BBC News’ migrant crisis coverage: Bowen embeds with Assad

BBC News coverage of what it terms the “Europe migrant crisis” has recently involved sending various members of staff to report from different countries including Libya, Jordan, Hungary and Turkey.

The person chosen to provide BBC audiences with the information which would supposedly help them understand the reasons behind the mass movement of people from Syria to Europe was the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen and it is worth taking a look at some of his recent reports from Syria in order to determine whether or not audiences did in fact receive the full range of factual information concerning the situation in the country from which a large proportion of the migrants fled.Bowen tweets Mekdad presser

After having arrived in Damascus on September 2nd, Bowen produced a report from a press conference with the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister in which he failed to present any challenge to Mekdad’s claim that “the Syrian army has never, ever attacked or initiated any attack against a city or against a village”. That and other regime propaganda was further amplified by Bowen on Twitter.

Bowen made two filmed reports for television news programmes, both of which were also promoted on the BBC News website. The September 8th report “Inside a hospital in Syrian leader Assad’s Latakia heartland” was obviously made with the consent and help of the Assad regime and in addition to being allowed to film in a government military hospital, Bowen produced footage from a camp for internally displaced persons in Latakia. At no point in that report were the regime’s attacks on its own population mentioned and viewers received no information concerning the Iranian regime’s patronage of Assad or the participation of Iranian and Hizballah forces in the conflict.Bowen tweet camp Latakia

Another September 8th filmed report by Bowen – “Syria: Snapshot of life inside Assad stronghold” – likewise failed to include any information about the role of Iran and its Lebanese proxy in the Syrian civil war. Bowen did however manage to shoehorn another Middle Eastern country into his report by telling viewers that Yarmouk, near Damascus, “was a Palestinian refugee camp for families who were forced out of Israel in another war” [emphasis added].  Bowen’s presentation of the manner in which Palestinians – the majority from Tsfat (Safed), Haifa and Tiberias – arrived in Syria is of course both simplistic and inaccurate.

In that report too viewers saw sympathetic footage from the displaced persons camp and the military hospital in Latakia. It is of course inconceivable that Bowen visited those sites, the regime held part of Yarmouk or the military funeral in an Alawite town which also features in some of his reporting, without considerable cooperation from the Syrian regime. Stating the obvious, Bowen tells viewers that:

“…the refugee crisis is created and driven by war…”

A subsequent brief statement shows that, despite his failure to challenge Faisal Mekdad’s propaganda several days earlier, Bowen is indeed aware of the reality:

“Syrian army attacks often create more refugees and so do attacks by Jihadists.”

However, the BBC’s Middle East editor failed to expand upon that topic in any of his reports and made no effort to inform audiences of the fact that more Syrian civilians have been killed by regime forces than by Jihadists of various stripes whilst scrupulously avoiding all mention of topics such as the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs by the regime.Bowen tweet soldiers

Latakia again featured in an audio report by Bowen broadcast on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘World Update: Daily Commute’ on September 9th (from 03:06 here). Bowen described idyllic beach scenes before interviewing people who are clearly regime supporters. He then reported again from the same military hospital, and listeners heard more pro-regime comment.

Also on September 9th, a written report by Bowen appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Migrant crisis: How Middle East wars fuel the problem“. Once again Bowen inserted a context-free reference to Israel which is entirely irrelevant to the story he was supposedly telling.

“I walked through the ruins of Yarmouk, one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds in Damascus, only a few miles from the centre of the city.

Yarmouk used to be a Palestinian refugee camp for families who had fled or been driven from their homes when Israel won its independence war in 1948.”

He later added:

“An unknown number of Palestinian civilians, in their thousands, are trapped there [Yarmouk] too.

UNRWA, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, has not been able visit them with relief supplies since March.”  

Bowen neglected to tell readers that Yarmouk was reclassified by the UN in June.Bowen tweet Syria mukharabat

Yet again Bowen’s tepid and generalised portrayal of the issue of migrants fleeing the war in Syria did nothing to inform BBC audiences of the role played by the Assad regime and its Iranian and Hizballah backers in creating and exacerbating the migrant crisis.

In fact, all the reports produced by Bowen during his recent visit to Syria are little more than amplification of one very specific side of the story and they exclusively reflect the interests of the regime with which he was obviously embedded.  It is therefore difficult to see how the BBC can claim that those reports contributed to providing its funding public with an accurate understanding of why so many Syrian civilians are leaving their country. 

BBC World Service gives inaccurate report on the ceasefire that wasn’t

As readers are no doubt already aware, the ‘ceasefire’ of July 15th lasted a mere six hours due to the fact that terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip did not cease their fire of missiles into Israel.

However, a BBC World Service radio programme – BBC World Update: Daily Commute – which was broadcast at 05:30 US Eastern time (12:30 Israel time) on July 15th – i.e. three and a half hours after the ceasefire supposedly came into effect, – gives some interesting indications regarding the BBC’s already emerging framing of the topic of the ceasefire.WS Daily Commute

The programme (available here as a podcast for a limited period of time) is presented by Dan Damon who opens by saying: [all emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in original]

“Coming up: the Israeli security cabinet has accepted a ceasefire proposal by Egypt but the armed wing of Hamas in Gaza rejects that. Where does that leave the current strife?”

A newsreader then tells listeners:

“The Israeli security cabinet has approved an Egyptian proposal for a truce in its week-long conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. Almost 200 Palestinians have been killed in the latest conflict, many of them civilians.”

The news bulletin then moves on to an interview with James Reynolds in Tel Aviv, after which the newsreader introduces Yolande Knell.

Knell: “The military wing of Hamas has said that the terms being offered by the Egyptians would amount to a surrender and is continuing to insist on its own conditions which include the release of Hamas activists from Israeli jails and also an opening of the border crossings between the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt. That said, we have to say on the ground here, what we have seen over the past few hours is certainly a much lower intensity of fighting.”

The programme then returns to Dan Damon.

“…this morning some glimmers that an end to the violence that has claimed almost 200 Palestinian lives in the past week might be at an end. The Israeli security cabinet this morning agreed an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire. Let’s talk to Kevin Connolly, our correspondent in Jerusalem. It’s reported, Kevin, that Hamas rejected that proposal and I think there’s been further development.”

Kevin Connolly: “Well what we have here at the moment is half a ceasefire in the sense that Israel has accepted it. Hamas for the time being has not and the military wing of Hamas in Gaza has really been talking down the proposal from Egypt which is on the table. Now that’s not to say that Hamas won’t eventually be talked round by the Egyptians but for the moment, as I say, we have half a ceasefire.”

DD: “And it’s difficult, I guess, to understand completely what the mood is inside the Palestinian territories where you are but surely after nearly 200 deaths on one side and…eh…some injuries on the Israeli side, the people inside Gaza must be desperate for some kind of a ceasefire.”

KC: “I haven’t the slightest doubt that Palestinian civilians in Gaza – we talk to our people there every day, of course – are desperate for an end to the suffering and destruction. Hospitals there are struggling to treat the injured, many people are homeless, people are – you know – living in terrifying circumstances. Nothing is more terrifying than being bombed from the air. But politically of course, Hamas also has an agenda here. Having embarked on this round of hostilities, I think it is going to feel that it can’t emerge from them without some kind of political victory to show its people, so something is going to have to be found to allow Hamas an elegant way out, if you like, of the fighting.”

DD: “And what would be called a victory? What would be a victory from Hamas’ point of view?”

KC: “Well it’s given us quite a long list of demands. One of the things it would like – which is unlikely, I think – is to see Israel releasing Hamas prisoners, some of whom have been rounded up over the last couple of weeks. But a more important strategic goal for Hamas and one which would help its standing with the Palestinian people in Gaza is some kind of easing of the economic restrictions which are jointly imposed on the enclave by Israel and by Egypt. The new Egyptian government in particular has been very tough with Hamas – which it sees as an offshoot of the Muslim brotherhood – so it’s closed the smuggling tunnels which were a kind of economic lifeline both for Hamas and for the people of Gaza. That is one area where there’s a bit of scope for Egypt to offer Hamas something in return at least for coming to the table. I think what the Egyptians tried to do is sequence all of this so that you begin with a cessation of hostilities then you start to talk about things like prisoner releases or an easing of economic conditions. So, talking is going on we think between Egypt and Hamas. The Egyptians do have cards to play there, so the situation as it stands where Israel has accepted and Hamas has rejected – that could change. There has been a bit of rocket fire today from Hamas – or from the Gaza militants anyway – towards Israel at a relatively low level of intensity and no response yet from Israel so, it feels as though a diplomatic game is underway and success is not guaranteed.”

Let’s look at that last part first. After having spent the entire item telling listeners about “half a ceasefire” but failing to clarify what that really means in practical terms, Connolly in his last sentence finally informs them of “a bit of rocket fire …towards Israel” (not at it) at a “relatively low intensity”.

In fact, between 09:00 and 12:30 local time (when this programme was broadcast) over 22 missiles had already been fired at the Eshkol region, Ashkelon, Sderot, Ashdod, Kiryat Malachi, Be’er Tuvia, Netivot, Rehovot and Nes Ziona. One of those missiles landed in the yard of a house in Ashdod and one person was injured in Sderot. Three minutes after this programme went on air, missiles were also fired at Haifa, Daliyat al Carmel and the Carmel and Zichron Ya’akov areas. All in all, between 09:00 and 15:00 local time, fifty missiles were fired at civilian targets in Israel by terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip. By no possible interpretation of the word is that a “bit” of rocket fire.

Notable too is of course Knell’s description of convicted terrorists – including those freed in prisoner release deals – as “Hamas activists”, the fact that at no point in this broadcast are listeners reminded that Hamas is an internationally designated terrorist organization, Connolly’s bizarre reference to Hamas being “seen” as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and Damon’s description of Kevin Connolly’s location as “the Palestinian territories” even though he was in Jerusalem.

Likewise, it is remarkable that both Knell and Connolly chose to highlight the same two issues from Hamas’ pre-existing list of demands – ignoring no less significant other ones such as the demand for the Palestinian Authority to transfer money to pay Hamas employees and the demand that parties unnamed “stop interfering in the new unity government”. Whilst Knell and Connolly focus on what he terms “economic restrictions”, neither of them bother to clarify to listeners that Egypt’s actions against the smuggling tunnels came as part of its crackdown on Jihadist terror in northern Sinai and that Israel’s measures are aimed at preventing the entry of weapons into the Gaza Strip will obviously be just as relevant in the future as this round of conflict has proved they were in the past.

Most significant, however, is the fact that by the time this programme began at 12:30 local time, the ceasefire had been rejected by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad  and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took responsibility for some of the missile fire during the supposed ceasefire.  Most importantly, Hamas – not just its “military wing” as claimed several times in this programme – had already rejected the ceasefire via its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

“In an early-morning meeting, Israel’s security cabinet approved the cease-fire, which calls for a de-escalation of fighting by both sides starting at 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday, with hostilities ending within 12 hours.

At a news conference at a hospital in Gaza City, a Hamas official said his group wouldn’t observe the cease-fire terms proposed by the Egyptian government because no one had conferred with them.

“We don’t like the policy pushing us into a corner,” said spokesman Samy Abu Zohry. Hamas was fighting for Palestinians, not a cease-fire, he said.”

It will be worth keeping an eye on additional BBC reporting on the topic of the ceasefire-that-wasn’t in order to note if it is reported in a similarly inaccurate and misleading fashion, downplaying both Hamas rejection of the opportunity for a halt to hostilities and missile attacks on Israeli civilians.