BBC News still promoting false balance on Syrian regime chemical weapons

On August 5th the BBC News website published a report titled “Syrian conflict: Government scientist killed in blast” on its Middle East page.

Readers of the BBC’s report on that story were told that: [emphasis added]

“The head of a suspected chemical weapons’ research centre in Syria has been killed in a car bombing, pro-government and opposition media report.

Aziz Asber was the head of a facility belonging to the government’s Syrian Scientific Research Centre.

Western intelligence agents have said the organisation is linked to a Syrian chemical weapons programme.

A rebel group said it carried out the attack, but there has been speculation that others could be involved.”

That link leads to a BBC report dating from May 2017 in which audiences were informed that:

“Syria’s government is continuing to make chemical weapons in violation of a 2013 deal to eliminate them, a Western intelligence agency has told the BBC. […]

The intelligence document obtained by the BBC says Syria’s chemical weapons are manufactured at three sites – Masyaf, in Hama province, and at Dummar and Barzeh, both just outside Damascus. All three are branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a government agency, it adds.”

In June of this year the BBC’s Diplomatic correspondent reported that the OPCW (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons):

“…found sufficient evidence to determine that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces (President Bashar al-Assad’s troops) were responsible for three chemical weapons attacks in 2014 and 2015, and that the Syrian regime was responsible for the Sarin nerve agent attack in April 2017 in Khan Shaykhun.”

Nevertheless, towards the end of this latest report BBC audiences were once again told that: [emphasis added]

Syria has denied owning or using chemical weapons, but the US and the Syrian opposition accuse the government of carrying out a chemical attack on former opposition stronghold Douma near Damascus that reportedly killed 40 people in April this year.”

It is clearly evident that the Assad regime did not destroy its “entire chemical arsenal” as mandated by UN Security Council resolution 2118 in 2013 and hence does in fact ‘own’ chemical weapons. It is also a fact that the OPCW has determined that the Syrian government’s forces have used chemical weapons on at least four occasions other than the one in Douma in April 2018.

Nevertheless, BBC audiences continue to see false balance in the form of the repeated promotion of inadequately challenged Syrian propaganda that is presumably intended to tick the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ box. In addition to being downright ridiculous, that editorial policy clearly undermines the BBC’s purpose of providing the public with accurate and impartial reporting that enhances its understanding of this issue.

Related Articles:

Why does the BBC describe the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack as ‘suspected’?

Are BBC audiences getting the full picture on Syria’s chemical weapons?

BBC News amplification of unchallenged Assad propaganda persists

Despite evidence, the BBC won’t let go of Assad propaganda

BBC News website tones down Assad regime propaganda

 

 

 

 

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Looking behind a BBC News website tag

On June 27th two items relating to the same topic appeared on the BBC News website’s ‘Europe’ and ‘Middle East’ pages:

OPCW chemical watchdog gains power to assign blame

Chemical weapons: New watchdog powers an important step” by Jonathan Marcus

In his article diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus points out that:

“Until now, chemical weapons inspectors, working under the auspices of the OPCW (the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) were in a curious position.

They could send teams to an alleged chemical weapons attack. They could take samples and draw their conclusions. They could determine whether indeed a chemical weapons incident had occurred.

But whatever evidence they turned up, they could not point the finger at a particular country or non-state actor as the perpetrator. […]

One way of getting around this was the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism – a concerted effort by the OPCW and the UN to investigate some of the alleged chemical attacks in Syria.

In difficult conditions this did indeed investigate alleged chemical attacks in Syria and found sufficient evidence to determine that the Syrian Arab Armed Forces (President Bashar al-Assad’s troops) were responsible for three chemical weapons attacks in 2014 and 2015, and that the Syrian regime was responsible for the Sarin nerve agent attack in April 2017 in Khan Shaykhun.”

Despite that accurate portrayal by Marcus of the findings concerning some of the past chemical attacks in Syria, curiously the BBC News website chose to tag both those articles “Suspected Syria chemical attack”.

A look at all the BBC reports appearing under that tag shows that it was created shortly after the chemical weapons attack in Douma on April 7th 2018 to which the US, the UK and France subsequently responded with strikes on Syrian government chemical weapons sites. Obviously the French, British and American governments considered the evidence convincing enough to justify those strikes but nevertheless, some of the articles appearing under that tag continue to amplify unsupported Syrian and Russian claims – for example:

“Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told BBC News the allegations of chemical weapons use were “based on media reports and social media” and that the incident was “staged”. […]

The [Syrian] government denies using chemical weapons and says the attack was fabricated.” (BBC News website, April 18th 2018)

“The US, UK and France say that, based on open-source information and their own intelligence, they are confident chlorine and possibly a nerve agent were used.

The Syrian government and Russia deny chemical weapons were used and say evidence was fabricated.” (BBC News website, April 21st 2018)

“Syrian opposition activists, rescue workers and medics say more than 40 people were killed in a suspected chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma in April.

France said it had “proof” that “chemical weapons were used – at least chlorine – and that they were used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime”.

The Syrian government denied the allegation. And its key ally Russia said it had “irrefutable evidence” that the incident had been “staged” with the help of the UK.” (BBC News website, June 26th 2018)

As we see the BBC continues its policy of promoting false balance in the form of claims from Syria and Russia – despite both those governments having been shown to have lied about previous chemical attacks. In contrast, the New York Times recently published the findings of an investigation it conducted into the Douma attack.

Readers can judge for themselves which approach – proactive investigative reporting or box-ticking uncritical amplification of unsubstantiated claims – best serves the interests of the public to whom the BBC is obliged to deliver  “accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming of the highest editorial standards”.

Related Articles:

Why does the BBC describe the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack as ‘suspected’?

Despite evidence, the BBC won’t let go of Assad propaganda

BBC News website tones down Assad regime propaganda

The recently released report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) concerning the chemical weapons attack in April in Khan Sheikhoun was of course covered by many media organisations.

Once again many Western outlets (e.g. Reuters, NYT, Guardian, Telegraph) managed to strike an appropriate balance between portraying the report’s findings and putting the related denials of the Assad regime and its Russian patrons into appropriate perspective.

However, the BBC News website’s October 27th report on that story – “Assad forces behind deadly Syria sarin attack – UN” – yet again displayed false balance with its extensive promotion of responses from those sources.

“However, Syria’s foreign ministry said on Friday it “categorically denies” the report’s conclusions.

“This report and the one that preceded it are falsifications of the truth and distort the exact information on what happened at Khan Sheikhun,” the statement said.

The ministry went on to accuse the report of being a tool with which the UN could “exert more political pressures”, according to news agency AFP.

Syria’s opposition and Western powers have blamed the incident on a government air strike on the area, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally Russia have repeatedly said the incident was fabricated.

Damascus and Moscow say an air strike hit a rebel depot full of chemical munitions. […]

Speaking to the Interfax news agency, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the UN report had “many inconsistencies”.

He said: “Even the first cursory read shows many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence.”” [emphasis added]

The BBC did not provide a link to the AFP report from which it ostensibly quoted the highlighted statement above but one of AFP’s articles on the story includes the following:

“”Syria categorically denies the content of the joint report between the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” a foreign ministry statement said.

“This report and the one that preceded it are falsifications of the truth and distort the exact information on what happened at Khan Sheikhun.” […]

The Syrian statement, quoted by official media, denounced the “method of investigation”, saying it was based on “the words of the criminals who committed this immoral act in Khan Sheikhun and on dubious witnesses”.

The ministry said the UN report was written on the basis of “instructions from the US administration and Western countries to exert more political pressure” on Damascus.”

In other words, while the BBC tells its audiences that the Syrian statement said that the report “could” potentially be used by the UN in the future to exert political pressure on the Assad regime, AFP in fact reports that the Syrian statement claimed that the JIM report was intentionally written for that purpose.

A look at the report put out by the Syrian Ministry of Information linked state media organisation SANA confirms that the Assad regime is in fact claiming that the report’s findings were dictated in advance by “Western countries”. [emphasis added]

“Syria rejected the report of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which was announced yesterday, stressing that it came in implementation of the instructions of the US administration and Western countries to exert more political pressures and threats to Syria’s sovereignty. […]

The source said that since the establishment of this mechanism, Syria has repeatedly expressed that the Joint Investigative Mechanism needs to carry out its work in a professional and impartial manner and that if its reports were prepared in advance by the Western intelligence services then its work would be ineffective, noting that the manner of its investigative procedures showed the dominance of Western countries over it.”

Moreover, the Assad regime goes on to accuse some Western countries of supporting “the terrorist parties” that it alleges were in fact responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

“The source asserted that Syria has cooperated with the UN-OPCW mechanism and did not delay or hesitate to work with them in various fields, including providing accurate information required to show the fact that the terrorist parties had used chemical weapons directly and indirectly and are supported by parties in the region and beyond, particularly the US, France, and Britain, and their tools in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other countries.”

This of course is far from the first time that BBC audiences have seen amplification of unchallenged Syrian propaganda that is presumably intended to tick the ‘impartiality’ box and give an impression of ‘balanced’ reporting. This time, however, that propaganda was apparently too ridiculous even for the BBC and so it was toned down and distorted into an inaccurate representation of the Syrian Foreign Ministry statement.

Related Articles:

Why does the BBC describe the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack as ‘suspected’?

Are BBC audiences getting the full picture on Syria’s chemical weapons?

Despite evidence, the BBC won’t let go of Assad propaganda

Are BBC audiences getting the full picture on Syria’s chemical weapons?

The BBC’s main backgrounder on the topic of the civil war in Syria – “Syria: The story of the conflict“– includes a brief portrayal of the issue of chemical weapons that makes no mention of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April of this year.

Another backgrounder – “Why is there a war in Syria?“, 7 April 2017 – makes just one brief reference to the topic of chemical weapons:

“The US has conducted air strikes on IS in Syria since September 2014, and, in the first intentional attack on Syria itself, hit an air base which it said was behind a deadly chemical attack, in April 2017.”

With the deal that mandated the destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal being enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution that was described at the time by the former US Secretary of State John Kerry as “precedent-setting” and by the then UK Secretary of State William Hague as “ground breaking”, the BBC’s funding public would obviously expect to be kept up to date on its implementation and efficacy – not least because British tax-payers contributed to funding the operation.

Last week Reuters published a special report titled “How Syria continued to gas its people as the world looked on“.

“A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse.

They suspect that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while appearing to cooperate with international inspectors, secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. They say Syria hampered inspectors, gave them incomplete or misleading information, and turned to using chlorine bombs when its supplies of other chemicals dwindled.

There have been dozens of chlorine attacks and at least one major sarin attack since 2013, causing more than 200 deaths and hundreds of injuries. International inspectors say there have been more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons being used in the past two years alone.

“The cooperation was reluctant in many aspects and that’s a polite way of describing it,” Angela Kane, who was the United Nation’s high representative for disarmament until June 2015, told Reuters. “Were they happily collaborating? No.”

“What has really been shown is that there is no counter-measure, that basically the international community is just powerless,” she added.

That frustration was echoed by U.N. war crimes investigator Carla del Ponte, who announced on Aug. 6 she was quitting a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria. “I have no power as long as the Security Council does nothing,” she said. “We are powerless, there is no justice for Syria.””

In May of this year the BBC produced a report which also highlighted claims that Syria’s chemical weapons programme is still in operation.

“Syria’s government is continuing to make chemical weapons in violation of a 2013 deal to eliminate them, a Western intelligence agency has told the BBC.

A document says chemical and biological munitions are produced at three main sites near Damascus and Hama. […]

Despite monitoring of the sites by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the document alleges that manufacturing and maintenance continues in closed sections.”

However, that article also gave a platform to propaganda from the Syrian regime – as seen in additional reports.

On August 22nd Reuters published a story concerning chemical weapons shipments from North Korea to Syria.

“Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons program were intercepted in the past six months, according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations.

The report by a panel of independent U.N. experts, which was submitted to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month and seen by Reuters on Monday, gave no details on when or where the interdictions occurred or what the shipments contained. […]

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. However, diplomats and weapons inspectors suspect Syria may have secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability.”

That story was picked up by numerous media organisations around the world, including Newsweek, the Independent and the Guardian – but not the BBC.

Clearly the BBC could be doing a lot more could be done to provide its audiences with up-to-date information concerning the Assad regime’s failure to comply with the 2013 UN SC resolution 2118.

Related Articles:

Why does the BBC describe the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack as ‘suspected’?