BBC News still unsure about Iranian involvement in Yemen

In recent weeks the BBC has produced two backgrounders concerning the ongoing war in Yemen.

An article headlined “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?” was promoted in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page on October 14th and a week later – on October 21st – a filmed item titled “Yemen crisis: ‘The forgotten war’” also appeared on the same page, as well as on BBC television.yemen-mai-norman

Both those items include statements relating to Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen. In the filmed report Mai Norman tells viewers:

“But just like Syria and Iraq, regional power struggles are also at play and in the Middle East that almost always means Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis back Hadi and they accuse Iran – a Shia country – of supporting the Houthis.” [emphasis added]

Readers of the written article are told that:

“Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi’s government.” […]

“The conflict between the Houthis and the elected government is also seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

Gulf Arab states have accused Iran of backing the Houthis financially and militarily, though Iran has denied this, and they are themselves backers of President Hadi.” [emphasis added]yemen-backgrounder

This is not the first time that audiences have seen the BBC’s apparent inability to inform its audiences whether or not the Houthis in Yemen are backed by Iran expressed in such vague and unhelpful language. A similar portrayal was found in a backgrounder titled “Yemen crisis: Who are the Houthis?” that was originally published in September 2014 and which was later replaced with an earlier version of this latest written backgrounder. In April 2015 BBC audiences saw further ambiguous portrayal in two articles and the following month they were told that the role of Iran in Yemen is ‘over-emphasised’.

Both before and since the March 2015 escalation of the conflict in Yemen, numerous reports concerning Iranian support for the Houthis have emerged (see ‘related articles’ below). Reuters recently reported a rise in the supply of weapons from Iran.

“Iran has stepped up weapons transfers to the Houthis, the militia fighting the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, U.S., Western and Iranian officials tell Reuters, a development that threatens to prolong and intensify the 19-month-old war. […]

“We are aware of a recent increased frequency of weapons shipments supplied by Iran, which are reaching the Houthis via the Omani border,” a Western diplomat familiar with the conflict told Reuters.

Three U.S. officials confirmed that assertion.

One of those officials, who is familiar with Yemen, said that in the past few months there had been a noticeable increase in weapons-smuggling activity.

“What they’re bringing in via Oman are anti-ship missiles, explosives…, money and personnel,” the official said.

Another regional security source said the transfers included surface-to-surface short-range missiles and small arms.

A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed there had been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen” since May, referring to weapons, training and money.”

A US State Department spokesman addressed the same issue on October 20th:

“I mean, we’re aware that Iran provides lethal support to the Houthis. We have regularly and routinely called on regional actors to de-escalate the tensions in Yemen and the region, including abiding by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, as well as the ceasefire, which both the – all parties have said they would support.

We’ve also repeatedly raised our concerns that Iran is providing lethal aid to the Houthis in Yemen, including at the UN, when dhows smuggling Iranian weapons to the Houthis were interdicted at sea.”

Remarkably, after over eighteen months of reporting on the conflict in Yemen, the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” is still unable to meet its remit of building “global understanding” of this particular “international issue” by producing a backgrounder which tells its audiences whether or not Iran is involved in that war.

Related Articles:

Limited BBC journalistic curiosity on Iranian involvement in Yemen

BBC News portrays Iranian involvement in Yemen as ‘overplayed’

BBC News and BBC World Service report on airlift of Yemenite Jews

The news that some of the last remaining members of the Jewish community in Yemen had been airlifted to Israel brought some rare BBC reporting on the topic of Jews from Arab lands.

The story was reported on the BBC News website on March 21st in an article titled “Yemeni Jews brought to Israel in secret mission“. That accurate and impartial report even included information omitted in previous BBC reporting.

Yemenite Jews airlift art

The BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ also reported the story in an item (from 30:07 here) which included an interview with the Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer and then later (at 38:55, following a technical fault) with historian Tudor Parfitt.

During that conversation presenter Razia Iqbal posed the following question-cum-statement:

“…the absence of the Jewish history and culture in not just Yemen but other Arab countries is a really sad reflection of the sectarianism that exists now in the Middle East.”

Given the paucity of BBC reporting on the topic of the long history of Jews from Arab lands in general and the religious roots of some of the hostility towards them in particular, it is rather unlikely that statement would have contributed much to audience understanding of background to this story – especially with the curious insertion of the word “now”. 

Nevertheless, it was good to see some reasonable reporting on a much neglected topic.

BBC’s Doucet explains why Yemen gets less coverage than Gaza

Here, for the record, is an interesting Twitter exchange:

Jed Galilee

BBC audiences would no doubt be very interested to hear more details about the easier access and safer reporting conditions in the Gaza Strip.

But of course it is not just the volume of reporting which distinguishes the BBC’s coverage of last summer’s conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip from its reporting on the ongoing conflict in Yemen: the difference in tone of reporting is remarkable too.

With the casualty toll in Yemen having surpassed that in the Gaza Strip last year, it is worth taking a look at how that news was presented in the latest report to appear on the BBC News website’s Middle East page.Yemen report

“More than 3,000 people have been killed since a Saudi-led coalition began air strikes in March to drive back Houthi rebels and restore the government.

Aid agencies say a blockade on Yemen has worsened the humanitarian crisis which is gripping the country.

More than 80% of Yemen’s 25 million people now need some form of aid. […]

On Tuesday, the UN announced that at least 1,528 civilians were among the 3,000 dead.

Another one million civilians have been displaced by the conflict.”

Markedly absent from that factual, non-emotive account are BBC journalists’ amateur opinions on ‘international law’ and the accusations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, collective punishment and deliberate targeting of civilians which characterized the BBC’s reporting from the Gaza Strip last summer.

Moreover, the BBC has no difficulties in presenting audiences with a summary of the cause of the conflict in Yemen and does not censor integral factors leading to its outbreak or use the formula “Saudi Arabia says”.

“In recent months Yemen has descended into conflicts between several different groups, although the main fight is between forces loyal to beleaguered President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Shia Zaidi rebels – or Houthis – who forced Mr Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.

After rebel forces closed in on the president’s southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Mr Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.”

That, of course, is the difference between news and narrative.

Related Articles:

Comparing BBC coverage of civilian casualties in Yemen and Gaza

BBC News portrays Iranian involvement in Yemen as ‘overplayed’

We have commented here before on the BBC’s lack of journalistic curiosity regarding the extent of Iranian involvement in the conflict in Yemen. On May 7th the BBC News website’s Middle East page published an article in its ‘features’ section by Dr David Roberts of King’s College, London under the title “Viewpoint: How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war?“. As its opening paragraphs show, the aim of that article is clearly to lead BBC audiences towards the view that claims of Iranian involvement in Yemen are overstated.Roberts article Yemen

“Sunni power Saudi Arabia has – deliberately or otherwise – projected the fighting in Yemen as a proxy war with regional Shia rival Iran, though this is a dangerous mischaracterisation of the conflict.

The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.”

The same theme is continued throughout the article.

“Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.”

“Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.”

“Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.”

Whilst the conflict in Yemen is undoubtedly rooted in domestic issues, this article does little to provide readers with objective and factual assessment of reports of Iranian involvement. Moreover, it completely ignores statements by Iranian officials including the one made by an Iranian parliamentarian after Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital city.

“An Iranian politician close to that country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could not contain himself. Ali Reza Zakani, an MP, boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab capital in Iranian hands – after Beirut (through Hizbollah), Damascus (through President Assad) and Baghdad (through Iraq’s democratically elected Shia-led government).”

A report which appeared in the Financial Times on May 8th highlights an additional – although by no means unknown – aspect of the story.

“They are hundreds of miles apart and their local struggles have little in common, yet Lebanon’s Shia force Hizbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels are opening up about a relationship forged by sectarian politics transforming the Middle East. […]

A Hizbollah commander, who withheld his name because members are not permitted to speak to media, said Houthis and Hizbollah trained together for the past 10 years. “They trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.

Hizbollah has long been suspected of channelling Iranian support to the Houthis. For years, Houthi officials have been spotted at Beirut hotels and are believed to be hosted on Iran’s dime. The Houthi television channel al-Maseera is based in Beirut’s Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs. “There’s been an active Houthi office in Beirut, and the city has been a popular meeting place between Yemeni political groups and other regional actors for some time,” said Yemen analyst Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.”

It remains difficult to see how the BBC can claim to fulfil its remit of providing its funding public and wider audiences with a fact-based “understanding of international issues” relating to aspects of the conflict in Yemen in particular, or the already under-reported issue of Iranian policy in the Middle East in general, if it continues to avoid any serious in-depth reporting on the topic.

Limited BBC journalistic curiosity on Iranian involvement in Yemen

On April 9th the BBC reported on statements made by the US Secretary of State during an interview with an American media outlet.  As readers can gather from the punctuation used in the headline “Yemen crisis: Kerry warns Iran over Houthi rebel ‘support’“, the BBC is obviously not convinced by John Kerry’s assertion of Iranian backing for the Houthi militia in Yemen and the language used in the body of the article itself was equally vague.Yemen Kerry art

“US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Iran over its alleged support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. […]

Iran has denied accusations it is providing military aid to the Houthis.”

Another article appearing on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on the same day under the title “Yemen crisis: Iran’s Khamenei condemns Saudi ‘genocide’” informed readers that:

“On Wednesday, the US warned Iran over its alleged support for the rebels. […]

The [Iranian] foreign ministry also summoned Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Tehran.

The state news agency, Irna, quoted the ministry as saying the envoy would be asked to explain “baseless accusations” made by a spokesman for the coalition.

On Wednesday night, Brig Gen Ahmed al-Assiri told a news conference that Iran had been training and equipping Houthi fighters, according to the Reuters news agency.

The US secretary of state also said that Iran’s support for the rebels was clear.”Yemen tweet BBC World

Of course Iranian support for the Houthis is not a new topic: it one that has been under discussion for quite some time and in particular since the Yemeni coastguard intercepted an Iranian ship carrying arms destined for the Houthis over two years ago. A more recent statement from an Iranian politician appeared to add credence to the claims long made in the Saudi media and – as the BBC itself reported in 2013 – by some in Yemen.

“Ali Reza Zakani, an MP, boasted that Sana’a was now the fourth Arab capital in Iranian hands – after Beirut (through Hizbollah), Damascus (through President Assad) and Baghdad (through Iraq’s democratically elected Shia-led government).”

The BBC, however, has apparently opted to remain on the fence and appears to have little journalistic curiosity or interest in either confirming or refuting the assertions of the US administration and others with regard to Iranian activities in Yemen.

It is difficult to see how the corporation intends to fulfil its remit of providing its funding public and wider audiences with a fact-based “understanding of international issues” relating to the conflict in Yemen in particular or the already under-reported issue of Iranian policy in the Middle East in general if it continues to make do with reporting based on the use of the word ‘alleged’. 

Comparing BBC coverage of civilian casualties in Yemen and Gaza

As readers no doubt recall, within twenty-four hours of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge in July 2014, the BBC had begun promoting the theme of ‘Israeli war crimes’. In the first week of the conflict, BBC audiences were also told that Israel deliberately targeted civilians and heard claims of ‘collective punishment’ and a ‘disproportionate’ Israeli response to the actions of terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip. Throughout the BBC’s coverage of the seven week-long hostilities, the topic of civilian casualties was by far the most prominent with thousands of words and hours of air-time devoted to emotive reporting of the plight of civilians in the Gaza Strip and Hamas-supplied casualty figures quoted unquestioningly.

Six days after the commencement of airstrikes on Yemen on March 26th by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition, the UN estimated that almost a hundred civilians had been killed and some 364 injured. The actual figure can be reasonably assumed to be higher by now.

The BBC has to date refrained from ‘parachuting in’ to Yemen star reporters such as Lyse Doucet and Jeremy Bowen as it did during last summer’s conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip and it is interesting to ponder the question of whether the corporation’s reporting on civilian casualties in Yemen is affected by that fact.

In an article titled “Saudi Arabia launches air strikes in Yemen” published on the BBC News website on March 26th readers were informed that:Yemen 1

“A civil defence source told the AFP news agency that 13 civilians were killed when seven homes near the al-Dulaimi air base were destroyed. The Houthis’ al-Masirah TV quoted the health ministry as putting the death toll at 18.”

The BBC refrained from making any pronunciations with regard to the legality of the airstrikes or their ‘proportionality’. Likewise, no accompanying claims of ‘deliberate targeting of civilians’ appeared in the BBC’s March 28th article titled “Yemen crisis: Saudis lead fresh air strikes on Houthis” which informed readers that:

“Since the air campaign began, at least 39 civilians – including six children under the age of 10 – have been killed, Yemen health ministry officials say.”

An article titled “Yemen crisis: Dozens killed by ‘air strike’ near refugee camp” published on March 30th was guarded in its presentation of information not independently verified by the BBC.

“An air strike has killed at least 40 people at a refugee camp in northwest Yemen, aid workers have said.

State media said Saudi planes were responsible, but the Yemeni foreign minister said “artillery strikes” by Houthi rebels were to blame.”

An article published on April 1st under the title “Yemen crisis: Blast at Hudaydah factory ‘kills 35’” also presented the story in cautious language, acknowledging that the causes of incidents are not always immediately clear.Yemen 2

“At least 35 workers have been killed by a blast at a dairy factory in western Yemen, medics say, as Saudi-led air strikes continue against Houthi rebels.

There were conflicting reports about the cause of the overnight explosion in the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah.

Witnesses said coalition aircraft hit warehouses belonging to the factory. Anti-aircraft guns then returned fire, before the factory itself caught fire.

The UN has expressed alarm at the rising number of civilian casualties.”

The article also states:

“The Saudi-led coalition also bombarded Houthi positions in Aden overnight. A military official told the AFP news agency that there were “many dead and wounded”.

The coalition has insisted that it is trying to avoid killing civilians.

“Collateral damage can happen… but I confirm to you that the coalition takes all care,” spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri was quoted as saying by AFP.

But on Tuesday Amnesty International accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of “turning a blind eye to civilian deaths”, and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) reported that at least 62 children had been killed and 30 hurt over the past week.”

Jeremy Bowen was not on hand to inform the world that Saudi Arabia “has serious questions to answer”.

An additional article from April 1st – “Yemen crisis: Where does Saudi offensive go next?” by Frank Gardener – is equally cautious in attributing responsibility:

“At least 35 civilians were killed on Tuesday night in an attack on a dairy factory suspected of being used by rebels as a weapons cache, although the cause of the deaths was unclear.”

An April 2nd report titled “Yemen crisis: Fighting intensifies in Aden” has a subsection headed “Civilian deaths” which states:

“As the fighting continues, concern over casualties has risen.

A spokeswoman for the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) told the BBC that its hospital in Aden had received more than 500 injured people from all sides in the conflict over the last two weeks.

Coalition spokesman, Gen Ahmed Asir, told the BBC’s Frank Gardner in Riyadh that “it was a hard task to target” the rebels.

The coalition was “using all intelligence resources to make sure they are not hitting the wrong target. We do not hit any target without making sure it is a Houthi or troops loyal to former President Saleh,” he said.

The UN has also expressed alarm at the rising number of civilian deaths in Yemen.”

So what caused BBC reporting on civilian casualties in the first week of conflict in Yemen to be so different from its reporting on the first week of last summer’s conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip and why are audiences not reading or hearing the same amateur opinions on ‘international law’ or accusations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, collective punishment and deliberate targeting of civilians?

The all too obvious answer to those questions is that in this case the BBC’s correspondents are not focused on promoting a pre-existing politically motivated narrative and amplifying unquestioned and unchallenged messaging from NGOs with a similar political world view to that held by visiting journalists. Instead, they are reporting the news. 


The BBC and the Houthi logo

Viewers of the BBC World News programme ‘Impact‘ who recently watched a report by Safa al Ahmed (which also appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on January 27th under the title “Yemen crisis: BBC gets rare access to Houthi rebels“) may have noticed a certain feature which cropped up repeatedly throughout the filmed footage.

Houthis report pics

Seeing as no attempt was made to explain that logo in Safa Al Ahmed’s report, audiences might perhaps have turned to the BBC News website’s profile of the group titled “Yemen crisis: Who are the Houthis?“. There they would have found that same logo appearing in a picture captioned “Houthi supporters took part in weeks of protests calling for fuel price cuts and a new government”.

Houthi profile art pic

So does that logo have anything to do with fuel prices or demands for political reform in Yemen? Well, no – and its recurrent appearance is not coincidental because that banner is actually the official emblem of the Houthis, as explained by the New York Times:

“It includes the words “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.” Houthis shout it when they march, wear it on arm patches, paint it on buildings and stick it onto their car windows. When pictured, those words are rendered in red, framed by “God is great” and “Victory to Islam” in green, on a white background.

Sometimes the red words are shown dripping blood.”

One might think that, given the BBC’s remit of building understanding of international issues, the corporation would consider that information worth communicating to its audiences, along with more comprehensive information on the Houthis’ alleged links to the Iranian regime (and Hizballah) than appear in its profile.

“Regional Shia power Iran has also been accused of giving financial and military support to the Houthis – something both have denied.”

“Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, believes that the rebels are backed militarily, financially and politically by its Shia regional arch-rival, Iran – something both have denied.”

Remarkably, the BBC does not appear to have much interest in conducting in-depth investigative reporting on that topic