The UK media is unsurprisingly following up closely on the story of the two teenage British girls who suffered a horrific attack in Stone Town, Zanzibar. But in their haste to get a good story, and in a situation where the known facts are few, they are making some serious errors.
Yesterday, according to some reports in the Tanzanian media, Sheikh Ponda, a radical Zanzibari cleric, was shot and injured in the town of Morogoro. Some are saying it was the police who shot him, some that unsuccessful attempts were made by the police to arrest him. Other media outlets dispute these “facts”, claiming that he is now in hospital. Overall, and to their credit, the Tanzanian press appears to be responding to uncertainty with caution: being noticeably transparent about facts that are unclear.
What’s more, none (that I have seen) has linked Sheikh Ponda or this reported shooting / attempted arrest to the Zanzibar acid attack.
But look at how the UK media has covered the same story.
Sky News reasonably indicates some uncertainty by dotting its story with disclaimers of the “according to reports” nature, but shows no doubt over the fact that Sheikh Ponda is “wanted” over the acid attack:
A radical Muslim preacher wanted over an acid attack on two British teenagers in Zanzibar has been caught by police, according to reports. It was claimed that Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa was shot in the shoulder with a tear gas canister as he tried to escape from officers after being cornered near the Tanzanian coastal city of Dar es Salaam. He was reported to be fighting for his life in hospital.
The Sun is apparently fully confident of its “facts”, both about the shooting and Ponda’s “wanted” status:
A RADICAL Muslim preacher wanted over the acid attack on two British teenagers in Zanzibar has been shot while fleeing from cops. Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa tried to make a run for it when he was cornered near the Tanzanian coastal city of Dar es Salaam.
The Times follows the same pattern, though slyly tries to offload the blame for any inaccuracies onto the Mirror:
A radical Muslim preacher wanted in connection with an acid attack on two British teenagers in Zanzibar has been shot by police, it was reported. Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa was hit in the shoulder with a tear gas canister as he tried to escape from officers after being cornered near Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam, The Sunday Mirror said.
That report in the Mirror does not claim Ponda is wanted for the attack, just that he “allegedly inspired” and “provoked” it:
An extremist Islamic preacher who allegedly inspired the acid attack on two British volunteer teachers was shot and captured in Tanzania earlier today. Police hit Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa in the shoulder with a tear-gas canister after cornering him near the capital Dar es Salaam. A manhunt was launched after it was claimed he provoked the attack on Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee, both 18. Sheikh Ponda was taken to hospital where he was fighting for his life under armed police guard.
It has been claimed that he provoked the ambush to raise the profile of his campaign to rid Zanzibar of foreigners and impose hardline Islamic law.
The Telegraph cites its own “police sources”, and claims that he is “wanted for questioning”:
A radical Muslim preacher wanted for questioning over the acid attack on two British tourists in Zanzibar was shot on Saturday night as he fled police trying to arrest him. Sheikh Issa Ponda is understood to have survived the raid and was on the run but injured, police sources told The Daily Telegraph.
“He narrowly escaped from the police in Morogoro, he was shot by our officers, but we are pursuing him,” said Faustine Shilogile, a senior police commander in Morogoro, the town 110 miles west of Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, where Ponda was shot.
Finally, the Daily Mail is pretty confident of the details, stating unambiguously that Ponda is “wanted for” and “accused of” the acid attack:
Muslim preacher wanted for acid attack on British teenagers in Zanzibar shot by police as he tried to escape
Sheikh Issa Ponda Issa shot in shoulder with tear gas canister
Shot as he was cornered by police near Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam
Accused of acid attack on Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup
Let’s leave aside the obvious factual errors in these articles – describing the shooting as happening “near Dar es Salaam”, for example. Let’s overlook even their apparent confidence in details that cannot all be correct – did Ponda evade capture (Telegraph) or was he caught (Mirror, Sky, etc)?
Instead, I want to focus on a far more significant matter.
All the quotes above claim in some way that Sheikh Ponda is “wanted” in connection with the Zanzibar acid attack. Some are more careful than others with their language: the Telegraph saying he is “wanted for questioning” and the Mirror that he is accused of “inspiring” and “provoking” the attack, while the Mail boldly states that he is “accused of” the attack. But there is little evidence, if any, for even the more cautious claims. I have seen nothing in either the UK or Tanzanian media reporting that the Tanzanian police or government has stated that Sheikh Ponda is in any way a suspect in connection with this acid attack.
Ponda is a highly controversial figure in Tanzania and has had a troubled relationship with the authorities for some time. There are plenty of reasons why the police may have tried to arrest him yesterday. Just a few days ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions called for his arrest for reasons apparently unrelated to the acid attacks.
I don’t believe the Mirror, Mail, Telegraph, etc. have any source for their claim that he is “wanted” for this attack. If they did, wouldn’t they refer to it in some way – that “a police spokesperson named him as a suspect”, or something of that nature? They didn’t. And the Tanzanian press, even the less temperate outlets, have said nothing of that nature either.
If I am right, this is pretty disgraceful on the part of the UK press. First, it misleads the families of these two girls by suggesting that progress is being made in tracking down their attackers. Second, and more worryingly, it risks inflaming religious tensions in Tanzania further, on the flimsiest of evidence.
I have seen no evidence that this attack was religiously or politically motivated, and none that it was connected to Sheikh Ponda. It may be that it was, but equally, it may be that it was motivated by something else entirely. Much of the UK press seems to have decided the matter for itself already. They’re not letting the (absence of) facts get in the way of a good story, irrespective of the damage it might do.
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UPDATES – 11/8/13 10pm (UK time)
Channel 4 and the Independent should also be included in the above, but not (yet) the BBC, Guardian, or even the Express.
The Tanzanian police have issued a statement that explains how Ponda avoided arrest, explaining why there was an attempt to arrest him making no reference to the Zanzibar acid attack.
The BBC Swahili Service reports that Ponda is now at Muhimbili National Hospital, where he is receiving treatment for a bullet wound in his shoulder. The report makes no connection with the Zanzibar acid attack, and though the police clearly know where he is, he has apparently not been arrested.
UPDATES – 12/8/13 9am (UK time):
The Mirror and Mail have substantially and significantly revised their stories, both posted at the same URL web address as the stories I linked to yesterday. In other words, the previous stories are no longer available.
The Mirror withdrew all suggestion that Sheikh Ponda is wanted in connection with the acid attack:
Sheikh Ponda is wanted for inciting violence on the island of Zanzibar, where Katie Gee and Kirstie Trup, both 18, were horrifically attacked five days ago.
Although he is not being directly linked to the outrage — carried out by two men on a motorcycle who threw battery acid — police believe his speeches could have encouraged followers to lash out.
The Mail did the same, and went as far as to suggest a second possible explanation / motive for the attack:
Acid horror girls ‘targeted by admirer they spurned’: Teenagers may have been victims of revenge attack, say friends as two suspects and hate preacher are arrested.
Friends in Zanzibar City, where the girls had been teaching, have said that the pair received unwanted attention from young men in the days before the attack. One nearby resident, named only as Abdul because of the fear of reprisals, said the young men were angered at being rebuffed.
Compare the text of the headline and bullets in this screenshot with the screenshot at the top of this post. They both come from the same article, as it was published yesterday (at the top) and as it was amended today (at the bottom).
The Times and Telegraph (twice) have posted new articles that repeat the claim that Ponda is wanted in connection with the attack.
And finally, the Guardian has come in on the story. Their star media commentator, Roy Greenslade, cites http://mtega.com/2013/08/11/zanzibar-acid-attack-uk-media-not-letting-the-facts-get-in-the-way-of-a-story/ in questioning whether other UK media may have got it wrong.