Abu Sharati: Storm in a Teacup
I have the feeling this Abu Sharati business is a storm in a teacup. I have no idea for certain whether he was a plant or not, and I suspect few of us who have been following the story do. A quick bit of research reveals he has made around 3 statements in the mainstream media over the past year (a few newswire quotes and one in the NYT): this is a pretty poor haul if he was intended as a plant. This low figure doesn’t mean he wasn’t a plant, it just means either he wasn’t very good at it, or he didn’t pursue it very actively.
I don’t particularly blame the journalists in question for having quoted this person – as I say, I don’t know if he is genuine or not – but I can also appreciate the reasons that he was quoted. I’m sure many other journalists would have done the same in the same situation, particularly in Darfur where every journalist is a parachute journalist and must rely up to a point on contacts given to them, and not on relationships established over long periods of time, as is the case in many other places.
Nothing seems to have happened here that hasn’t been seen in the media industry very frequently. Sources have always been placed (in an active sense) in the media (and some journalists acquiesce to it knowingly, of course) and the job of the journalist can be quite hard in according relative importance and degree of “˜representativeness’. Additionally, nor will you ever get agreement amongst consumers on the journalist’s choice of source. Some people will have fully empathised with what Abu Sharati said, and felt he was a legitimate source.
Seasoned readers of newspapers can pick an official statement a mile off. In any conflict, most of us know what a spokesman from one side or the other is going to more or less say, and so it is the case with Abu Sharati. In fact, many journalists – usually the more cynical kind – often don’t bother to attend official press briefings for this very reason. It is unlikely that anything new or interesting will be added to the general picture that already exists.
In the Vietnam War, these briefings were referred to as the Five O’clock Follies, and one particular Vietnamese attaché from the South Vietnamese Army – which took its cue from the Americans, of course – became a cult hit among the press corps, because of his name: Am Rong.
The veteran British war correspondent, and later editor, Max Hastings, recalls in his memoirs a final bit of advice about dealing with officials given to him by his editor as he left for Vietnam on one of his first assignments: “they lie, they lie, they lie.” It is the job of the journalist, and also the reader, to figure out for themselves where the balance of evidence lies.
One thing that this episode reveals is that the reporting of Africa has not felt this kind of scrutiny before. If you compare this with the reporting of Israel / Palestine – where activists fight pitched battles over almost every word, and seasoned followers expect the journalism to be pretty grubby – the story of Abu Sharati pales into insignificance. There, you get more than 3 quotes from an unnamed “˜security source’, or named and fictitious source in a single day, let alone a year – with countless officials and representatives saying things that everyone expected them to, and little else besides.
To finish, Rob Crilly made a sensible point on his blog:
“He [Abu Sharati] was articulating a reasonable point of view, representing a strand of opinion that certainly exists, so does it matter exactly who he is?”
“Sensible point”: are you freaking kidding me, Guy??????
Taking your logic, reporters should not even bother to go out into the field, and should just sit at home and make the whole story up.
Whatever happened to the principles of ethics, integrity, reputation in journalism – which is even more important given the proliferation of new media and the distrust of household mainstream media in the West following the, err, errors of the Iraq war???
Remember the deserved brouhaha surrounding Jason Bryant of the New York Times??? Didn’t hear ridiculous comments – storm in a tea cup etc – when he was uncovered. Guess you feel it’s OK to write any old tosh about Darfur, the rest of Sudan and Africa generally as long as it makes sense to (Western) readers; truth is poor second from what you have written/justified.
By the way, none of the journalist – save the one from the NYT – were ‘parachutists’; they were/are all long time residents of Sudan.
And, no, the Abu S story does not pale “into insignificance” compared to the Israel/Palestinian conflict; shameful journalism like the Abu S debacle is the very reason why US civil society and government have a completely distorted grip of the reality in Darfur and remain stuck in the events of ’03-04′, slowing progress to a comprehensive political settlement that would benefit the IDPs just existing (not ‘living’) in Darfur.
And, yes, accuracy about reporting on Sudan events matters; e.g. the almost uniform tendency of international journalists to describe southern Sudan as “Christian” (it’s mainly Animist by the way) is the very reason why the US Evangelical movement got its teeth stuck in the south in the first place and, in turn, the banal view in the West that is still perpetuated today in describing the previous North-South civil war as a simply fight between “Northern Moslem Arabs” vs “Black Christian Southerners”, with the result that US patronage of the SPLA was a key reason why the war went on for as long as it did – and with great tragedy for all.
Global Relations Centre, Khartoum, Sudan
“And, yes, accuracy about reporting on Sudan events matters; e.g. the almost uniform tendency of international journalists to describe southern Sudan as â€œChristianâ€ (itâ€™s mainly Animist by the way) is the very reason why the US Evangelical movement got its teeth stuck in the south in the first place and, in turn, the banal view in the West that is still perpetuated today in describing the previous North-South civil war as a simply fight between â€œNorthern Moslem Arabsâ€ vs â€œBlack Christian Southernersâ€, with the result that US patronage of the SPLA was a key reason why the war went on for as long as it did â€“ and with great tragedy for all.”
A rather tired and old argument that ALL the problems of the Sudan arise from “OUTSIDE.” Darfur=Jews and Israelies formenting the war.
What a laughable thesis!
Bedawi would do us a lot of justice if he also acknowledged that the Muslim fundamentalists who rule Sudan also went about telling the Islamic world that they are fighting infidels in the South, thus also contributing their fair share to the “Christian Vs Muslim” viewpoint about the war.
I would like to put an end to the (mis)use of the term “animist” to describe southern Sudanese faiths. Animists believe that spirits inhabit objects such as trees and rocks. Traditional southern Sudanese religions (notably the Nilotic ones, well documented by social anthropologists) are in fact theistic, believing in a single deity (commonly a sky God) along with lesser ranked spiritual beings. The 1972 Constitution of Sudan had a respectable and accurate phrase to describe these faiths: “noble spiritual beliefs.” I would like to bring that back.
Dear Mr. Gabriel,
I am very saddened by your â€œstorm in a teacupâ€ comment as well as your cavalier attitude towards accurate reporting. If you think that the facts in a news story are not important, I would very much like to hear your belief as to why people consume media reports, if not to get the facts. The articles in which the name Abu Sharati was quoted as a source were not opinion pieces but allegedly hard news stories.
I am not as forgiving of you towards the journalists, and I do blame them (the reporters, editors and publishers), when they disseminate false information. And even if a reporter â€œparachutesâ€ into a situation to get a story, if he or she is unable to parachute in there and get it right, he or she should not go in and make the attempt in the first place. Also, it is not pertinent that if Abu Sharati was a â€œplantâ€ he â€œwasnâ€™t very good at it, or he didnâ€™t pursue it very actively.â€ The fault lies with the reporters for attributing statements to him without being more thorough in their research.
It is not a very cogent argument when you try to justify current errors by pointing to past errors. That logic taken to the extreme would be similar to trying to justify the killing that has taken place in Darfur by pointing to other horrors that have taken place in the world previously.
My mind boggles at your statement that seems to posit that since some readers empathized with what was attributed to Abu Sharati, it is then justifiable to make false statements attributed to him.
Your post reached even greater depths of apology for poor journalism when you placed the burden upon the readers for picking out statements from plants or spokespersons when they are not identified as such in the article. You also said that it is the job of the readers to figure out for themselves â€œwhere the balance of evidence lies.â€ Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be saying that it is fine if the journalists do not do their job, because the readers will just have to do it for them.
And if I may point to an issue of factual error you your post, you identified Am Rong as a â€œVietnamese attachÃ© from the South Vietnamese Armyâ€ when in fact he was a spokesperson during a portion of the 1970s for the Cambodian Army, which was led by Lon Nol of the Khmer Republic. Henry Kamm, in his book: Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Landâ€ writes that Am Rong was a major in that army in 1970. Since you got this bit of information wrong, am I to understand that it would be your position that I should ignore the fact that you did not know what you were talking about when you made your â€œRongâ€ reference?
I am also afraid that I do not accept your de minimius argument based upon the assertion that contention over reporting in much greater over the reporting on issues related to Israel and Palestine. If you are a reporter, you should report the facts honest and fairly, and there are various sets of standards that give meaning to fairness and honesty within that context.
Rob Crillyâ€™s statement which you referenced does not serve him well as a journalist. He seems to assert his own values into a story as to what is and what is not a reasonable point of view and then asserts that misleading facts that support his values (i.e. what he believes to be a reasonable point of view) are acceptable in journalism. I will certainly keep in mind these perspectives of his if I ever have the occasion to read any of his work.
I would very much like to read some of your work, as I understand form a Google search that you are a journalist as well. Would you be so kind as to share with us some of your articles on Sudan; or any other topics that you believe are significant?
Finally, I would like to comment on the comments to Mr. Gabrielâ€™s post. It was my understanding that Ahmed Badawi gave as an example of the inaccurate reporting that often takes place in Sudan the reference to the characterization of Southern Sudanese as â€œChristians.â€ I do not believe that I saw the statement attributed to Mr. Badawi by Ana Tafengi: â€œthat all of the problems of Sudan arise from outside.â€ And if Mr. Badawi did not make such a statement, I am unclear as to why Ms. Tafengi raised that issue. Perhaps she can help me with this.
Oscar H. Blayton
Dear Ahmed, Oscar
Perhaps Iâ€™d better clarify my position. Of course, fair and accuracy in reporting should be the sine qua non, and certainly â€˜the principles of ethics, integrity, reputationâ€™ exist and should be protected by the media organisation. There are the ideals, but in reality the practice sometimes falls someway short for many reasons – sometimes intentional, sometimes not.
Sudan has a lot to feel resentful about in how it has been covered by the Western media. Darfur exploded in the Western media from around April 2004, when it became a massive story as you know. When the media began to tire of it, it is instructive to look the residue that remained – the essentialised image of Darfur by which it can be easily identified to the readers. This image was basically rendered as Arabs killing Africans in horrifying, genocidal ways, and we were frequently told that it was as simple as that, often by celebrity proxy. Darfur will not go down as the mediaâ€™s finest hour: as ever, judging Africa by its worst excesses, viewed through an ethnocentric lens, scant on context and then quietly slipping away as the more complicated picture begins to emerge.
In the general construction of the Darfur narrative, there were some very high profile journalists and commentators involved, particularly in the US, though Britain has its counterparts. They most definitely exist and their opinions were very influential, reaching very high level ears. My position is that it is these opinions and ideas, which significantly helped to create and sustain the dominant Darfur media narrative, that should be addressed and engaged with as the priority.
I suppose it is a question of focus; yes, if Abu S is a case of planting in the media, then that of course if wrong. But I think that in the global picture, Abu S has had a very limited media profile, which in the vast majority of cases has been in the Sudan Tribune, a web-based publication where he has been preaching to the converted. Yes, one of his statements made it in to the NYT, but I donâ€™t think their reputation has suffered much as a result. On the other hand, the NYT got a Pulitzer for its Darfur reporting from Nicholas Kristof. This enhances reputation, yet, in tandem with similar kinds of op-ed coverage, does more damage than Abu Sharati could dream of.
So basically, the media can be a very disparate entity and frequently doesnâ€™t make much sense – but it has to be dealt with as it is, not how we would like it to be, and those who engage with it need accept its limitations. I set out further thoughts on the media coverage of Darfur earlier in this year: http://tiny.cc/HUdaA.
One final thought is that there simply hasnâ€™t been enough space in the media to tell the stories of Darfurâ€™s inhabitants. Visits by Western journalists tend to go to refugee camps close to state capitalsâ€™ airports, often trailing a politician on a visit (leader of the UK Opposition David Cameron’s aide publicised the fact that his visit was carbon neutral) â€“ and these visits have slowed to a trickle in recent years. Darfur and Sudan as a whole would benefit from Darfuri voices of all backgrounds being heard, and a neutral platform from which they can be heard.
I’m usually in agreement with your contributions, but I think I’m with Ahmed on this one. The biggest problem to me is that he called himself the representative of all IDPs, which is incredibly unfair to the refugees who don’t agree with him. The second problem, and this one is almost comical, is that reporters didn’t question the absurd idea that there was one self-appointed man who spoke for everyone. Did they think he was elected, or that he was some sort of tribal elder respected by people from all camps? The reporters should have questioned his assertions, even if they weren’t there. It’s so absurd, I can’t believe that copy-editors let these stories slip.
Thank you for the clarification of your post and for sharing with us your Study, which was published by the Arab Media Watch (which I have not yet finished – but have found to be very informative).
Interestingly, AP put out a correction last Tuesday:
â€œIn a story Sept. 11, The Associated Press quoted a representative of refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan as saying a U.S. envoy was not welcome in the region’s camps. The story should have said that the refugee representative identified himself only as Abu Sharati, an informal nickname he is known by, and that he spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared arrest by Sudan’s Arab-led government.â€ (Associated Press, 27 October, 2009).
It seems they are sticking by their story (as is to be expected), but changing the status of a source from â€˜namedâ€™ to â€˜unnamed / anonymous / pseudonymâ€™ in a correction is unusual. It strikes me as an acknowledgement that there was some sort of omission at the time of writing, which then reflects a bit on how watertight the story is.
This prove one thing, Abu S is a fictional character and does not exits. if he is not claiming any representative position for the IDPs, why should the AP give any weight to his allegation? Anonymity simply imply that AP realized the mistake (or realized that the hoax is been uncovered) and is quite embarrased and does not want to discuss it any further under the pretext of protecting the identity of their source.
Thanks for your comments, and I have read the very informative Arab Media Watch report when it came out.
AP (and I hazard a guess that the reporter in question, Sarah El Deeb, wrote it because the timeline is Cairo, where she’s based) have certainly done themselves no favours at all with their mealy-mouthed correction issued above.
It’s totally disingenuous.
AP’s correction essentially says: “Sorry readers, we erred by not pointing out that Abu Sharati is just a nom de guerre”, and then AP simply ducks the BIGGER issue of how he justifies (and AP and others failed/couldn’t be bothered to drill down) being called a “refugee representative”. Abu S was likely elected in a circle of one!