslims - just like Darfur's non-Arabs." (3) The London 'Observer' newspaper has also reported, for example, that "[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable". (4)
Ms Andersson was generous with her sensationalism but markedly short on analysis or fact. She glossed over the origins of the conflict, claiming, for example, that the war stemmed from the marginalisation of Darfur. While fitting the assertions made in her report, this claim was clearly self-serving. It has also been contradicted by reputable, independent observers. Ghazi Suleiman, Sudan's most prominent human rights activist, for example, has concluded: "The conflict in Darfur has nothing to do with marginalisation or the inequitable distribution of wealth. Inherently it is a struggle between the two factions of the Sudanese Islamist movement, the (opposition) Popular Congress party and the ruling National Congress (party)". (5) Suleiman is referring to the conflict within the Sudanese Islamist movement following the government's sidelining of the Islamist strongman Dr Hasan Turabi, a figure seen as having been an obstacle both to the normalisation of relations with the United States and a peace agreement with southern rebels. The Darfur rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement, led by Turabi protégé Khalil Ibrahim, is widely recognised as having been formed by the Popular Congress, many of whose leaders come from Darfur.
In a glaring omission, there was not one single mention of JEM or Dr Turabi in Ms Andersson's report. This is the equivalent of examining the dynamics of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan without mentioning al Qaeda. Any mention of Turabi would, of course, have been inconvenient to Ms Andersson's claim, presenting the conflict as a political rather than a racial one. Who is best placed to more correctly analyse events in Darfur, Ghazi Suleiman or an occasional visitor to Sudan?
Similarly, in making her case for genocide in Darfur, Ms Andersson pointedly ignored the clearly articulated views of well-respected humanitarian groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) with regard to such claims. (6) MSF President Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol has described claims of genocide in Darfur as "obvious political opportunism". (7) Dr Bradol had previously stated that the use of the term genocide was
inappropriate: "Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group. We have received reports of massacres, but not of attempts to specifically eliminate all the members of a group". (8) Dr Mercedes Taty, MSF's deputy emergency director, who worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals throughout Darfur at the height of the emergency has also warned: "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." (9)
It is a simple fact that Médecins Sans Frontières is an exceptionally credible observer with regard to allegations of genocide for two reasons. Firstly, MSF was amongst the first humanitarian groups to establish a presence in Darfur as the conflict unfolded. MSF is very heavily involved in the provision of medical and emergency services in all three of the states that make up Darfur, deploying two thousand staff. (10) It has been actively assisting 400,000 people displaced by fighting throughout the region. Secondly, MSF's reputation is quite simply beyond reproach. Médecins Sans Frontières was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. It has also received numerous other awards recognising its outstanding humanitarian work throughout the world. And, unlike Ms Andersson, who has made only intermittent visits to Darfur, before returning to the comfort of hotels in Khartoum, MSF have had an institutional presence on the ground in Darfur since last year, day in and day out.
Interviewing the American, British and Sudanese governments about allegations of genocide in Darfur would always have been somewhat sterile. It was obvious they would all adhere to a political position on the issue. There would have been few independent and credible organisations better positioned to comment on the issue than MSF. Yet, despite obviously being in contact with MSF and clearly feeling that they were useful as background colour - the programme filmed activity in MSF hospitals in Darfur - Ms Andersson conspicuously avoided either asking their views about allegations of genocide in Darfur or articulating their position. If she was unaware of the MSF position then she would have been a poor journalist. If she was aware of their position she was remiss not to have articulated their position or approached them for a comment. Might this have been for the simple reason that she would have known they would contradict her somewhat simplistic claims?
Further comments by independent groups similarly undermine the claims of Ms Andersson in her report. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr Egeland, for example, has stated that the term "ethnic cleansing" did not fit events in Darfur: "I think we have more reports actually of a kind of scorched earth [policy] - and that nobody has taken over....It's complex, because some have said that it doesn't fit the legal definition of ethnic cleansing. The same tribes are represented both among those who are cleansed and those who are cleansing." (11) Mr Egeland's views have been echoed by key human rights experts. Asma Jehangir, the UN rapporteur on extra-judicial summary and arbitrary executions, for example, has said: "I wouldn't categorise as ethnic cleansing at the moment because that is not the impression that I am getting. It could be an unintended purpose but the numbers are staggering, the situation is terrible." (12)
It is worth noting that Ms Andersson also claimed that the Sudanese government were bureaucratically blocking humanitarian aid from reaching Darfur. She was perhaps unaware that her observations were contradicted at the time by groups such as the United Nations. Speaking in June 2004, for example, the outgoing UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mr Kevin Kennedy, confirmed that visas were generally being granted within 48 hours and that "people are experiencing very few visa difficulties".
(13) The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr Jan Egeland, speaking in July 2004, noted: "It is strange to see that there is still the notion in the world that nothing is happening and we're completely blocked from accessing Darfur." (14) In less than twelve months the Sudanese government has agreed and facilitated an increase in aid workers present in Darfur, from two foreigners and a few dozen nationals in September 2003 to six thousand aid workers by August 2004. (15)
Criticism of "The New Killing Fields" does not in any way downplay the seriousness or the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or the seriousness of the human rights abuses that have taken place. It has been a human catastrophe. "The New Killing Fields", however, was undemanding and pedestrian reporting of a very complex issue. It is a pity Ms Andersson did not heed the warning of Chris Mullins, the British foreign minister she interviewed, that resolving the crisis is "not helped by reducing it to simplicities". The program was both simplistic and sensationalist. It also unquestioningly echoed claims made by the Bush Administration. As such it merely serves to distort international perspectives on Darfur which in turn runs the risk of unjustifiably pushing other governments into corners and hindering genuine international attempts to negotiate an end to the crisis. One would have expected more from the BBC. The British prime minister has been accused of being an American poodle. Is the BBC joining the kennel?
1 See "Sudan, Darfur Rebels Sign Pacts to End Hostilities, Aid
Refugees", 'USAToday', 9 November 2004; "Sudan Signs Pacts With Rebels in Darfur Region", 'The New York Times', 9 November 2004.
2 Alex de Waal is a director of the human rights group, Justice
Africa and a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University. He is the author or editor or several books, including 'Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985', 'Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa' and 'Who Fights? Who Cares? War and Humanitarian Action in Africa'. De Waal was formerly a co-director of African Rights and has worked for the Inter-Africa Group.
3 "Darfur's deep grievances Defy all Hopes for an Easy Solution", 'The Observer' (London), 25 July 2004.
4 "Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan's Hidden War", 'The Observer' (London), 30 May 2004.
5 "Sudan Islamists use Darfur as Battleground", News Article by
Reuters, 22 September 2004.
6 See, for example, "Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans
Frontières Challenges US Darfur Genocide Claims", Mediamonitors, 5 October 2004, available at www.mediamonitors.net
7 "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol,
28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website, www.msfuae.ae
8 "Thousands Die as World Defines Genocide", 'The Financial Times'
(London), 6 July 2004. See also, Bradol's views in "France Calls on Sudan to Forcibly Disarm Darfur Militias", News Article by Agence France Presse, 7 July 2004.
9 "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.
10 See, for example, MSF's own briefing: "Médecins Sans Frontières
has been working in Darfur since December 2003. Today, 90 international volunteers and nearly 2,000 Sudanese staff provide medical and nutritional care in areas with more than 400,000 displaced people. Medical teams conduct medical consultations and hospitalisation, treat victims of violence, care for severely and moderately malnourished children, and provide water, blankets, feeding and other essential items in Mornay, Zalingei, Nyertiti, Kerenik, El Genina, Garsila, Deleig, Mukjar, Bindisi, and Um Kher in West Darfur State; Kalma Camp near Nyala and Kass in South Darfur State; and Kebkabiya in North Darfur State. MSF also continues to assess areas throughout Darfur. Additional teams provide assistance to Sudanese who have sought refuge in Chad in Adre, Birak and Tine, Iriba and Guereda." ("We are looking at a second catastrophe", Darfur feature article on MSF Australia Website, http://www.msf.org.au/tw-feature/045twf.html).
11 "Interview with UN's Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur",
News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 5 July 2004.
12 "Sudan 'Neglecting' Darfur Crisis", News Article by BBC News
Online, 8 June 2004, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/
13 "Interview with Kevin Kennedy, Outgoing Acting UN Humanitarian
Coordinator for Sudan", News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 23 June 2004.
14 "Interview with UN's Jan Egeland on the Situation in Darfur",
News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 5 July 2004.
15 Figures provided by the UN press office, Khartoum.