BBC fails to meet its remit in article about Rafah tunnels

One of the public purposes defined in the BBC’s Charter is titled “Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK” and under that remit the BBC pledges to “[b]uild a global understanding of international issues”.

Clearly audience understanding of international issues can only be achieved if they are told the whole story and a recent article provides a prime example of how BBC reporting can fall short of that pledge.

On September 18th a short article appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the headline “Egypt ‘starts flooding Gaza tunnels’“. Readers are told that: [all emphasis added]Rafah tunnels art

“The Egyptian military has begun flooding tunnels used by Palestinian militants and smugglers under the border with Gaza, reports say.

It is the latest move by Egypt to destroy the tunnels, part of an offensive against insurgents. […]

Scores of Egyptian soldiers and civilians have been killed in an insurgency which has intensified, especially in the Sinai, since the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.”

So on the one hand, BBC audiences learn that Egypt is conducting “an offensive against insurgents” which includes the destruction of underground tunnels situated along its border with the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, readers are also told that the tunnels were used “by Palestinian militants and smugglers” – but no effort is made to clarify how or why those tunnels play a part in Egyptian efforts to combat that Islamist insurgency.  

Further, one aspect of the tunnels which has nothing to do with Egypt’s offensive in Sinai is highlighted. The caption to the main image illustrating the article reads: [emphasis added]

“Tunnels have been used for smuggling weapons between Gaza and Sinai, but have also been a lifeline for civilians“.

And in the body of the report readers find the following:

“The tunnels, which emerge in the Sinai Peninsula, have played a vital role in the economy of Gaza, which has been under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007 as a measure against the territory’s Islamist Hamas rulers.”

Clearly that portrayal’s omission of the crucial factor of terrorism from the Gaza Strip – the real reason for the measures introduced by Israel in September 2007 – actively prevents audiences from building an understanding of the issue – as does the unqualified amplification of Hamas propaganda.

“Hamas has accused Egypt of collaborating with Israel to try to further isolate Gaza.”

This article represents just one more link in a long chain of BBC failure (see related articles below) to provide its audiences with a comprehensive picture of the connections between elements in the Gaza Strip and the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Hence, whilst BBC audiences may now know that Egypt is flooding tunnels in Rafah, they still have no idea why.  

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BBC censors ‘Jewish’ from IS affiliate’s claim of missile attacks

Despite its defined purpose of building “understanding of international issues”, the BBC has to date done little to inform its audiences on the topic of the approach to Israel prevalent among the Middle East’s rising force of Islamist Jihadists. Hence, one feature of an article which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on July 4th under the headline “IS affiliate in Egypt claims rocket attack on Israel” is particularly notable.Sinai attacks

Readers were told that:

“A group affiliated with Islamic State has said it fired three rockets into Israel from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

The affiliate, which calls itself Sinai Province, said it had acted in retaliation for what it says is Israeli support for the Egyptian army.

Israel said two rockets landed in the south of the country, causing no casualties or material damage.”

Although the third missile was also found in Israeli territory on July 4th, that is a reasonable representation of events. However, audiences then went on to read the following:

“Sinai Province claimed the rocket attack on social media on Friday.

The group said it had fired Grad rockets towards “occupied Palestine”.

The Israeli military later said that two missiles landed in open areas in Israel’s Negev region, causing no damage.

Sirens were heard in communities in Israel’s Eshkol regional council, near the Gaza border.”

Given the BBC’s often curious use of punctuation, readers may well have concluded that the use of quotation marks around the words “occupied Palestine” signifies the use of a quote from the terrorist organisation’s Twitter account. Notably, no effort was made to clarify to readers – most of whom are unlikely to have much reason to be well versed in Israeli geography – that the area targeted in this missile attack cannot accurately be described as either ‘occupied’ or ‘Palestine’.

Not only is that point significant from the point of view of accuracy but of course the fact that an IS-affiliated group operating in Sinai regards the whole of Israel as “occupied Palestine” is indicative of the ideology underpinning the specific attack and the group’s approach to Israel in general.

No less remarkable is the fact that the BBC told its audiences about just part of the terror group’s announcement. As many media outlets – including the Times of Israel – reported:

“The IS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attack.

“Three Grad rockets were fired at Jewish positions in occupied Palestine,” the group said Friday evening in a statement on Twitter.”

Not Israeli positions – but “Jewish positions”: that too is of course relevant information for anyone seeking to understand this particular ‘international issue’ but for some reason the BBC elected not to impart it to its readers.

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More selective BBC reporting on Middle East Jihadists

Regular visitors to the BBC News website’s Middle East page cannot have failed to notice that in the section titled “Special Reports” it offers audiences “background, features and analysis” on the topic of what it terms the “Islamic State Crisis”.special reports

As readers no doubt recall, a recent feature included in that section was devoted to the topic of mapping and tracking Jihadist violence.  One of the organisations included in that BBC report was Ansar Bayt al Maqdis which operates in the Sinai Peninsula and hence the lack of BBC coverage of recent reports coming out of Egypt concerning that group’s collaboration with elements in the Gaza Strip is notable.

“Egyptian intelligence has specific information on assistance that Sinai terrorists have been receiving from the Gaza Strip. Many activists trained in Gaza, and received arms there that they have been using against Egyptian forces.

That is the source of the urgency around creating the buffer zone [in Rafah – Ed]: the goal is to cut the jihadis off from their Gaza supply train. On Monday Egyptian media reported on a jihadist cell that enjoyed massive help from Hamas, and tried to infiltrate Sinai through tunnels. Most of the tunnels aren’t open, but occasionally smugglers on both sides of the border manage to build a new one. The Egyptian army recently uncovered a 1,700-meters-long passage. […]

Egyptian intelligence also located recently another smuggling route other than the tunnels — the sea. Though there is a fence stretching out to sea along the Sinai-Egypt border, smugglers in Zodiac boats have been bypassing it to reach the beaches on both sides.

Most of these boats are carrying components used to build rocket launchers, and explosive materials. The rockets themselves are also being assembled by the Sinai jihadis.”

On the other hand, there is nothing new about the BBC’s failure to join the dots linking Sinai-based Jihadists to elements in the Gaza Strip.

Similarly, the BBC has shown no interest to date in reporting the recently publicized apprehension of a terror cell with ideological links to ISIS in the Palestinian Authority controlled city of Hebron.

“Security forces have arrested a group of three men in the West Bank city of Hebron believed to be ideologically affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group

The cell members were arrested in November 2014 by operatives of the Shin Bet security service and stand accused of launching an unsuccessful attack against IDF soldiers and conspiring to kidnap and kill civilians and military personnel in the West Bank, according to a press release issued Monday by the security apparatus.”

Jihadist extremism and violence is of course by no means limited to Syria and Iraq and in order to fulfil its remit of informing audiences of international affairs, the BBC’s coverage of that topic cannot neglect other geographical areas in the region.  

BBC still has not updated Ansar Bayt al Maqdis profile to include terror designation

The lead story on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the morning of May 23rd ran under the headline “Sinai militant group leader killed” with the sub-heading:

“Shadi al-Menei, the head of Sinai Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has been killed, Egyptian security officials say.”

Among the ‘related stories’ offered to visitors to the Middle East page was one titled “Profile: Egypt’s militant Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group”.

ABM art on hp

The article itself, titled “Egypt: Sinai Islamist leader Shadi al-Menei shot dead“, also includes a link to the same profile report (compiled by BBC Monitoring) in an insert titled “Who are Ansar Beit al-Maqdis?

ABM art insert box

Unfortunately – as we pointed out here over a month ago – that profile report has not been amended since its initial publication in January and hence is no longer up to date.

“Since the beginning of April 2014 Ansar Bayt al Maqdis has been declared a proscribed terrorist organization by the UK government (see page 5) and designated as a foreign terrorist organization and a specially designated global terrorist entity by the US State Department. In addition, an Egyptian court ruled on April 14th that the group is a terrorist organization.”

The same insert informs readers that the group:ABM art

“Has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks around Egypt, and rocket attacks on Israel”.

In fact, ABM has also claimed responsibility for another terrorist attack against Israel, besides several instances of missile fire, and is suspected of involvement in an additional attack.

“In 2012, the group claimed responsibility for the deadly cross-border attack in September that year in Israel, in which three terrorists, wearing explosive belts and armed with RPG launchers, attacked a group of IDF soldiers securing civilian contractors who were working on the Israel-Egypt fence. IDF soldier Netanel Yahalomi was killed in the attack. The three terrorists were killed in the ensuing gunfight with soldiers.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was also reportedly involved in the sophisticated, multi-pronged August 2011 attack on Highway 12 near Israel’s border with Egypt, which killed a total of eight Israelis.”

The BBC, however, continues to ignore the terror designations of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, describing it as “a militant group” in this report’s opening lines and Middle East page header.  

BBC’s profile of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis out of date

The BBC News website’s profile of the Sinai-based Salafi Jihadist terrorist group Ansar Bayt al Maqdis – complied by BBC Monitoring – was last updated in January 2014.Profile Ansar Bayt al Maqdis

Since the beginning of April 2014 Ansar Bayt al Maqdis has been declared a proscribed terrorist organization by the UK government (see page 5) and designated as a foreign terrorist organization and a specially designated global terrorist entity by the US State Department. In addition, an Egyptian court ruled on April 14th that the group is a terrorist organization.

Clearly it is time for an update to the BBC’s Ansar Bayt al Maqdis profile.

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Sources, outsourcing fact-checking and the BBC

A report titled “Egypt taking ‘ultimatum against tourists’ seriously” which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on February 18th relies heavily on information previously published in a Reuters article of the same date.  ABM story

“Officials say they are taking seriously a reported ultimatum by Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis for tourists to leave the country.

The threat was reportedly made on a private Twitter account affiliated with the group, according to Reuters.

The Egyptian government has struggled against rising militancy in the Sinai.

The Twitter message gave all tourists until Thursday to leave Egypt or face attacks.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has denied using social media, but Reuters says the account has spoken for the group in the past.”

In other words, the BBC has produced an article based on a claim published by a news agency which got its information from an unverified source and – despite the fact that the BBC clearly has not checked that source itself, as evidenced by the use of wording such as “according to Reuters” and “Reuters says” – it has decided to run the story anyway.

Let’s take a look at what Reuters had to say about the source of its information:

“A militant Islamist group has warned tourists to leave Egypt and threatened to attack any who stay after February 20, raising the prospect of a new front in a fast-growing insurgency in the biggest Arab nation.

The Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed two South Korean tourists and an Egyptian on Sunday, made the statement on an affiliated Twitter account.

“We recommend tourists to get out safely before the expiry of the deadline,” read the tweet, written in English, which Egypt’s prime minister said on Tuesday aimed to undermine the political process begun after an army takeover in July.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has said that it does not post statements on social media sites, but statements that appeared on the Twitter account in the past have afterwards surfaced on jihadist websites which the group says it does use.”

That is obviously a very circumstantial basis for the assumption of the reliability of the source, and one which cannot be said to support the BBC’s claim that an “ultimatum” was issued “by Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis” – even with its caveat placement of the word “reported” beforehand.

These are the Tweets upon which the Reuters article – and the subsequent BBC report – is based:

DBarn ABM faux twitter

That Twitter account has already been shown not to be operated by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

“However, the group [ABM] has no official Twitter account as of today. In fact, in late October the group issued a statement in which it said it was not operating any social media accounts and that any purporting to be the group’s account were unofficial. “[T]he only source of our statements and productions are the jihadi forums from al-Fajr Media Center (Shumukh al-Islam Networking and al-Fida’ Islamic Network),” the group said.”

There is of course a distinct difference between “unofficial” and “affiliated” as claimed by Reuters and the BBC. Furthermore, as David Barnett (research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) has pointed out, the @ansar_elmakds account has itself made it clear that it is not an official ABM account.

So the bottom line of this story is that somebody sent some Tweets, around which Reuters decided to build an article and the BBC then elected to duplicate and amplify that report with no independent checking of its source. This type of repetition of claims appearing in news agency stories without proper BBC verification before publication appears to be becoming increasingly prevalent.

Of course at some point BBC audiences may arrive at the conclusion that if the BBC has decided that it is sustainable policy to recycle second-hand reports with apparently no further fact-checking to guarantee the editorial standards of accuracy to which it professes to adhere, they may just as well read the original news agency stories elsewhere online.