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Context Is Key: Journalists and the Darfuri “Spokesman” Who (May Have) Duped Them

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Context Is Key: Journalists and the Darfuri “Spokesman” Who (May Have) Duped Them

Posted by Laura Heaton on October 8, 2009

Who is this mysterious person who goes by the name of Abu Sharati and keeps cropping up in media reports about Darfur? Why do prominent journalists like the New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen, AP’s Sarah El Deeb, and Reuters’ Andrew Heavens quote Abu Sharati without providing details about who he is and why he’s qualified to speak on behalf of 2.7 million displaced Darfuris (or at the very least providing a disclaimer noting that they were consciously protecting his identity)?

In a series of blog posts this week, Wronging Rights’ Amanda Taub examines these questions, revealing many weeks’ worth of research about a key source that most of us reading the same articles accepted at face value. Her revelations are illuminating, even, apparently, to the journalists she targets.

And finally, after concluding that Abu Sharati must not be what he seemed (a real person empowered by Darfuris to speak on their behalf), Amanda asks:

Is it a big deal if a few journalists messed up, and accidentally published quotes from a mythical character, presenting them as if they represent a unified refugee position on the stories in question?

Amanda’s answers to that final question are certainly very compelling – the entire series is thoughtful and worth checking out – but in the end, we’re left wondering, as a colleague rightly put it: Does exposing Abu Sharati as a fraud without making the more important point about lack of journalistic access help in any meaningful way to deal with the crisis at hand?

The very significant element that is missing from Amanda’s posts and the interesting online debate that ensued is that they don’t address the much bigger picture in Sudan.  In an environment where the government obsessively controls access to information, restricting travel to the region, journalists typically aren’t allowed in to Darfur to verify sources or gather comments from a variety of voices. The more outspoken or well-known journalists are barred outright unless they agree to be accompanied by a government escort.

Moreover, the Sudanese government’s treatment of opposition groups and Darfuri civil society leaders is a major factor that explains why Abu Sharati would be so elusive – and why journalists might accept that they couldn’t fully vet him as a source. A report from Human Rights Watch out this week describes the context. After describing the government’s tried-and-true, countrywide control tactic of arbitrary arrest and detention, HRW states:

In June 2009 alone, UN human rights officers in Darfur documented 13 cases of arbitrary and illegal arrest and detention by government and security forces, in four of which detainees reported being subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture while in detention.[3]

And then a bit further down in the 25-page report:

Combined with the government’s closure of Sudanese organizations, and its ongoing repression of human rights activists and journalists, this means that the government now controls much of the information, not only about humanitarian needs but about the situation in Darfur, human rights abuses, and civilian protection concerns.

The bottom line is that if the Sudanese government would allow journalists to freely work in Darfur and other hotspots known for widespread abuses, Abu Sharati and others like him would largely be irrelevant.

Wronging Rights is a blog about “challenging dominant narratives,” something Amanda and Kate often accomplish entertainingly and effectively by “pointing out absurdity wherever we find it.” Given that the appalling behavior of the Sudanese government isn’t exactly unheard of, it’s not surprising that this was not the focus of Amanda’s series. But missing the larger, and arguably, far more troubling context in which journalists wind up relying on the Abu Sharatis of the world, is about more than sloppy journalism and shrinking newsrooms. It’s about how journalists and the audiences they serve respond to a place where information does not flow freely.

Journalists themselves could provide some crucial insights into the current climate in Sudan by acknowledging outright when the Khartoum government prevents them from setting foot the region they are reporting about.


Colin Thomas-Jensen and David Sullivan contributed to this post.