BY MUTHUI KARIUKI
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service FM radio station made serious unsubstantiated allegations regarding international terrorism suspects and Kenya at least twice every hour throughout Saturday May 25, 2013 and into the early part of Sunday the 26th.
Among other things, the Corporation made a big deal of the fact that the Government of Kenya, through this Office, had denied that one of the Woolwich murder suspects had been tortured and sexually molested by Kenya Police Service anti-terrorism officers three years ago.
The BBC repeatedly reported that one of two men shot and arrested at the scene of the brutal murder of a British soldier, the Drummer known as Lee Rigby, in Woolwich, London, visited Kenya and underwent some kind of transformation by way of radicalisation.
Among other allegations, quoting a man named Abu Nusaybah, the BBC reported that the suspect, one Michael Adebolajo, was arrested by Kenyan anti-terror police officers in Lamu in 2010, under suspicion of seeking to join the terror outfit al-Shabaab in Somalia and was tortured and sexually assaulted in the course of interrogation.
Responding to inquiries from this Office, senior members of the Intelligence community in Kenya initially denied knowledge of any such arrest. They also denied knowledge of the torture ordeal. Among other things, they pointed out that West Africans, including British passport holders, are mostly arrested in Kenya on narcotics and immigration offences.
I am not an investigator and nor do I maintain an anti-terrorism database of suspects, convicts or deportees. This Office took the Intelligence information it was initially furnished with on face value and I communicated the same to the media, including the BBC, in all good faith and confidence.
It was on this basis that I described the man reportedly arrested in Kenya three years ago as an impostor. It transpires that although I did not have the full details, I was not far off the mark. The Independent on Sunday newspaper of London has done a much more thorough and comprehensively researched and sourced job than the BBC. The IoS even tracks down the identity Adebolajo used while in Kenya:
“. . . an investigation by The IoS has revealed that Mr Adebolajo – officially described as ‘Mr Michael Olemindis Ndemolajo’ – was one of seven youths arrested by Kenyan police on suspicion of trying to join the ranks of the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia.
“The young men had gone on a speedboat from Lamu island to Kizingitini, Pate island, where they were arrested by police who were waiting for them after a tip off. The group he was travelling with, which included two secondary-school boys, had been radicalised during weekly visits to a mosque in Mombasa, according to police sources”.
The Independent on Sunday also quotes the Daily Nation of Nairobi on Adebolajo in his incarnation as Ndemolajo in 2010:
“The Nigerian, Mr Michael Olemindis Ndemolajo, is said to have travelled from the UK to join the group”.
Although the BBC also repeatedly issued a disclaimer to the effect that the Corporation was unable to independently confirm the information about Michael Adebolajo being arrested and maltreated in Kenya, it nevertheless persisted in disseminating it right around the world. And the Corporation did this before the Mirror and the Independent on Sunday newspapers of London published photographs of Adebolajo in a Mombasa courtroom in November 2010 on Sunday, May 25, 2013.
The BBC has also repeatedly reported that the man who gave them this information, Abu Nusaybah, in their studios in London was himself intercepted and arrested by British anti-terrorist police officers as soon as the interview was over. Nusaybah was described by BBC editors and reporters as a longtime friend of Adebolajo. He also told the BBC that the Security Service, the British Intelligence agency known as MI5, had repeatedly tried to recruit Adebolajo, including as recently as six months ago. Again, the BBC had no proof of serious allegations made by this individual against a background of international terrorism.
However, the Mirror newspaper, unlike the BBC, emphasized another aspect of Adebolajo’s alleged ordeal and “radicalisation” while in Kenya. The Mirror reported: “His friend Abu Nusaybah told BBC2’s Newsnight on Friday that ill-treatment in Kenya by MI5 operatives led to his radicalisation.
“After refusing to answer questions Adebolajo was allegedly told that he was ‘not in the UK’ and was then allegedly sexually assaulted [sic]”.
Again, the Mirror, like the BBC, has only Nusaybah’s word to go on, but it opens a major can of worms. The allegation now seems to be that British security officers tortured and sexually assaulted a British national while he was in custody in a third country. And the man who told this tale was arrested in London within minutes of his “revelations” on the premises of one of the world’s foremost broadcasting stations.
The Mirror also reported: “Last night it emerged that Abu Nusaybah’s real name is Ibrahim Hassan, 31, and that he is a former member of Al-Muhajiroun, a group banned in the UK in 2010”.
A man who appears in a global broadcaster’s live studio under a false name should by no means form the basis for single-sourcing of a rapidly evolving and extremely sensitive story.
The BBC’s reporting on this horrific crime and its aftermath leaves much to be desired. The implication that Adebolajo, who is apparently originally Nigerian of British nationality, was somehow radicalised on a short trip to Kenya en route to Somalia remains totally unproven and meaningless. Even less reliable are the allegations of the bizarre combination of British Intelligence officials tormenting a black Briton in Kenya Police holding facilities.
The Independent on Sunday newspaper had this to say about Adebolago’s radicalisation:
“After the incident [arrest, interrogation and court appearance in Kenya], members of his family said he was ‘pestered’ by MI5 agents pressuring him to become an informant for them and infiltrate radical Islamic extremist groups. Relatives said other family members were also harassed and questioned by the UK authorities. In an exclusive interview with The IoS, Mr Adebolajo’s brother-in law claimed constant demands to get him to spy on Muslim clerics might have pushed him over the edge”.
The Independent on Sunday also made a further exclusive disclosure:
“It was also reported last night that Michael Adebowale, who was arrested alongside Mr Adebolajo following the soldier’s killing, had been detained by police two months ago”.
This is no doubt a reference to British police.
The allegations about the suspect’s radicalisation wile in Kenya were made on BBC World Service radio, although the Corporation failed to analyze them before going live with its broadcasts.
These allegations have the potential to damage Kenya’s image at a time when this country can least afford it.
The nature of the barbaric murder of a serving soldier should mean that the BBC and other authoritative British media and institutions should handle it with the utmost care, sensitivity and respect for the truth and details. The symbolism of the murder, an interracial killing with controversial inter-religious overtones, calls for the most careful and sensitive reporting, commentary and analysis by media everywhere.
Britons of all communities, and admixtures of communities, will never forget this crime for the rest of their lives. It has the potential to damage race relations and inter-religious harmony in both Britain and farther afield.
It is therefore both regrettable and unnecessary to somehow drag Kenya’s good name and nation brand into the aftermath of this appalling tragedy. Tourism is one of Kenya’s economic mainstays and Britain provides this country with its largest single source of tourists.
The BBC should not broadcast material for which it has no proof. This is disinformation and a disservice to the Corporation’s global audience. It is not enough to issue a disclaimer about the single-sourcing of sensitive information during a time of public trauma both in Britain and abroad. If it is impossible to double-check then the BBC should leave it out – period.
The simple expedient of issuing a disclaimer is basically meaningless. The BBC is having its cake and eating it. The damage has already been done. Consumers of news, like consumers of many other products, pay about as much attention to disclaimers as they do to the small print on the back of a laundry receipt.
When they think about the public butchering of the soldier who was ambushed by two remorseless killers, millions of Britons and others will also think of a country called Kenya. And the vaguer an idea of Kenya they have, the worse it will be, thanks to the BBC’s less-than-responsible journalism.
It does not matter that Kenya is not involved in any way in this act of anarchic lawlessness 4,000 kilometres away. The politics of emotionalism follow no logic. The fact that a man passed through Kenya not long ago and then ended up hacking a British soldier to death on a London street is just that – a random fact. Has this individual with origins in West Africa and residency in the United Kingdom never been anywhere else? Why this repeated naming and profiling of Kenya in the context of this brutal murder?
Britain’s image of a basically law-abiding and peaceful country has taken a terrible battering with this one horrific crime. Britain is so peaceful that the police there are not routinely issued with firearms. Kenya, too, has an image of an oasis of peace in a turbulent region. And although in recent decades we have acquired a terrible small arms and light weapons (SALW) proliferation problem, and we have fallen victim to international terrorists, this image and reality is still very largely intact.
Responsible journalism calls for very high standards of accuracy and implications. The BBC has long been associated with global high standards of journalism in the English and quite a number of other languages. But it is times like these, when terror atrocities are visited upon innocent people on every continent, that test the true mettle of media responsibility and quality standards.
It would be a pity if the BBC lets down its guard and treats the subject of intercontinental terrorism with anything but the utmost seriousness and sense of evidence.
(Muthui Kariuki is the Public Communications Secretary – Government Spokesperson of the Republic of Kenya)