Yet More Questionable Journalism: The New York Times and Darfur

0
50

‘The New York Times’ has recently published a number of articles alleging that genocide is taking place in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. The newspaper has also published articles alleging that there has been systematic "ethnic cleansing". (1) The claims have been made in the wake of an armed conflict that has been fought in Darfur since early 2003 between two rebel groups and the Khartoum government. The rebels, the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ and the radical Islamist ‘Justice and Equality Movement’, began the war with attacks on towns, government facilities and civilians in Darfur. The conflict has spiralled out of control and has caused a growing humanitarian crisis. (2) A ceasefire agreement was signed in April 2004 (3).

Darfur is home to some 80 tribes and ethnic groups divided between nomads and sedentary communities. The rebels seem to be drawn from within two or three communities such as the Fur and the Zaghawa tribes. The war has inevitably focused upon those areas of Darfur within which the insurgents chose to base themselves. As has been the case in countless wars, many civilians have chosen to remove themselves from these war zones. In its reporting of the war, however, ‘The New York Times’ has claimed that government-supported "Arab" – "Janjaweed" – militias have been involved in deliberate attacks upon "African", Fur or Zaghawa, villagers. Mark Lacey, for example, has claimed that the "Janjaweed" have been purging "villages of their darker-skinned black African inhabitants". (4) Nicholas Kristof has claimed genocide in Darfur, asserting that the "Arabs" have been targeting "blacks", citing claims that "The Arabs want to get rid of anyone with black skin…there are no blacks left." (5) In another article Kristof alleges that "black Africans have been driven from their homes by lighter-skinned Arabs in the Janjaweed". (6)

These sorts of claims are particularly inflammatory and very questionable. More honest journalists, themselves hostile to the Sudanese government, have contradicted the sorts of assertions made by Kristof and Lacey. The London ‘Observer’ newspaper has reported, for example, that "[c]enturies of intermarriage has rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable". (7) Even "African" Darfurian anti- government figures such as Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi contradict the dangerously lazy shorthand of the ‘New York Times’. Speaking at a recent conference in Brussels he stated with reference to "Arabs" and "Africans" in Darfur that "we all look alike" and that one "can’t tell from the features if he is Arab or African". He added that he, an "African", had a darker skin than many "Arabs". (8) The discrepancy between simple factual Darfurian realities and the "reporting" and claims of people such as Kristof and Lacey exposes either poor reporting (of very sensitive issues) or reporting that has been purposefully skewed. Either is simply unacceptable.

In either instance ‘The New York Times’, and its writers, should have been considerably more cautious in the stories they have accepted about events in Darfur. ‘The New York Times’ has just had to publicly admit to both professional ineptitude and ethical failures. With regard to its previous reporting on Iraq – especially concerning allegations of possession of weapons of mass destruction – the paper’s editors had to admit that in "a number of instances…coverage…was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." (9) The BBC reported that "One of the most respected newspapers in the US has said it failed to be rigorous enough in some of its coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war. ‘The New York Times’ editors say the paper relied too much on reports from Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein without challenging their claims…They say some of the articles with alarming claims were later discredited." (10) This failure came in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal in which a ‘New York Times’ reporter was revealed to have fabricated material in his articles. (11) This led to the resignation of two editors.

It would seem that lax journalistic standards and poor editing continue to be the norm at ‘The New York Times’. Claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide are just as serious as allegations about weapons of mass destruction. ‘The New York Times’ appears to have once again accepted controversial claims without sufficient verification. And it is clear that its claims of a racial motivation for events in Darfur fly in the face of independent evidence.

The conflict in Darfur presents a very complex situation with very complex problems. (12) All war, and particularly civil war, lead to human rights violations. The conflict in Darfur has been no exception. And as is so often the case in war, the conflict has inevitably been caught up in the propaganda and misinformation that comes with it and that has certainly characterised previous coverage of Sudan.

The claims that have been made by Lacey and Kristof have been published despite an obvious scarcity of reliable information. United Nations media sources, for example, have noted "a lack of accurate information on the conflict" (13) and Reuters has also stated that "it is hard to independently verify claims by government or rebels in Darfur." (14) Human rights reports have consistently reported – and attributed – human rights abuses within Darfur in circumstances in which independent confirmation of such assertions is impossible. Even ‘The New York Times’, in echoing many of these allegations of human rights abuses, admitted at the same time that "it is impossible to travel in Darfur to verify these claims". (15)

Despite these circumstances, Lacey, Kristof and others have rushed in to make the most serious claims imaginable. Yet, for all the knee-jerk claims of genocide and ethnic cleansing made by ‘The New York Times’, there would appear to be independent and credible observers who firmly contradict them. Amnesty International researchers, for example, have said that observers should be "cautious" about describing clashes in Darfur as ethnic cleansing. (16) Claims of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" have also been directly contradicted by seasoned aid workers with hands-on experience of events within Darfur. One such observer is Dr Mercedes Taty, the deputy emergency director of the world-renowned Medecines Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). Dr Taty has worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge in the heart of the Darfur emergency. Asked if comparisons between events in Darfur and Rwanda were justified, her answer was blunt: "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." Dr Taty was also asked if the "ethnic cleansing" label was appropriate for events in Darfur. She said: "That is not necessarily accurate. There are several different tribes and clans and families and not all of them are persecuted or executed just for the sake of their tribe." (17) (The article in which she was interviewed is reproduced below.)

Amazingly enough, Nicholas Kristof has actually quoted from Dr Taty in one of his articles claiming genocide in Darfur. He obviously thought that his one or two day visit to the Chad border, running after third- and fourth-hand stories provided him with a better picture than someone such as Dr Taty who actually worked in the heart of the affected area for several weeks.

The dangers of crying wolf on such serious issues are all too clear. ‘The New York Times’ should have been considerably more cautious in the material it has published on the Darfur crisis. Its editors appear to have learnt little from the humiliating scandals that have so badly tarnished the newspaper’s reputation. Perhaps they take the view that journalistic standards simply do not apply with regard to reporting on Africa. In any instance the newspaper’s clearly questionable reporting on Darfur may have international and domestic consequences, enflaming an already fraught situation in Darfur as well as misinforming international opinion.

Appendix

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

Back from Sudan

Mercedes Taty, a 36-year-old Spanish doctor and the Deputy Emergency Director for Doctors without Borders in Paris, returned last week from a month working in Sudan. Taty worked with the 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina, and Zalinge. She spoke with MSNBC.com about the gravity of the crisis.

QUESTION: Can you describe the humanitarian situation in the Sudan?

ANSWER: Just imagine almost a half a million people having to leave their houses – homes behind, burning – subject to any sort of violence. Living in enclaves that they are not allowed to leave because they are afraid of being attacked – either looted, killed, raped, or beaten. And depending on whatever can be provided to them as they left with empty hands and depending [on aid agencies for] water supply, food distribution, and health care as they can not produce anything on their own, by themselves. Half a million people.

QUESTION: What is Doctors without Borders doing in the Darfur region of western Sudan?

ANSWER: We have set up emergency service response programs. So that means addressing priorities to prevent measles outbreaks, to provide water, to provide food, to take charge of malnutrition, and to develop primary and secondary health care for the displaced people we are trying to assist. As a doctor, I have assisted wounded people – either gunshot wounds, knife wounds, raped women – so that is the reality for this population.

QUESTION: Compared to other humanitarian crisis you have worked with over your last six years with Doctors Without Borders, how bad is the situation in the Sudan?

ANSWER: In fact, I can only [call] it a huge, huge emergency. In the sense of the population figures, when I speak about figures, I am talking about people, persons, population – they are huge, huge numbers. We are talking about displaced people living in miserable conditions, displaced from their homes, just regrouped in the middle of nowhere and absolutely dependent on any assistance that can be provided to them. They’ve left their villages of origin, due to violence and burning of these villages. So now they are gathering at some crossroad points and they are absolutely dependent on any assistance that can be provided. So, if no drinkable water, no drug supply and healthcare, no food is provided, these people have very little chance of surviving. Just to give an example, but in other situations, when we speak about 5,000 people, we estimate that is already an emergency. Right now I am talking about almost 300,000 people that have been seen by Doctors Without Borders teams.

QUESTION: The United Nations has launched an appeal for $115 million for the Darfur region. Will that help?

ANSWER: Yes, that will be suitable, but it just needs to be translated into real action in the field as soon as possible. Otherwise it will be too late.

QUESTION: Do you think that comparisons between the crisis in Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda are justified?

ANSWER: 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. But, I think it’s important not to mix things and not to standardize our words. So, I would say no, I can not speak about genocide. On the contrary, I can speak about a huge number of displaced people in an extremely precarious situation due to displacement forced by violence. It is severe enough without having to call for genocide or other words.

QUESTION: Many people are saying that the Arabs groups are driving the black Sudanese off their land so that they can access their land and water in a form of "ethnic cleansing." Is that label appropriate?

ANSWER: That is not necessarily accurate. There are several different tribes and clans and families and not all of them are persecuted or executed just for the sake of their tribe. It, in fact, looks to me like a very effective military strategy, but I wouldn’t translate that into ethic cleansing. But, I am a doctor; I am not very good at analyzing military strategy.

Interview conducted by MSNBC.com’s Petra Cahill Notes

Notes:

[1]. See, for example, Nicholas Kristof’s, "Will We Say ‘Never Again’ Yet Again?", ‘The New York Times’, 27 March 2004, "Don’t Let Sudan’s Ethnic Cleansing Go On", ‘The New York Times’, 25 March 2004

[2]. See "Sudan: One Million At ‘Imminent Risk’ in Darfur, Says US Government", News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 3 March 2004.

[3]. See "Sudan government, Darfur rebels sign ceasefire deal", News Article by Agence France Presse, 9 April 2004.

[4]. Marc Lacey, "In Sudan, Militiamen on Horses Uproot a Million", ‘The New York Times’, 4 May 2004

[5]. Nicholas Kristof, "Will We Say ‘Never Again’ Yet Again?", ‘The New York Times’, 27 March 2004

[6]. Nicholas Kristof, "Cruel Choices", ‘The New York Times’, 14 April 2004.

[7]. "Empty Villages Mark Trail of Sudan’s Hidden War", ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 May 2004.

[8]. Comments made by Dr Eltigani Ateem Seisi at the seminar "Confronting the Crisis in Darfur: A Transatlantic Assessment", Transatlantic Institute, Brussels, 12 May 2004. Dr Ateem is the head of Darfur UK, an anti-government group based in Britain.

[9]. "From the Editors. The Times and Iraq", ‘The New York Times’, 26 May 2004.

[10]. "New York Times admits Iraq faults", News Article by BBC, 26 May 2004.

[11]. "Shake-Up at The New York Times. Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd Resign. The Jayson Blair Controversy Proved Too Much for Executive Editor Howell Raines to Sustain, Despite the Paper’s Well-publicized Page One Mea Culpa", ‘Newsweek,’ 5 June 2003.

[12]. See, for example, ‘The Darfur Crisis: Looking Beyond the Propaganda’, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, March 2004, available at www.espac.org.

[13]. "The Escalating Crisis in Darfur", News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 31 December 2003.

[14]. "Pressure Seen as Key to Ending Sudan’s Western War", News Article by Reuters, 28 January 2004.

[15]. "War in Western Sudan Overshadows Peace in the South", ‘The New York Times’, 17 January 2004. Even long-standing anti-Sudan activists such as Eric Reeves has admitted to making serious allegations about Darfur while at the same time acknowledging that such claims are based on "second-hand accounts" and "fragmentary" accounts: "There have been virtually no first-hand accounts by journalists, and the observations by humanitarian organizations are necessarily scattered" (see, ‘The Accelerating Catastrophe in Darfur (Sudan): Khartoum Fixes Upon a Policy of War and Civilian Destruction’, 24 November 2003).

[16]. "Sudanese Gov’t ‘Largely Responsible’ for Abuses in Darfur, Says Watchdog", News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 27 November 2003.

[17]. "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.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.