Alert Update – The BBC’s Director of News Responds on Mass Death of Refugees in Afghanistan

Marjan the one-eyed lion is getting “better day by day” according to the latest ITN TV news report – the third so far this year – from Kabul zoo (ITN Evening News, 22 January, 2002). Also doing well is an Asiatic black bear, “the other main casualty of the fighting”, suffering from a wounded nose. ITN reassured viewers that the bear was being fed antibiotics as part of a “balanced diet”, which should help the nose heal.

ITN’s extraordinary indifference to the plight of human victims in Afghanistan, however, persists with literally +no+ news reports on the mass starvation and death of refugees this year.

By contrast, on 18 January, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported one of the many catastrophes afflicting the Afghan population – U.S.-dropped cluster bombs:

“Many bombs were dropped in residential and other populated areas and the Mine Action Centre is doing their best to deal with all the emergency cases. However, they do not have enough human, logistical and other necessary resources to clear the region effectively within an acceptable period of time.” (Médecins Sans Frontières website, January 18, 2002, ‘Cluster bombs the legacy to Afghan population’)

MSF continues:

“In its field operations in Herat, Médecins Sans Frontières comes across many civilians who have been injured by mines or UXOs (including cluster bombs). During the recent US air raids over Herat, western Afghanistan, several cluster bombs have been mistakenly dropped on residential areas causing a large number of civilian deaths and casualties… According to official data of local de-mining organizations and the Regional Hospital in Herat, 38 deaths and an unknown number of injured people due to cluster bombs have been registered so far. However, some doctors in Herat Regional Hospital believe this number is much higher. In the village of Qala Shaker near Herat city alone, 12 people died and more than 20 were injured due to cluster bombs.” (ibid)

Each cluster bomb contains 202 sub-munitions, of which approximately 20% do not explode upon impact. The sub-munitions consist of three kill mechanisms: anti-armour, anti-personnel and incendiary, comprising a lethal “combined effects munition”. Anti-personnel fragments weighing 30g can penetrate 6.4mm of steel plate at a distance of 11 metres. The anti-armour sub-munitions can penetrate 19 cm of steel, and injure a person at 150 metres.

Bomblets can be detonated by tiny changes of temperature – when a person’s shadow falls across a bomblet lying in the sun, for example – by small vibrations, and even by the energy from a passing radio transmitter.

According to the Mine Action Centre, U.S. food packages and cluster bombs were dropped in the same areas. Although different in shape and size, both are yellow in colour and “many children pick up… [the bomblets] thinking they contain food or other interesting items”. (ibid)

Again, to our knowledge, not one word of this has appeared on either ITN or BBC TV News this year.

In earlier Media Alerts, we described conditions in Maslakh refugee camp, where 100 refugees were reported to be dying per day by the Guardian on January 3. It would appear that conditions are even worse beyond Maslakh. On January 4, Christian Aid reported:

“Refugees arriving at Maslakh camp near Herat have described the ‘calamity conditions’ their families are now living in. Heavy snowfall is making it difficult to transport humanitarian supplies to the most vulnerable areas of the mountainous Ghor province of Afghanistan…” (Christian Aid website, Hunger forces families to abandon mountain homes January 4, 2002)

Hayat Fazil of Christian Aid’s partner organisation NPO/RRAA (Norwegian Project Office/Rural Rehabilitation Association for Afghanistan) “warned that rural villages are being neglected while refugee camps like Maslakh get the lion’s share of aid.” (ibid)

On January 17, 2002, Media Lens issued a Media Update: The BBC Responds On Mass Death In Afghanistan.

The update concerned whitewashing replies received from the BBC in response to many Media Lens subscribers asking why minimal coverage is being devoted to the plight of bombed and starving Afghans.

We took our concerns directly to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news. To his credit, Sambrook responded immediately, citing last Sunday’s Correspondent programme, Dispossessed (BBC2, 20 January, 2002), describing the plight of Afghan refugees in Makaki, a refugee camp near the border with Iran. Mr Sambrook also referred to a number of other BBC reports in support of his claim that “we have not ignored the suffering of Afghan civilians”.

The full exchange with Richard Sambrook is given below, followed by a suggested course of action for Media Lens subscribers.


From Richard Sambrook:

Monday, January 21, 2002

Dear Mr Cromwell,

Thank you for your email about our coverage of Afghanistan. I am sorry you feel we have paid insufficient attention to the plight of refugees. However, we have not ignored the suffering of Afghan civilians . You may not have had a chance to see last night’s BBC2 Correspondent programme The Dispossessed. Taghi Amirani gained rare access to Makaki, a refugee camp near the Afghan-Iran border. He wanted to hear the voices of ordinary Afghans, see the war against terrorism through their eyes, and find out what life is really like in a refugee camp. The programme included footage of Abdol Sattar Sharifi, a driver from Kabul saying “If one American dies the whole world hears about it. But Afghans die everyday and nobody pays any attention. No one will ask who was killed and how. Look at me; I have lost my wife and my child and now live in dirt, and no one cares.”

Just this morning the Today programme on Radio 4 carried a report by Andrew Gilligan from Kabul about the scale of the aid needed. It was followed by an interview with Clare Short, the International Development Secretary about what the international community is doing to help.

Jonathan Charles reported on the suffering of Afghan people on this Saturday’s BBC1 Television News (19th January) . He said “this is why the money’s needed so desperately. The streets of south Kabul lie in ruins after shelling. Many people live a miserable existence amongst the rubble. This man lost a leg when a bomb landed. He hopes foreign aid will give Afghans a better future. He says winter’s here, people urgently need their houses rebuilt to escape the cold.”

Ishbel Mattheson has also reported from Kabul for BBC TV News about terrible state of women’s health.

Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place and it is dificult to travel outside of the capital. David Loyn who has reported from the country for many years is planning to go with an aid aeroplane to a refugee camp in Maslach, but the timing is in the hands of the aid agencies. BBC News has a long history of covering Afghanistan, even when other broadcasters were not reporting from the country. The BBC Bureau in Kabul was opened in 1989. When the most recent Correspondent Kate Clark was expelled in March 2001 she was the only western correspondent in Kabul.

Although that does not mean we can report every day on what is happening there, it is a commitment we will maintain in the future. I hope that these examples help to allay your concern that BBC News is ignoring the plight of Afghan civilians. Thank you for taking the time to contact me with your comments.

Yours sincerely

Richard Sambrook

Media Lens replied as follows:

January 22, 2002

Dear Mr Sambrook,

Many thanks for kindly responding so promptly. I did, in fact, watch Correspondent on Sunday night. It was moving but fell short on describing the true horror of conditions in Afghanistan. Taghi Amirani reported in conclusion that 3500 Afghan civilians had lost their lives, failing to specify the cause of death. As we know, this is a conservative estimate of victims of the bombing alone. Yet, on January 3, The Guardian reported conditions facing 350,000 Afghan refugees in the Maslakh camp, 30 miles west of Herat city. Doug McKinlay described how 100 of these refugees were dying every day of exposure and starvation (a disaster on the scale of September 11 every month. On January 9, The Guardian reported that dying villagers in Bonavash were subsisting on a diet of grass – this suffering was immeasurably worse than anything portrayed in Amirani’s film.

Prior to the onset of bombing, aid agencies consistently warned that even the threat of an assault would imperil as many as 7.5 million Afghan civilians. Since the commencement of the assault, those agencies have confirmed that the chaos and terror caused by bombing have indeed been responsible for immense additional suffering and in fact the mass death of Afghans. There was no reference to this in Amirani’s film, as there has been none on BBC TV and ITN news this year.

You point to a small number of reports that have dealt with the plight of Afghan civilians. But the coverage pales into insignificance compared to the coverage the BBC (rightly) lavished on refugees during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Then, there were daily reports of the horrors facing refugees; now there is next to nothing. The contrast could not be more dramatic. How do you account for the difference? The difficulty of filming inside Afghanistan neither explains nor excuses this. At the very least, the BBC could have devoted more coverage to Afghan refugees who had crossed the border into Pakistan.

In your speech last December to the Royal Television Society, you said:

‘News viewing across all channels is now down 25 per cent for the under 45s… there is a new political divide: no longer “left” and “right”; it’s now “us and them”, with “them” being politicians, the establishment and the broadcasters and media… some 40 per cent of the audience feel they are outside looking in, offered few real choices.’ [quoted, ‘The Independent’, December 5, 2001].

It is entirely reasonable that the BBC should be largely regarded by the public as being part of ‘them’ – the establishment. The BBC news coverage on Afghanistan – as on other important issues – demonstrates clearly that the BBC looks with favour upon western institutions of power. It is hard to avoid the impression that the BBC’s performance can be in large part explained by the fact that the suffering of Kosovar refugees was used as a powerful propaganda tool supporting UK government policy [the suffering could be blamed on the Serbs] in 1999, whereas the suffering of Afghan refugees is a very real embarrassment to the British government now.

We believe that BBC reporting is profoundly distorted by its lack of independence from government influence and ideology, particularly where foreign policy is concerned. Sadly, the BBC’s poor coverage of the mass death of Afghan refugees has added great strength to the argument that our ‘free press’ is, in fact, a sham.

When Media Lens tried to ask Mr. Amirani his views on the minimal BBC coverage of Afghan suffering this year – indicating, as examples, the unreported catastrophes at Maslakh and Bonavash – all our arguments questioning the BBC’s performance were censored [this is not too strong a word] by Correspondent’s online staff. This is what remained of our attempt to engage in open and honest debate:

‘I was deeply impressed by the courage and compassion of your film. It was extremely heartening to see the people of Afghanistan, including the Taliban, presented as human beings. The suffering of the Afghan people is a terrible tragedy. Sincerest thanks for the humanity of your film. Let’s hope it helps bring some relief to the people you met.

David Edwards, England’

The congratulatory introduction and conclusion were allowed to remain, but not one word of dissent. Do you wonder that, as you said in your speech last December, ‘the audience feel they are outside looking in’ and that they sense that they are ‘offered few real choices.’

Yours sincerely,

David Cromwell
Co-Editor, Media Lens


Contact Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news, and ask him why the suffering and mass death of starving Afghan refugees subsisting on grass is being given minimal coverage. Ask him how he accounts for the much greater coverage afforded to Kosovar refugees in 1999, given that far more Afghans are suffering far worse conditions now?

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