ICE blogs

July 29, 2015

History of Chadian dictator: Missing from the media

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, politics, conflict — news_editor @ 11:16 am

Richard Lance Keeble

So finally, Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, is being tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture during his rule from 1982-1990. A few news items focused on the scuffles which broke out at the trial last week in Dakar, Senegal - and the adjournment of the case until September. Yet the history of the attempts to bring Habré to justice has gone largely unreported in the Western corporate media.

Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad gained its independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare instance of coverage on 21 May 1992, the London-based Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

First, in a case inspired by the one against Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habré in Senegal (his refuge since 1990). They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on 21 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré’s torture lived.

Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to Nato’s headquarters, a historic law of 1993, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. A new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners. But then attention switched back to Senegal. Here, under pressure from the International Court of Justice and victim campaign groups, a special tribunal was set up to investigate the allegations – the Extraordinary African Chambers. Finally, in February 2015, a panel of four judges announced there was enough evidence to put the former dictator on trial after carrying out a 19-month pre-trial investigation, mainly in Chad, interviewing 2,500 witnesses and victims, analysing documents from Habré’s secret police and visiting mass graves.

While coverage of Chad has been largely missing from the Western media, so too was the massive, secret war waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddafi. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate Gaddafi was reported as an isolated event – following revelations by David Shayler. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy of the US, French and UK secret states to remove Gaddafi which culminated in his brutal ousting during the Nato-led uprising in 2011.

Grabbing power by removing King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gaddafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations – many of them launched from Chad – by the French, Americans, Israelis and British.

Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade Libya, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.

Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, Chad: The Habré Legacy, of October 2001, recorded massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It added: “None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by AI covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.”

US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gaddafi and seize power on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gaddafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gaddafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.

The US/UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president – dubbed a “mad dog” by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gaddafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gaddafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gaddafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq.

Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued. As Amnesty International’s latest report on Chad comments: “Serious human rights violations continued to take place with almost total impunity. The rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly were frequently violated. Human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists were victims of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and detention. People, including protesters, were killed by members of the security services during demonstrations.”

Amnesty, in fact, argues that Déby should also be on trial in Dakar. It commented: “Chad’s current president has not been indicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers, but served as Chief of Staff of the army under Habré’s administration. Research undertaken by Amnesty International suggests that troops under his command may have committed mass killings in southern Chad in 1984.”

Chad is currently a key country in US plans for covert military intervention in North Africa. Earlier this year, in March, Chadian forces, including the Special Anti-Terrorist Group (SATG) which has received extensive training and equipment from the US military, invaded northern Nigeria and seized the towns of Malam Fatouri and Damasak, according to an Associated Press report. The Déby regime plays a major role in the US-funded Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and is helping to coordinate the African Union (AU) multi-national force of some 8,700 troops called for by the AU in January.

Chadian troops fought alongside Western forces during the 2013 French-led invasion of Mali, and the Chadian government has since approved the permanent stationing of thousands of French troops in its capital, N’Djamena.

• Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University. He has written and edited 30 books including Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey; 1997), a study of the US/UK press coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict.

July 3, 2015

Timely book on the BBC

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 7:09 am

John Mair reviews This new noise: The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins, Faber/Guardian Books

The BBC is never out of the news; too often it is making it rather than reporting it. This year and next are crunch years for the corporation with licence fee renewal (or not) and royal charter renewal set in the next eighteen months. The BBC could enter 2017 a shadow of its former self cut to the bone by the ultimate government paymasters and its services thrown overboard like so much ballast to make the reduced sums add up. DG Tony Hall and Trust chair Rona Fairhead have a monumental task on their hands to square many circles of finance, regulation, reach and range. Charlotte Higgins’s book is timely as, to declare an interest, so will be my (and Professors Richard Tait and Keeble’s) edited collection, The BBC today: Future uncertain, to be published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds, in September.

Higgins is the chief arts writer on the Guardian and was given a ‘sabbatical’ by editor Alan Rusbridger to write a series of long reads (a very welcome Guardian innovation) for the newspaper on the BBC. He asked her to ‘get under the skin’ of the corporation. The result was thousands of words which she has pulled together for this book. It is a good read as you would expect from a seasoned feature writer. I read it in one sitting. Like Jean Seaton’s recent ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ – the official history of the BBC 1974-1987, published by Profile, of London – it is based on themes and people. Like Seaton, it is possibly over-reliant on one major source; Seaton’s was Patricia Hodgson (member of the BBC Trust, 2006-2011, and currently deputy chair of Ofcom) and Higgins’ (Lord) Tony Hall and his mentor, former DG (Lord) John Birt.

They shine through the copy. Silent are the longest and shortest serving director generals of recent times: Mark Thompson and George Entwistle .Silent too is Greg Dyke, the most flamboyant and popular DG of the last thirty years. More’s the pity that Higgins did not seek, or if she tried did not get, their take on this great national institution. The BBC is always up there with the monarchy and the NHS as cornerstones of modern British life but for how much longer?

Did Higgins get ‘down and dirty’ and ‘under the skin’ enough to talk to a sufficient range of programme makers? It is their creative genius that the BBC is all about at the end of the day. Not managers, not politicians, not technology but brilliant programme making. When I was at the BBC as a producer during the 1980s, I met some who were close to genius but too many close to being jobsworth. One value that held them all together was a belief in the quality of their work and in the institution. Many had a love/hate relationship with the corporation. They loved it when it was good to/for them, hated it when not. Creativity is very hard to manage.

Is there, too, in the book much reflection of the views of those called within the BBC ‘The Thought Police of Oxford Circus!’ namely those at the epicentre who try to manage the corporation and is there not enough of the radicals and refuseniks? For half a century, Lime Grove Studios, off the Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, provided a home for them and for current affairs. They were the intellectual gladiators of the BBC. They pushed the limits. They were the ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ in Dennis Thatcher’s words. They caused trouble and got the BBC into hot water with the powerful time after time after time. Programmes on Harold Wilson (Yesterday’s Men, in 1971), Ireland/the IRA (Tonight on INLA, 1979, inter alia), Maggie’s militant tendency (of January 1984), the sinking of the Argentinian light cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and more caused controversy. Quite rightly as this is a basic function of good journalism. The ‘Thought Police’ hated Lime Grove and when John Birt became DG in 1992 he simply smashed the building to bits (it is now social housing) and neutered current affairs by rolling it into the news machine where it still rests. Higgins does not reflect the Lime Grove free spirit much apart from passing references to the original ‘queen’ of Lime Grove, Grace Wyndham Goldie, the legendary head of talks at the BBC.

Did Higgins get ‘under the skin’ enough to tell the tales of the sheer waste of licence fee payers’ money? You can search but you will find little mention of recent BBC causes célèbres: the £100 million (the entire licence fees of the City of Glasgow) wasted on the dream of the Digital Media Initiative, the ‘filling of the boots’ of the BBC ‘officer class’ like Mark Byford, Deputy Director General/head of BBC journalism 2004-2011, with huge pay-offs, sometimes even when they continued to work for the corporation. They led to a public and parliamentary stink. Those two stains rest on the otherwise successful eight year reign of Thompson as DG.

Higgins is simply not good on the negative. She gets seduced by the great and the good and their offices. I hated the ‘I sat in his ornate office in New Broadcasting House/Portcullis House’ trope. Good for colour in a single feature but rather repetitive when used to introduce each individual voice. That said, she did meet a variety of individuals face to face and reported what they said. The best form of original journalism mixing past and present and some analysis. That came out in her original Guardian pieces as it does in the book even if there are too many officers in their office in the cast and not enough privates and lance corporals on the broadcasting front line. She was also seduced by the canon of Radio Four and the BBC arts output. The latter the refuge of the chattering classes and not the average licence payer. Did she actually go and see any programmes being made or broadcast? Shiny floor shows such as Strictly come dancing?

So what of the future? Very very stormy times lie ahead for the BBC. Higgins talks of the ‘enemies at the gate’. The enemies are now firmly inside the citadel. In parliament, there is a growing groundswell which is becoming a cacophony. The motion to decriminalise the evasion of the licence fee went from an early day motion from two ‘Tory Taliban’ backbenchers to official Coalition (and worse Labour Party ) policy in five weeks last year. It has to date cost the BBC £150 million in avoided licence fees. That was a portent of things to come for the corporation. The national press, now nakedly right wing and Tory in 90 per cent of titles, are firmly BBC bashers. Barely a day goes by without the Daily Mail finding a ‘storm over BBC’ story, whether true or false.

Whilst the public continues to consume the BBC in millions across many platforms, many have been seduced away by the Murdoch millions and their expensively bought sports rights. One startling statistic: the income of Sky TV in the UK is now double that of the BBC. How much longer the BBC can continue to collect the ‘worse than the poll tax’ of the licence fee (the words of John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture) is increasingly being open to question. The bets are on this being the last licence fee.

The past offers bad examples. Mark Thompson was shown into a darkened room in 2010 by then-culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and given a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum on the level of licence fee the government demanded: in effect, a 16 per cent cut in income over the following five years. Thompson was firmly held by his metaphorical ‘short and curlies’ and forced to agree to this over a protracted period of…just six days. Usually these negotiations take two years. Thompson had little alternative but to assent only managing to hold the £500m. over-75’s free licence at bay. That is now firmly back in play. I know about the negotiations. Mark told me over a pint in our local pub.

This time round the ‘negotiations’ could be even shorter with a Conservative government and a secretary of state who, whilst knowledgeable about the BBC, has plenty of right-wing form. Tony Hall and Rona Fairhead are in for a rocky ride. The clouds on their and the corporation’s horizon look very dark indeed.

Higgins has written a good and lucid book about the corporation. One only hopes it does not prove to be an epistle to the end of an era and of the BBC.

John Mair is chair of ICE. He is a former BBC current affairs producer who has now edited fourteen ‘hackademic’ books on media matters,
the majority with Richard Lance Keeble

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