On 23 August 2001, Channel 4 News broadcast a news item alleging that tactical “ballistic missiles” had been used by Sudanese government forces during recent fighting in the Sudanese civil war. The “evidence” for this was video footage allegedly captured by rebel forces. The item also echoed Sudanese rebel claims that these “missiles” have been “bought with revenue from oil companies”. The Channel 4 piece was sadly one more example of the poor journalism that has characterised most of the British media’s coverage of Sudanese affairs. It was also yet another piece of questionable journalism associated with the British free-lance journalist Julie Flint.
It should be noted from the outset that this news item is but one in a catalogue of questionable and discredited claims that have been made over the years on Sudan and the Sudanese conflict. In 1999, for example, the British media widely reported similarly dubious claims that Sudanese government forces had used chemical weapons in southern Sudan. (1) In 2000, a British newspaper reported that 700,000 Chinese soldiers were being deployed in southern Sudan, a claim similarly publicly exposed as yet another false allegation. (2)
It is evident that while claiming that the weapon shown was a ballistic missile, Flint, Channel 4 and various military analysts were unable to even identify it. In a newspaper article earlier in August Flint reported that the “Ballistic missile” had been acquired from Kazakhstan. It is stated at the same time, however, that “the missile has not yet been identified”. (3) In Julie Flint’s Channel 4 piece, a “defence analyst” is unsure but ventures that it may be an Iranian missile”. So without being able to even identify what the “missile” was, Flint was bold enough to assert that it had been bought from Kazakhstan. This sort of journalism is characteristic of Julie Flint. In a May 2000 article published by The Observer newspaper she repeated similarly sensationalist and unproven allegations of the use of chemical weapons in contested areas of Sudan.(4) Amazingly enough, given the seriousness of such allegations, the sum of her evidence on that occasion was that the SPLA said that a pig fell down a crater and died. (5)
It should also be noted that the British government has repeatedly been asked in Parliament whether it has evidence that Sudanese oil revenues were being used to purchase arms. In early March 2001 the British government replied to a question asking whether they had “any evidence that Sudanese oil revenues are being spent on arms procurement”. The government’s answer was: “There is evidence to suggest that military expenditure has remained stable.” (6) A year earlier, in March 2000, the British Government, in reply to a similar Parliamentary question about oil-related arms purchases, stated that they did not “have any evidence of such expenditure at present”. (7) Flint’s obvious reliance on SPLA sources for the claims she made should also be assessed in the light of comments made by SPLA executive member, Dr Peter Nyaba. Dr Nyaba has spoken of the SPLA’s “sub-culture of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism”:
“Much of what filtered out of the SPLM/A propaganda machinery…was about 90% disinformation or things concerned with the military combat…. ” (8)
While referring to “a dramatic escalation” in the civil war, Channel 4 pointedly did not refer to the fact that if there has indeed been a dramatic escalation in the war it has been the rebel movement’s decision to greatly increase attacks on the population around and within Sudan’s oil areas: Julie Flint has chosen to ignore articles such as Associated Press’s June 2000 report ‘Sudanese Rebels Plan to Intensify War Around Oil Fields”. (9) The SPLA’s deliberate displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, as a result of its actions, has also gone unreported by Flint, Channel 4 or, for that matter, any of the British media. The Channel 4 news item also further ignored the fact that SPLA rebels had themselves last month used a Grad 122 mm rocket launcher system in an attack on civilian oil installations . (10) While eager to describe the Sudanese army as a “new and more powerful army”, and that it is one of the “best equipped” armies in Africa, Flint studiously ignores the fact that the Khartoum authorities have repeatedly called on the rebels to accept a ceasefire and enter into peace talks.(11) Khartoum has repeatedly called upon the international community to urge the rebels to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.(12) The government has also repeatedly offered an internationally-monitored referendum whereby the people of southern Sudan could choose their own destiny. (13) This is hardly the approach of a government intent on a crushing military victory – quite the contrary. To have touched on these facts would, however, have undermined the propaganda slant of Flint’s news item. It is a matter of record that it is SPLA rebels who continue to prolong the Sudanese civil war despite considerable international pressure on them to accept a ceasefire and enter into peaceful negotiations. (14) While acknowledging the referendum offer, the SPLA has been remarkably sluggish in acting upon it. (15)
Julie Flint’s hypocrisy and double-standards stand out clearly. She expresses concern about revenues which she claims fuel conflict in Sudan. She has not uttered a word about the millions of dollars in direct military assistance to one side to the conflict, namely the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army. (16) Unlike the sorts of claims made by Channel 4, this funding is a fact not in question, and openly and publicly proclaimed by the United States government and Congress. If Flint and others were sincerely concerned about revenues funding conflict in Sudan, they could have sought to balance their piece with mentioning and criticising blatant American financial support – and encouragement – for both war and, what is worse, intransigence within the peace process. If they were concerned about cause and effect, or at the very least the sort of balance and objectivity expected of journalists they might have drawn the link between the release of millions of dollars of American assistance to the SPLA and the acquisition and use of a new weapons system by the rebel movement.
The news item also sought to link the oil project and oil revenues with similarly sensationalist claims about the deliberate displacement of civilians from the oil fields, claiming that government forces were “systematically clearing oil rich areas of southern Sudan”. and that, as claimed by a “human rights consultant” Diane de Guzman: “villages…came under attack and large numbers of people [are] being displaced”. As confirmed in the news item itself, Channel 4 had made similar claims recently, stating that “five months ago, Channel 4 documented the scorched earth tactics being used to clear southern Sudan for exploration by international oil companies”.
It is a matter of record that Channel 4’s claims of “scorched earth” campaigns and displacement within the oilfields by the government or oil companies, while making for easy propaganda and tabloid-style sensationalistic journalism, have been disproved by a detailed recent scientific analysis of satellite pictures taken over a number of years in the very areas of Sudan concerned. The study was commissioned by one of the oil companies involved in the Sudanese oil sector. This company commissioned a leading British satellite imagery analysis company, Kalagate Imagery Bureau, to study a series of satellite photographs taken of oil producing areas in southern Sudan, the epicentre of the sort of “scorched earth” claimed by Channel 4. The images analysed included recent civilian satellite images and images acquired by U.S. military intelligence satellites of the areas in question since 1965. These pictures were very detailed: ground resolution in the images varying between about three feet and 10 feet. There were additional lower resolution Landsat images from the 1980s and Radarsat images from 2000. (17) The images were analysed by Geoffrey John Oxlee, a former RAF satellite imagery analyst and one of Britain’s leading experts in the field. (18) Mr Oxlee found that “there is no evidence of appreciable human migration from any of the seven sites examined.” (19) On the contrary, he further stated that analysis revealed that “once the sites were developed, then people did come into the area, and in fact it looked as if people developed around the oil sites rather than going away from it.” (20) Mr Oxlee was asked if there was any chance that he had been provided with doctored images. He said that the satellite photographs examined “are genuine pictures. Having looked at hundreds of thousands of satellite pictures, there’s no way these pictures have been doctored. Absolutely none. We check these things out.”
It would appear from detailed satellite picture analysis that that far from witnessing the systematic displacement of civilians, as claimed by Julie Flint, Channel 4 and others, southern civilians seem to be being drawn towards the oil concessions.
In broadcasting Julie Flint’s unbalanced and partisan piece, Channel 4 news has once again demonstrated the British media’s apparent indifference to professional journalistic standards as far as Sudan is concerned. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the news item echoed SPLA positions – positions which are obstructing the search for peace in Sudan. In doing so, they are encouraging the SPLA to use the oil issue as a further excuse for not accepting a ceasefire: Channel 4 is itself prolonging the very conflict about which it professes concern. Channel 4 should also have chosen its reporters with regard to Sudan with considerably more caution. Ms Flint is a close and willing associate of the SPLA and has historically been remarkably silent with regard to SPLA human rights abuses. This news item was a tabloidisation of reporting standards, a crudely partisan projection of questionable claims made by one side of the Sudanese conflict. There was no attempt at balance and no attempt to check facts before making serious allegations.
The SPLA has chosen to make the oil issue the latest excuse for not accepting a ceasefire and negotiating a peaceful solution to the Sudanese civil war.21 In blindly broadcasting claims of oil revenues fuelling war in Sudan, as articulated in this instance by one of the SPLA’s journalistic camp followers, Channel 4 has merely encouraged the intransigence of the SPLA with regard to peace in Sudan.
1 See, for example, ‘Damien Lewis, Sudan and ‘Death in the Air’: A Case Study in Irresponsible Television’ , The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, August 2001; ‘Irresponsible Journalism: British Media Reporting of Allegations of Chemical Warfare in Southern Sudan’, The British Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, January 2000; and ‘”Chemical Weapons” in Sudan: The Baroness Cox Allegations Fiasco’, The British Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, June 2000. The British and Finnish chemical weapons agencies tested dozens of different types of samples from the areas in question and unambiguously contradicted the claims made in the British media, and by people such as Damien Lewis and Baroness Cox. Additional tests conducted on similar samples in the United States also proved totally negative. In fact, the British government remarked on “the consistency of results from these three independent sets of analysis”. The British government reiterated its findings in October 2000, when, specifically referring to Lewis’s claims, they once again stated that “there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Sudan. (House of Lords ‘Official Report’, 31 October 2000, cols. WA81.)
2 Even the Clinton Administration, as hostile as it is to the Sudanese authorities, had to dismiss the claims, stating that even “the figure of tens of thousands of troops is just not credible based on information available to us”.’U.S.: Reports of China’s Role in Sudanese War Are Overstated’, News Article by UPI on 29 August 2000.
3 ‘Sudan Uses Missiles Against Rebels’, ‘The Guardian’, London, 14 August 2001.
4 ‘Nuba Face Destruction’, ‘The Observer’, London, 7 May 2000.
5 This sort of superficial propaganda-journalism contrasts starkly with ‘The Observer”s excellent investigative journalism in shredding the Clinton Administration’s claims that the al-Shifa medicines factory in Khartoum was in some way involved with chemical weapons
6 House of Lords ‘Official Record’, Written Parliamentary Answers, 5 March 2001, column WA10.
7 Peter Nyaba, House of Lords ‘Official Record’, Written Answer, 22 March 2000, column WA28.
8 Peter Nyaba, ‘The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, pp.55.
9 ‘Sudanese Rebels Plan to Intensify War Around Oil Fields’, News Article by Associated Press on 6 June 2000.
10 ‘Sudan Uses Missiles Against Rebels’, ‘The Guardian’, London, 14 August 2001.
11 See, for example, ‘Sudan’s Bashir Reiterates Commitment to Peaceful Settlement’, News Article by the German Press Agency (DPA) on 7 August 2001; ‘Khartoum Urges Rebels to “Stop Fighting and Talk”‘, News Article by Agence France Presse on 5 June 2001: ‘Sudanese Government Welcomes Carter’s Initiative to End the War in southern Sudan’, News Article by ArabicNews.com on 26 April 2001; ‘Sudan’s Government in Favour of Ceasefire in 18-year Civil War’, News Article by Agence France Presse on 22 April 2001 and ‘Government “Ready for a Ceasefire’, News Article by United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network, 15 May 2001; ‘Sudan calls for Western Pressure on southern Rebels to Accept Ceasefire’, News Article by Agence France Presse on 26 April 2000; “Sudan Backs Combination of Arab and African Peace Drives”, News Article by Agence France Presse on 24 October 1999 at 13:51:08; ‘Sudanese government declares ceasefire’, News Article by BBC World on 5 August 1999 at 16:24 GMT, at 11:58:37; ‘Sudanese government declares comprehensive cease-fire’, News Article by Associated Press on 5 August 1999 at 17:36:10; “Sudan Government to Observe Ceasefire Despite SPLA Rejection”, News Article by Agence France Presse on 7 August 1999 at 14:33:50;’EU Welcomes Cease-Fire in Sudan’, News Article by Xinhua on 20 August 1999 at 10:36:48; ‘Annan welcomes ceasefire’, News Article by UN Integrated Regional Information Network, 11 August 1999; ‘Annan hails Sudan cease-fire allowing aid to flow’, News Article by Reuters on 6 August 1999 at 17:07:39; ‘Sudanese rebels reject peace plan’, News Article by BBC World on 30 August 1999 at 14:33 GMT; ‘Sudanese Rebels Reject Government Cease-Fire’, News Article by Reuters on 5 August 1999 at 12:03:55.
12 See, most recently, ‘Government Urges International Community to Pressurise Rebels to Accept Cease-fire’, News Article by Associated Press on 27 August 2001. See also, for example; ‘US Catholic Clerics Urged to Pressurise Garang into Accepting Cease-Fire’, News Article by Sudan News Agency on 27 March 2001; ‘Britain Can Pressurize Rebels to Realize Cease-Fire, Sudanese Diplomat’, News Article by SUNA, 26 February 2001.
13 See, ‘Sudan offers South secession’, News Article by BBC on 22 February 1999 at 00:16:14 GMT; ‘Southern secession better than more war: Sudan’s president’, News Article by Agence France Presse on 22 February 1999, at 10:04:31;; ‘Sudan Says Happy for South to secede’, News Article by Reuters on 7 May 1998.
14 See, for example, ‘Annan calls on Sudan’s SPLM leader to sign ceasefire’, News Article by Agence France Presse on 7 August 1999, at 02:37:52
15 See, for example, ‘SPLA plays down deal on referendum in southern Sudan’, News Article by BBC, on 7 May 1998, at 13:24 GMT.
16 This military funding spans several years. See, for example, ‘Sudan Criticizes U.S. Aid to Rebels’, ‘The Washington Times’, 30 May 2001 and reports of 20 million dollars of military assistance carried in ‘The Sunday Times’, London, 17 November 1996
17 ‘Talisman Fights Back on Sudan Displacement Claims Releases Aerial Images’, ‘The Financial Post’, (Canada), 19 April 2001.
18 It should be noted that Mr Oxlee retired from the Royal Air Force with the rank of Group Captain (in American terms a full Colonel). He is the former head of the United Kingdom Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre. He is the author of ‘Aerospace Reconnaissance’, (published by Brasseys in 1997). Mr Oxlee is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Expert Witness Institute.
19 ‘Talisman Energy Says Study Disproves Sudan Allegations’, Dow Jones Newswire, 18 April 2001.
20 ‘Talisman Fights Back on Sudan Displacement Claims Releases Aerial Images’, ‘The Financial Post’, (Canada), 19 April 2001.
21 See, for example, ‘Ceasefire Blocked by Oil Demands, Says Government’, United Nations IRIN Article, 2 May 2001.
The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)