Saturday, February 8, 2014

Further on BBC and the Bali abduction story

I have been meaning to put this correspondence up on the website for some time, and am now doing so - over six months after recieving it - due to a recent article on which references the BBC article in order to try and discredit my work.

In May 2012, New Age published an article which provided details of a statement given by Sukhranjan Bali, a witness at the International Crimes Tribunal, which confirmed that he had been abducted by the law enforcement agents from outside the tribunal.

Subsequent to that, the BBC ran an article which inter alia suggested on the words of an anonymous intelligence agency person, quoting an unnamed prison officer, that on being bribed, a prison officer smuggled the statement from Bali out of the jail. I wrote an article about this, which can be found here

On 18 May, I first complained to the head of the Bengali service.
Dear Sabir, 
I am writing this formally in your position as head of the Bangla service.

I am also copying in Behrouz Afagh who is head of the Asia Pacific region.
I would like you to investigate how the BBC published the last few paragraphs of the article 
The particular paragraphs about which I am concerned come at the end of the article are as follows (as translated in English):
The report published in the New Age of Dhaka claims that Shukhoronjon Bali sent them a written statement from Indian prison. In this statement he describes the incident of kidnap and how he was pushed to India.
However, Ranvir Kumar, chief of the Prison Division of West Bengal, told BBC that it's almost impossible to take statement from a Bangladeshi prisoner and handing it over to a foreign newspaper. If any relative visits, the authority scrutinizes the Passport-Visa of the visitor.
However, through a source from West Bengal's intelligence BBC reporter Amitabh Bhatyashali came to know that the Dum Dum prison authority has already interrogated Mr. Bali and Mr. Bali informed the prison officers that he sent the statement through a prison guard by alluring him with money.
The intelligence sources informed further that according to Mr. Bali, that prison guard went to the border and handed it over to a smuggler.
The sources say that the prison authority has already identified that prison guard and started the process of his punishment.
This article was subsequently replaced by another article which contained a similiar set of paragraphs which can be translated as follows:
Then I did further inquiry on this and through an Intelligence source I came to know that the Dum Dum prison authority has already interrogated Mr. Bali and Mr. Bali informed the prison officers that he sent the statement through a prison guard by alluring him with money.
According to that source ( Intelligence) he (Mr. Bali) told the prison guard that he needs to send his statement to his country Bangladesh. Mr. Bali told him to meet a particular smuggler at India Bangladesh border.
Intelligence sources inform further that, the prison guard carried that statement to the border and handed it over to the particular smuggler. He received the promised amount of money.
The sources informed that, the name of that prison guard could not be found but prison authority has identified him and have started the process of taking punishment measures.
I have the following concerns about this article
1. The use of a single anonymous intelligence agency source.
I note that the BBC editorial guidelines state that
Any proposal to rely on a single unnamed source making a serious allegation or to grant anonymity to a significant contributor must be referred to Director Editorial Policy and Standards and Programme Legal Advice. (para 3.4.13)
The guidance then sets out a series of issues that the Director Editorial Policy and Standards would need to consider. ((
Could you confirm whether or not the BBC bangla service referred this to the Director Editorial Policy? 
It would seem to me that it is totally inappropriate for the BBC to rely in general on uncorroborated Indian intelligence agency sources and in particular to rely on a single intelligence agency source as it has done so in this story.

The guideline on anonymous sources should be particularly strictly applied in relation to 'intelligence agency' sources. 
How can the BBC have any confidence at all that the intelligence agency source is credible in making this claim? I think as journalists operating in South Asia, we all now how completely unreliable intelligence agency sources in this part of the world are. 
2. I should also add that the use of words also suggest that the journalist has a misunderstanding about the use of sources. The article says, 'through an Intelligence source I came to know ...' He has not 'come to know'. At the very most he can say that an intelligence agency official 'claimed ...' Of course, as I state above, the editorial guidelines would suggest that such a source should not be relied upon by BBC journalists. 
3. There is also confusion about the number of intelligence sources. In one paragraph it says one source and then in another it says 'sources'. This raises questions about the crediblity of how the journalist actually sourced this story.

I am asking you that this section of the article be removed until the Director Editorial Policy and Standards has undertaken a proper review of whether it was appropriate to publish these claims on behalf of first the intelligence agency 'source', and also the intelligence agency 'sources' 
Not that it should be of any significance in this complaint, but I should just say that I was the author of the New Age article referred to in the article.

I look forward to a speedy response on this matter, and the immediate removal of the relevant paragraphs
I wrote a follow up e-mail on the same day. 
Dear Sabir, 
Further to my previous complaint, I would like to raise a further concern ..

The afore-mentioned articles whose urls are set out in the previous -email have been written following an article in New Age, which is briefly mentioned. 
However, the articles are written to give an impression that the information set out in the BBC article is (a) new and (b) raises question about the original New Age article. 
However, all that the BBC article does is simply expand on what the New Age article has already stated without providing any reference to that. 
It is therefore misleading and disingenuous. 
The New Age article states:
On April 3, Bali was sentenced to imprisonment in a Kolkata court for 105 days imprisonment after pleading guilty for illegal entry into India under the country’s Foreigners Act 1946. Taking into account the time already served in detention awaiting trial, he could be repatriated to Bangladesh any day.
It is therefore clear that Bali pleads guilty to an offence of illegal entry in Bangladesh. The article goes onto state
The first information report drafted by the Indian police on December 24, 2012 states that police officer Kuldeep Singh had ‘observed suspicious’ movement in the fields near the Indian border in Swarupnagar and that when challenged Bali had ‘fled away.’ When apprehended, the FIR states that Bali had told them that ‘he was coming from Bangladesh to meet his brothers.’
The BBC reports gives no credit to the New Age report stating these things - and gives the impression that this is totally new information obtained by the BBC which is in contradiction to the New Age report. 
If this article is going to continue to remain up on the website in some form, could you please ensure that it is re-written to make this clear, as currently it is highly misleading.
On 20 May, Sabir responded in the following way:
Dear David – thank you for the mail.

I have gone through your complaint.

Firstly, we never claimed this to be our original item. From the outset, it was mentioned that the New Age had reported it. In fact, in the radio two-way, the correspondent right at the beginning said most of the information he gathered confirmed what was reported by the New Age.

There were elements in the report which our correspondent had found which confirmed the New Age story. Since these information were gathered by the correspondent himself and not simply quoted off the New Age, no reference was made to the paper thereafter.

We decided to do our own follow-up story because, the New Age story alleged Mr Sukharanjan Bali was kidnapped by Bangladeshi police and handed over to the Indian border security force. This implied that Indian authorities were complicit in the illegal abduction and ‘rendition’ of a Bangladeshi national. Hence, our main effort was to find out how much the Indian authorities knew or did not know about Mr Bali’s alleged abduction.

Therefore, we built on the New Age story, rather than re-produce it. This is BBC Bangla’s normal practice – if we find a story in the local media interesting, then we do a follow-up, but never reproduce. All the information contained in the FIR and court documents were gathered by the correspondent by obtaining copies of the said documents, and not quoted off the New Age. Hence, no reference was made to the paper. 
In the course of his investigation, our Calcutta correspondent did interview the head of the state’s prison services, Ranvir Kumar. It was Mr Kumar – speaking on the record – who contradicted the New Age story, by saying it would be impossible for anyone to meet Mr Bali in prison and write down his statement.

We chose to use information given anonymously by an intelligence officer because a) I have full confidence in the correspondent’s source; b) the information appeared to confirm that Mr Bali had indeed sent a letter to Bangladesh via a prison guard. This confirmed New Age’s line that a statement was sent by Mr Bali, but contradicted the method of communication.

However, if a perceived lack of attribution to the New Age is your concern, then I can assure you we will ensure such attribution as we continue to follow this story from the Indian side of the border.


I then responded to Sabir on the same day in the following manner.
Dear Sabir, 
Thank-you for your response. But I do not I am afraid accept your substantive points that the article was fair. 
I did not hear the radio two-way, so I am just going by the articles that I have seen. 
1. A major part of the second story related to the Police FIR in which Bali states that he came to meet his brothers and his guilty plea in court. This was reported in the BBC website story as entirely new information, not information that was in fact included in the original New Age article. The BBC article therefore gave the appearance that this was new information which contradicted the New Age article. That this was the appearance is clear from the way the BBC article was reported in the Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka which had a headline ''Bali was not forced to flee' with a smaller sub-title 'Says BBC report quoting his confession to Indian magistrate' Also the Daily Jonokhonto had a first paragraph, which prefaced a near identical copy of the BBC article which states: '‘This means, the allegation of abduction of Sukhoronjon Bali, witness of the case against convicted Jamaat leader Sayeedee, by the law enforcement agency has been proved to be false.’ Apparently this is the way other parts of the media in Bangladesh have read your story. 
Whilst clearly you cannot take responsibility for the way other papers might inaccurately interpret your pieces, I would suggest that their reading is a pretty natural reading of the BBC article.

2. You say, 'Our main effort was to find out how much the Indian authorities knew or did not know about Mr Bali’s alleged abduction.' If however that was the main purpose you went about it in a rather odd way - you did not speak to any political or senior police person who would have given a response. And the article does not seem to deal with that issue at all. In any case, I have no problem in this article focusing on the credibility of the New Age allegation - my concern is the way the report was written. 
3. You say, 'if we find a story in the local media interesting, then we do a follow-up, but never reproduce.' That is fine, I would not expect you do otherwise. My point is that by failing to provide inappropriate context in the story you dealt unfairly with the underlying story. For example, it is very notable that you did not even mention the Human Rights Watch statement (published very soon after New Age's articel) that confirmed a statement had been made by Bali to the effect that he had been abducted by law enforcement agencies. That omission I feel is very telling. If you were doing a follow up, why not refer to the HRW statement, and perhaps even call them up and ask them how they know that Bali makes this claim?

Also, it is notable that you did not think to consider whether all prisoners in Bali's position - that is to say illegally found in India - and advised to plead guilty so that they just have a short sentence and can be repatriated. Also, in this context of pleading guilty, you did not consider what Bali said in the statement quoted in the New Age article that he had initially tried to tell the police when he was arrested: ‘They tortured me and asked me what I had been doing there. I tried to narrate the course of events that had taken place till I was handed over to the BSF. They probably did not find my answers satisfactory and I was beaten even more profusely.’ Surely that would have been appropriate to refer to?

4. I have no criticism of your interview with the head of the state's prison - and I have not made any. It was on the record, and the BBC obviously has the right to publish it (however inaccurate it may be).

5. In relation to the interview with the single anonymous intelligence officer. Could you clarify whether the editorial guidelines were followed and it was in fact referred to the Director Editorial Policy and Standards and Programme Legal Advice? In this context, does that person(s) refer to you?

6. You go onto say that you were justified in using this quote as 'a) I have full confidence in the correspondent’s source; b) the information appeared to confirm that Mr Bali had indeed sent a letter to Bangladesh via a prison guard.'

Think about it. You are repeating a conversation of an anonymous intelligence officer repeating what a prisoner supposedly said to prison guards - and giving it credibility. Does that not seem inappropriate to you? Apart from the question of credibility, what about Bali's rights here. He is a vulnerable prisoner, with whom you had no opportunity to seek a response - is it right that you publish an allegation that he has breached the prison rules and perhaps even committed a criminal offense. According to the Editorial guidelines, these are the kinds of issues that ought to have been considered before publishing this quote. Were they?
On 25 May 2013 I then made a complaint to Nikki Clarke, who was at that time BBC World Services Head of Journalism, Africa, Americas, Europe, East and South Asia.
Dear Nikki,

I had made a complaint to the the head of the Bangla service Sabir Mostafa but as the e-mail below shows I am not satisfied with the response and would like someone not involved in the publication of the article to consider my concerns.

I have set these concerns out in a number of e-mails, which I am sure Sabir can forward to you. However they are I think my concerns are perhaps best summarised in this article that I have written about the [BBC] article

It is my view that the [BBC] article needs to be re-written to provide appropriate context and information as well as the removal of the quote from the anonymous intelligence agency
On 11 June 2013, I received the following response
Dear Mr Bergman, 
Thank you for your e-mail. 
I have read both the BBC and the New Age articles carefully and have examined the points you raise in your mail and expand in your link. I don’t think the BBC Bangla article has been successful in reaching the aims that it set out for itself. It was a perfectly proper response to the New Age story to try to find out what the Indian authorities may or may not have known about the allegations of extra judicial transfer in the Sukharajan Bali case. Starting from a detailed review of the original FIR report and speaking to both on and off the record sources at the prison a proper way to start. I accept your point that the Police FIR, is referenced in the original New Age article, but not in as much detail as the BBC piece. There was no intention in the BBC piece to imply that the FIR documents were new information after all they would be available to anyone who sought them out. The BBC was not able either confirm the kidnap/rendition angle of the New Age story nor did it seek to undermine it. As you say we cannot control the interpretation put on the article by other publications. 
You are right about the absence of context. I think that main problem with the story as it appears online is that it assumes too much previous knowledge from the reader. Before the report dealt with what the correspondent in Kolkata had discovered, it should have had a clear outline of what was already in the public domain, including appropriately credited reference to the New Age article. Both pieces were in need of more work before publication. To be absolutely clear both stories should have remained on line, the final version was an updated version and normally would have been a separate story from the original one, unfortunately a technical error was made and the second story over wrote the original, when this error was noted, the background material which had been included in the original was added to the new piece. 
With regard to the issue you raise about the use of a single anonymous Intelligence source. There was confusion in Sabir Mustafa’s original response, the Correspondent referred to sources in their online piece and their information was not based on a single anonymous source. The sources did in fact confirm your report that a message had indeed been sent by Mr Bali to Bangladesh, the difference was in how it had been delivered. The BBC Bengali service story, only reported what the authorities already said they knew and actions they said they had already taken, and they did think the implications of their reporting. 
I do find that your complaint is partially upheld, the piece did need considerably more explanation and context to deliver a clear and full picture to the audience. In this regard it did not meet the Bengali services normal high standards and I have discussed this with the editor. 
If you are not satisfied with my response you have the option of escalating your complaint to Stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process. I have attached the appropriate link to guide you through this. Please be aware you if you wish to take up this option you need to do so within 20 working days of receiving this reply. 
Yours sincerely,
Nikki Clarke.
Head of Journalism, Africa, Americas, Europe, East and South Asia
5th Floor NBH
As you will note, the complaint was partially upheld. It accepted that there was lack of context to the article. However, the BBC did not consider that there was a problem in the use of intelligence sources, asserting, now, that there was more than one source - though it was clear that in the original . The fact that this was simply not accurate is not considered. The complaint also does not respond to a number of other issues that I raised

I had thought of appealing this decision further, but decided that I had spent enough time on this matter. I had made my point.

No comments:

Post a Comment