It is not often that the BBC caves in to government pressure especially when the government in question is Burundi. A tiny francophone country in Central Africa, Burundi has been ruled by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s for 13 years and he is now planning to use the upcoming election as an opportunity to change the constitution and declare himself President for Life. A local human rights worker, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, gave an interview to the BBC in which he made critical comments about Nkurunziza’spoor record of governance. He also organised a demonstration against the President’s bid to stay in power and announced his intention of running for the presidency himself. President Nkurunziza promptly switched off the local BBC broadcast in Burundi in French, English, Kiruni and Swahili.
The BBC has apologised for the “mistake”. A senior editor at the BBC said that its recently broadcast Guest of the Week said that its “editorial line and principles of balanced information had not been respected… Following a thorough review of the interview in question we concluded that it fell short of our editorial standards. We have written to the government of Burundi and apologised.The BBC regretted its mistakes and offered its sincerest apologies and promised to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again”. ”
The journalist who conducted the interview with Mbonimpa, Francoise Misser, who is a long-standing Africa correspondent for the BBC and other media, has resigned. Another journalist at the BBC Africa Service who did not wish to be quoted, said:
“It is sad to realise that the BBC lies down in front of the Burundian dictator. This despicable character has blood on his hands and many deaths on his conscience – if he has one. The chief editor was pathetic on that count and you were perfectly right to react the way you did. Would it suffice that a dictator whose self-esteem has been injured to prompt the BBC to pee in its pants? One cannot work in such conditions.”
What were these “mistakes”? What was said that could not be balanced by an interview with the representative of the Burundi government? President Nkurunziza is not just another president who wants to stay on. Last year a United Nations Commission of Inquiry said it had “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Burundi since April 2015.” Nkurunziza has refused to cooperate with the inquiry but its mandate has been renewed and in October the International Criminal Court (ICC) began an investigation. In recognition of his defence of political and human rights in Burundi Mr Mbonimpa was given an honorary doctorate by the Free University of Brussels in support of his defence of human rights.
The BBC has had an outstanding record of broadcasting in Africa for decades, covering both governments and their critics like Mbonimpa. For me its importance was spectacularly demonstrated in the battle for the Somali capital Mogadishu in July 1989. Each afternoon the guns always fell silent for half an hour. This unacknowledged ceasefire was not a break to worship Allah and pray for victory, nor was this ceasefire agreed. It was a pause in the fighting to listen to the BBC Somali service newscast. The fighters would put down their guns and gather round their crackly transistor radios because they wanted to know if they were winning or losing. The BBC had well-connected Somali reporters on both sides of the city and the war for Somalia was reported in clear unbiased detail from both sides. It was dangerous. One of those reporters, Nasteh Dahir Faraah, was finally killed in 2008. Others were targeted. But the broadcasts continued.
Somalia was not unique. Journalists are targeted wherever governments tried to suppress the truth especially when there is war. In some African countries journalism in any form is either banned completely or the journalists threatened with violence or death. So are ordinary citizens in countries where the government does not want the truth to be heard. The BBC is bombarded with complaints from governments all over the world. It is happy to correct the facts or retract unprovable libellous statements but I have never come across an incident when a dictator gets an apology from the BBC. It also creates a precedent for other bad rulers to silence BBC reporting.
When I started reporting from Africa in the 1980s the BBC office in Nairobi was staffed by two journalists and four or five support staff to cover the region. They communicated by unreliable phone lines and clunky telex machines – long distance typewriters. The bulky Satellite phone came in the 1990s which worked if you managed to point it accurately at the satellite. West Africa was even more thinly covered. A couple of reporters operated entirely by themselves with the help of a local fixer – someone who arranged meetings and brought the gossip. Elsewhere there would be “stringers”, local journalists often paid at local rates, who would gather the information the BBC correspondent could not always access. Despite the thinness of the staffing levels, the coverage was more than adequate.
Today the BBC has about 600 staff in Sub Saharan Africa including 250 in Kenya and about 150 in Nigeria and more than 100 people working in the UK for BBC Africa. It reaches about 114 million people every week broadcasting in ten African languages. Every day I check the morning stories on the Africa page BBC website over a week. Most of them from are from African online newspapers. Judge for yourself if they are the first draft of history:
Breast-feeding mother in Kenya told not to feed her baby in public.
Gorilla killings in a Uganda game park.
The death of a South African photographer who took a picture of the Soweto riots in 1976.
An albino girl abducted
The Gorilla Park attack (same story as yesterday)
A girl is forced to work with priests at a shrine to “atone” for her uncle’s sins.
Ebola scare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (not reported from there)
Zambia arrests a musician.
Press Freedom in Kenya and fake news.
Ebola leads again but this story is pushed aside by Uganda’s MPs demanding higher salaries and Algeria dumping migrants in the desert.
Ebola still the lead. The Dakar Rally may be held again. A former Nigerian Finance Minister condemns corruption.
50 African competitors abscond after Commonwealth Games and 200 more are applying for refugee status in Australia.
Apart from Ebola these are mainly what journalists call “fancy that!” tales, the weird and the horrible that have so often given Africa a bad name. Is the media in Africa so cowed by governments that the press cannot write the truth about the politics? Are there no Pierre Claver Mbonimpas to quote? Or is it too dangerous?
Compare the Africa page on the BBC website to the BBC Asia section. It is completely different. Most stories there are about the important stuff – politics and economics. I could not find a single “fancy that!” story.