BBC & Its Tiny Circle Of Sources

This edition of The Pencil was published on Sept. 18, 2004. We are republishing it on the occasion of its almost 14th year anniversary!

BBC’s stringer to Eritrea, Jonah Fischer, was expelled from his station in Eritrea last week.  The expulsion demonstrates two things: it encapsulates the erratic and juvenile nature of the Eritrean authorities and the declining state of BBC journalism.   We won’t comment about the erratic nature of the authorities since it is hardly a subject that requires reminder as the litany is too long. Instead, we will focus on how the once-mighty BBC continues to squander away its hard earned reputation for journalistic excellence by sending interns to hot spots—interns who derive more prestige by their level of access to power than telling truth to power and analysts who cannot seem to enlarge their tiny circle of sources.

Eritreans have a warm spot for the BBC.  The BBC was a ritual for four generation of Eritreans who tuned in religiously to its world service. The sound of Big Ben was a household tune and people set their winding watches to it. Huna London intoned the baritone voices of Akram Saleh, Atteib Saleh and other BBC broadcasters whose voices carried authority. Like most Africans, Eritreans depended on the BBC to find out what was happening only a short distance from their towns.

When the mere mention of the word “Eritrea” was a crime, the BBC was considered a comrade in the trenches of the combatants who fought for freedom: airing our grievances and exposing the atrocities committed on Eritreans to the world.

Now we have a different BBC. A BBC that sends interns to hot spots. A BBC that is slower than a turtle. A BBC that doesn’t see what goes on under its nose. A BBC whose deference to authority borders on timidity: a BBC whose reporting and analysis is based on a narrow circle of sources—often people in the government or ex-government officials.

News Not Fit To Broadcast?

Jonah Fischer was assigned to Eritrea to replace Alex Last (another intern) and Peter Biles (who had served on an interim basis) in March 2003. In the 17 months that he was there, the BBC broadcast nearly 30 reports (most carrying Jonah Fischer’s byline) on Eritrea. Nearly three-fourth of these reports dealt with developments regarding the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue.  This is newsworthy and worth reporting.  It also happens to be news that does not, in the least bit, antagonize the authorities in Eritrea.  But here’s what was not reported:

  • The arrest of Teweldemedhin Tesfamariam, Eritrea’s deputy ambassador to Kenya;
  • The arrest of Colonel Fiory, Police Chief, Godaif Precinct;
  • The change of immigration policy of June 2003 which stranded thousands of Eritreans at airports;
  • The Roundups (“Gffa”) of the summer seasons (2003 and 2004) and that of January 2004;
  • The arrest of Solomon Habtom, Eritrea’s Director of Communications (July 10, 2003);
  • The arrest of Akhlilu Solomon, VOA Stringer, July 12, 2003;
  • The arrest of Ambassador Ahmed Ali Burhan, July 16, 2003;
  • The arrest of Ibrahim Se’eed, Director General, Eritrean Relief & Refugee Commission (July 2003);
  • The re-arrest of Brigadier General Habtezion Hadgu, Commander of Eritrean Airforce (July 2003);
  • The detention & dismissal of two Eritrean University professors, Dr. Abdulkader Saleh and Dr. Alexander Naty (October 2003);
  • The purging of Eritrea’s Police Department, including the arrest of “Wedi Reg’o”, Colonel Hamed Wed Sheikh, Colonel Hassen and “Wedi Haleqa” (November 2003);
  • The arrest of Senait Debessai and the re-arrest of Ermias “Papayo” Debesai (November 2003);
  • The arrest of Aster Yohannes, wife of former minister Petros Solomon (December 2003);
  • The purging of Gash-Barka civilian administration including the arrest of Aisha Shaker, Deputy Mayor; Mohammed Osman, Secretary of the regional assembly and Idris, its Chief Engineer;
  • The sacking of the Northern Red Sea Governor (and original member of G-19 before they dwindled to G-15), Alamin Sheikh Saleh;
  • The defection of Muhyedin Shengeb, a member of the Executive Committee of the ruling party and head of its youth division (May 2004);
  • The defection of two pilots, Yemane and Le’ul, and their planes to Saudi Arabia (July 2004);
  • Eritreans hijacking of an Eritrea-bound plane from Libya and force-landing it in Sudan (August 2004)

We are aware that what seems urgent to us–because it affects our loved ones–may not be considered newsworthy by the standards of a large and international news organization, like the BBC.  (Or the Voice of America, which, unbelievably enough, had to wait for’s Gedab News to break the news of the arrest of its own reporter before it filed a report!)  We will even allow for the fact that foreigners have a difficult time establishing sources in a society where free speech is criminalized and every reporter is, according to the government, a spy or a potential spy.

But the omissions cannot be explained away because the reporter doesn’t have sources or the incidents are not newsworthy.  Clearly, the volume and the pattern of the omitted stories suggests that the BBC reporter was operating under the rules of internship: keep logging time and don’t antagonize the host site.

We do not expect the BBC to give us the architectural digest version of Abu Ghreib prison or a tourist guide on the majestic beauty of Alcatraz.  We expect the BBC to tell us what goes on inside Abu Ghreib.  Similarly, we do not expect fluff pieces on art-deco-buildings, palm-tree-lined-boulevards, Italian-inspired-sidewalk-cafes, and train-above-the-clouds stories from the BBC.  We are proud of our capital city and our country, but the real news is why are those sitting in the cafes looking so depressed? Why are there hundreds of thousands of Eritreans denied the opportunity to come home and take a train ride above the clouds?  And why are the train rides populated only by the old and the foreigners?

As inimical to the media as the Eritrean government is, what befell Jonah Fisher is not unexpected. Mr. Fisher knew that once he crossed the red line, he would be thrown out.  He wasn’t expelled because he was caught trying to uncover the fate of those deported from Malta; he wasn’t caught investigating the whereabouts of the arrested citizens.  What kept him for 17 months in Asmara was his skill in tip-toeing over the red lines. But reporting is not about tiptoeing; it is about demolishing the red and green lines in search of truth. What he didn’t know is that in authoritarian states like Eritrea, any hastily drawn line is a red line: there are no rules, there is no due process.  All they have is moods.

The real outrage is not that a government, which has a propensity for doing irrational things, expelled him; the real outrage is that he stayed in Eritrea for 17 months and seems to have done next to nothing to expose the true nature of one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. We ask the human rights advocacy groups to please reserve your outrage and anger for the sake of the Eritrean journalists who are marking their third year anniversary in prison for practicing journalism without the safety net of an English passport.

The Tiny Rolodex Syndrome Hits BBC

If the BBC’s Jonah Fisher proved himself to be a poor reporter, another BBC employee, Martin Plaut, is showing himself to be a sluggish analyst.  Eritrea is not immune from the follow-the-herd scholarship that affects every subject, which has resulted in books about Eritrea that are, in the words of Awate columnist Burhan Ali,  “a re-arranged reproduction of the contents of the previous one.”   Several years ago, we wrote Chronology of the Reform Movement and, sure enough, Mr. Plaut merely rearranged what we wrote and christened it The Birth of The Eritrean Reform Movement.”  We forgot to be flattered: you see, to us, the Reform Movement of 2000 is just one in a series of attempts to bring liberty to Eritreans; to people like Martin Plaut, it was “the birth.”

Pick any book that has been written about Eritrea in the 1980s and 1990s and you will find it has the following cliché: ELF-Muslim-reactionary-bad vs. EPLF-secular-progressive-democratic-good.  And why did they reach this conclusion?  It was because their contacts—the EPLF leadership—told them so.  They certainly did not interview ELF leaders; they did not observe ELF-liberated lands and how happy or unhappy the people who were liberated were with the administration of the ELF.  This sort of “ELF-reactionary, EPLF-democractic” broad brush may have pleased the EPLF-supporters, as it validated their biases and justified their front’s declaration of war on the ELF; but most of the peddlers of this fiction are now finding out, belatedly, that the EPLF is not democratic at all, although some still cling on to their view that it used to be.  This sort of clinging-on to fiction is understandable because facing the ugly truth would mean negating a life-long affection and recognizing it for the deceptive addiction it was.

But that is history.  Or is it?  Just when we thought we had buried our old ELF-EPLF feuds, some experts of wedge-issues are trying to repackage it and re-sell it and, sure enough, Mr. Martin Plaut is already a volunteer in this cause.  As everyone who can read knows, in August, two Eritrean unity blocs were formed: the Four Plus One and the ELF-ELF/RC-EDP.   Although quantifying sizes is always hard, if one assumes the following:

* that the size of EDP is the same as the size of EPM;
* the size of ELF-RC is the same as the size of ELF-NC;
* the size of Sea Afar is at least the size of the ELF; and
* the MDC which joined the EDP is the same size as the MDC that joined the EPM,

then it is a safe bet that the two blocs are of equal size.  (This is why we continue to insist that these blocs should refrain from slandering one another because we see the genesis of the equal-sized ELF-EPLF of the 1970s and the tragic results of that polarization .)

Now, let’s see how Martin Plaut sees things.   This is how he describes the ELF-ELF/RC-EDP Bloc:

They have joined with MDC, “an influential student grouping”;

  • “They resist Ethiopian intervention in Eritrean affairs;”
  • “They also support the adjudication of an international tribunal, which ruled in Eritrea’s favour over key aspects of the border with Ethiopia.”
  • They are “willing to meet President Isaias – if that would lead to a democratic renewal in Eritrea.”

This is how Mr. Plaut describes the ENA:

  • One camp – the Eritrean National Alliance – is based in Ethiopia and wishes to overthrow President Isaias by force.
  • It has refused to take a stand on the contentious issue of where the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea lies – something the two countries went to war on in 1998.

And this is how Mr. Plaut describes the Four Plus One Bloc:

We forgot: he has nothing to say about it!  The Bloc did not happen!

Our point is this: Just as Mr. Plaut used to get his information about Eritrea from EPLF officials, now he is limiting his sources to the same rolodex: this time it is the Eritrean Democratic Party.  This can be easily verified by the glowing report on the EDP grouping and the damning (and obviously second-hand and second-rate) reporting on the others.  It would not have mattered who EDP formed a union with or what its issues were: it would have received glowing reports and its “opponent” would have been trashed.

We expect this from advocacy opinionating, but not from world-class analysis that the title “BBC analyst” would suggest.  Shame on you, Mr. Plaut.

We understand that the BBC reporters are harshly criticized by the government and its supporters. Now that we are criticizing them, they might be tempted to conclude that it must be because they are conducting their jobs right. But this is not the case: one criticizing party is totally off mark because it wants the BBC to be a replica of the PFDJ official media.  We just want them to be fair reporters.

Take It Back!

Eritreans’ struggle for establishing a nation that respects the rights of all its citizens has not been served well by the two BBC employees that are “assigned” to Eritrea.  In fact, the expulsion of Jonah Fisher hurts the government more than it hurts the Eritrean people.  Given their erratic nature, we expect the Eritrean authorities to invite the BBC back by claiming that their quarrel is not with the BBC as an institution but with the reporter.  When they do, we beg the BBC to send a seasoned reporter who is unfazed by authority.  Eritrea is a small nation and may not be a priority for BBC; however, if the magnitude of the people’s suffering–as opposed to the size of population–means anything, Eritrea deserves serious attention from the BBC. As for analysts, we understand that they are not governed by the same constraints that reporters are; we hope the BBC will consider analysts whose loyalties to individuals and organizations does not cloud their analysis, as is obviously the case with Mr. Plaut.

This website was once labeled the “BBC of Eritrea”: a description we once considered a badge of honor.  Given the dishonorable work of Mr. Plaut and Mr. Fisher, we now respond to such compliments from our readers by responding, “Take it back!”   BBC, live up to your legacy!


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