| Published December 1999
| ISBN: 1-903545-00-0
QUESTIONABLE SOURCES, QUESTIONABLE JOURNALISM:
THE OBSERVER AND SUDAN
The Observer newspaper published a lengthy
article by Julie Flint on the Nuba people, an amalgam of
black African tribes in central Sudan. Entitled 'Nuba face
Destruction' this article was yet one more example of the
all too questionable and partisan journalism that has characterised
much of the reporting of the Sudanese civil war. Simply
put, the article was a crudely partisan projection of one
side of the Sudanese conflict within one particular area
in Sudan. While professing concern about human rights, The
Observer's article was remarkably selective in those
human rights abuses that it addressed. The article also
once again returns to discredited accusations of the use
of chemical weapons in the
civil war, without presenting anything even remotely approaching
evidence for such serious allegations.
Among several questionable claims
about Sudan made in the article, The Observer's presentation
of the conflict in the Nuba mountains as simply being a
war between the Nuba people and the Sudanese government
is particularly inaccurate. The Observer article
boldly states, for example, that: "The Nuba are now
in their thirteenth year of struggle for a democratic secular
state in which the country's African south would be the
equal of its Arab north". This type of crude projection
is on a par with claiming that all Northern Irish Catholics
support the Provisional IRA.
As is the case in most civil wars,
the truth is that the Nuba communities are themselves divided
into pro-government and pro-rebel factions. As much has
been conceded by groups such as African Rights, no friend
of Khartoum. African Rights has made several references
to "prominent Nuba" who are supportive of the
Sudanese government. African Rights actually lists a number
of prominent Nuba leaders who have taken a pro-government
position. In addition to prominent Nuba leaders in the Nuba
mountains, African Rights also states that "a number
of prominent Nuba in Khartoum have also actively supported
the government". It lists some of them and states "[t]his
list is far from exhaustive. There are many other civil
servants, meks, omdas and sheiks, teachers and merchants
who have joined with the [government's] policy of 'Peace
from Within'. Ms Flint has ignored this large Nuba constituency.
The Observer claims that
the Nuba are "in their thirteenth year of struggle".
What the article does not mention is that the vicious conflict
in the Nuba mountains erupted in mid-1985 when a SPLA unit
entered the Nuba mountains and deliberately attacked a civilian
encampment, murdering scores of unarmed civilians. A vendetta
was started and both sides began arming tribal militias.
All civil wars are brutal and vicious.
Human rights are the first casualty of war and particularly
civil war. All abuses, by which ever side, must be condemned.
The Observer stated that "evidence of human
rights abuses pile up". But The Observer's
article was remarkably selective about which abuses it appeared
to consider worthy of attention. There was no mention of
rebel human rights outrages, despite the fact that these
systematic abuses are all too well documented. Reporting
on his visit to the Nuba Mountains, the United Nations'
Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, for example,
spoke of a "very dark picture" of gross violations
of human rights by the SPLA. The Special Rapporteur was
given lists of hundreds of victims of SPLA terrorism. Local
Nuba chiefs have described murders, torture, rape, kidnappings,
abductions, the forced conscription of Nuba children, and
the destruction of homes and looting of property by the
The Observer unquestioningly
cited a SPLA spokesman who stated that "All we are
asking is equal treatment so people can decide freely whether
they stay in SPLA areas or go to the government". It
ignores the fact that Amnesty International has reported
that the SPLA has imposed a "civilian exclusion zone"
around areas it controlled in the Nuba mountains in order
to deter civilians leaving. Those attempting to leave were
murdered or punished by the SPLA.
Given that the article dealt with
the alleged attempt to destroy the Nuba people, it is surprising
that neither The Observer nor Ms Flint have shown
any interest in the thousands of Nuba children who were
forcibly removed from their parents by the SPLA. These children
represent the very lifeblood of the Nuba people and culture
supposedly of such concern to The Observer and Ms
Flint. The fate of these children has still not revealed
by the SPLA. An indication as to what may have happened
to many of them was given by Dr Peter Nyaba, a serving member
of the SPLA national executive council. In his 1997 book,
The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider's
View, for example, Nyaba publicly criticised the SPLA
for not disciplining those of its members responsible for
the deaths of thousands of under-age Nuba children:
For instance, the officer responsible
for Bilpam was not held accountable for the deaths from
starvation and related diseases of nearly three thousand
Nuba youths under training in 1988. And yet it was known
that their food was being sold at the Gambella market, and
the proceeds appropriated by the commander.
Thousands more under-age Nuba children
are believed to have died while forced to fight as SPLA child
soldiers. There are still thousands of Nuba mothers anxiously
awaiting news of what happened to their children.
Ms Flint is a close and willing associate
of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Her Observer
article is mute with regard to SPLA human rights abuses. However,
a clearer and less partisan picture of the SPLA emerges from
statements by eight reputable US-based humanitarian organisations
working in Sudan, groups such as CARE, World Vision, Church
World Service, Save the Children and the American Refugee
Committee, no friends of the Sudanese government, who, at
the end of November 1999, felt it was their responsibility
to publicly state that the SPLA has:
engaged for years in the most
serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings,
beatings, arbitrary detention, slavery, etc.
Human Rights Watch, similarly no friend
of Khartoum, stated in December 1999 that: "The SPLA
has a history of gross abuses of human rights and has not
made any effort to establish accountability. Its abuses today
The Economist has summed up
the general image of the SPLA when it stated that:
[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".
The New York Times has also categorised SPLA leader
John Garang as one of Sudan's "pre-eminent war criminals".
These perspectives on the SPLA are noticeably absent from
The Observer's presentation of the Sudanese conflict.
The nature of Ms Flint's associates
was also illustrated by the Ganyiel massacre. The United Nations
Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, documented this
incident in which SPLA forces attacked two villages in the
Ganyiel region in southern Sudan. SPLA personnel killed 210
villagers, of whom 30 were men, 53 were women and 127 were
children. The Special Rapporteur stated that:
Eyewitnesses reported that some
of the victims, mostly women, children and the elderly,
were caught while trying to escape and killed with spears
and pangas. M.N., a member of the World Food Programme relief
committee at Panyajor, lost four of her five children (aged
8-15 years). The youngest child was thrown into the fire
after being shot. D.K. witnessed three women with their
babies being caught. Two of the women were shot and one
was killed with a panga. Their babies were all killed with
pangas. A total of 1, 987 households were reported destroyed
and looted and 3, 500 cattle were taken.
The Ganyiel incident is sadly only
one of many similar instances of gross human rights abuses
involving civilians - a war on Sudanese civilians. Its behaviour
in the Nuba mountains has been no different.
The article made much of the slowness
with which aid is filtering through to the Nuba mountains.
What is not mentioned by The Observer is that one reason
for that delay was that in June 1998 the SPLA murdered several
relief workers on a food aid assessment mission in the Nuba
mountains. The SPLA has murdered dozens of humanitarian aid
workers from the mid-1980s onwards. In one attack alone, for
example, SPLA gunmen killed 23 relief workers, drivers and
assistants. In 1999 the SPLA murdered four aid workers assisting
with a Red Cross project in southern Sudan.
Given 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 , it is disappointing
to see that Ms Flint's article contained similarly sensationalist
and unproven allegations of the use of chemical weapons in
contested areas of Sudan. The sum of her evidence is that
the SPLA said that a pig fell down a crater and died. One
would have expected somewhat more professionalism from a newspaper
of record such as The Observer.
Such claims were independently scientifically
investigated by the United Nations in 1999 and found to be
baseless. On 17 October 1999, the United Nations revealed
that several tests conducted by the laboratories of the internationally-renowned
Center for Disease Control in Atlanta on medical samples taken
by Operation Lifeline Sudan staff in areas in which chemical
weapons were said to have been used "indicated no evidence
of exposure to chemicals". The British Government, no
supporter of Khartoum, also confirmed that tests "indicated
no evidence of exposure to chemicals."
It has to be said that allegations
of involvement in weapons of mass destruction are amongst
the most serious that can be levelled at any government. Echoing
sensationalistic allegations such as the use of chemical weapons
against any target, and particularly civilians, carries with
it a responsibility. Repeating second or third hand rumours
about weapons of mass destruction in Sudan has to be approached
with particular caution given the al-Shifa incident, an incident
which was obviously the result of similarly unfounded allegations.
Ms Flint's reliance on SPLA sources
for her claims should also be seen in the light of comments
made by the SPLA executive member, Dr Nyaba. Nyaba placed
what he termed the SPLA's "sub-culture of lies, misinformation,
cheap propaganda and exhibitionism" very much on record:
Much of what filtered out of
the SPLM/A propaganda machinery.was about 90% disinformation
or things concerned with the military combat..
Julie Flint's objectivity with regard
to Sudan is questionable. She has been a frequent visitor
to SPLA-controlled areas. The Observer should perhaps
have chosen those who write articles on Sudan with a bit more
caution. A succession of visitors to rebel areas have been
misled by the SPLA. The Canadian government and American media
have placed on record the SPLA's capacity for such deceit.
For whatever reason this article by the The Observer
has unquestioningly echoed rebel propaganda projections. This
in turn makes it all the more difficult for the international
community to assess the reality of the Sudanese situation,
further distorting international perceptions of the conflict.
It has been frequently stated that
the truth is also one of the first casualties of war. It behoves
all journalists dealing with the sort of civil war that has
been raging in Sudan since 1955 to approach the partisan claims
of either side with a degree of caution. Coverage of all civil
wars, and particularly one as complex as the Sudanese conflict,
should be accurate and objective. It is sadly all too obvious
that The Observer's article was neither.