Friday, November 7, 2014

Journalists reporting on the numbers of deaths in 1971

How should journalists report on the numbers of those who died in the 1971 war?

This question has again come to the fore
as has run an article in which Shahriar Kabir, a well known activist in support of war crimes trials, has criticized a news piece broadcast on Al Jazeera in their 'Inside Story' series, which stated that between:
'Historians estimate 300,000 to 500,000 were killed in the nine months by Pakistani military and local collaborators.'
Kabir is quoted as saying in response to this
“Any foreign or local media should use official statistics while handling a story as sensitive as this. Three million were martyred, says the government data. .... What is the source of the information they used instead of the official count? These types of information serve the purpose of those who were involved in the genocide.”
He adds that to say this is 'an offence' and 'There is law for distorting information in our country ... I will demand that measures be taken against Al Jazeera under that law.'

There are a number of important points to be said about this article. (Disclosure: I sometimes write for, and appear on Al Jazeera)

1. Attempts to silence people
Increasingly in Bangladesh there is a view that if you do not like what another person says or another person's opinion, then you seek or threaten legal action against that person, or take some other action to silence them.

To preserve freedom of speech and expression, this must come to an end. 

Even if we were to agree with Shahriar that Al Jazeera was wrong, there is no need to threaten legal action. Disagree. That is fine.  Show why you think they are wrong. No problem. But don't attempt to silence other people's opinions.

What articles like this one do - intentionally or not - is to inhibit people discussing matters openly, fearing that they will be the subject of legal action or the subject of the kinds of caricature such as as the one Kabir mentions - servicing 'the purpose of those who were involved in the genocide'.

There is a perfectly legitimate discussion to be had on the numbers who died in 1971.

2. Partial journalism by bdnews/Kabir
Both and Kabir have either not listened to the whole programme or otherwise failed to acknowledge that the presenter of the programme - which the news piece was just a small part - did state that '3 million people' had died in the war. It is unclear why this was omitted from the article.

If there was a criticism to be made of this Al Jazeera programme, it is perhaps its failure to be consistent in dealing with the number of those who died in the war. (Indeed it should be noted that as a participant in the programme, I said, 'The numbers of death are disputed, but very large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, the officials figures are 3 million, very large numbers.' Therefore, a full picture on the numbers of death was presented in the Al Jazeera programme itself)

3. The source for the 300-500,000 killed? 
Bdnews states that when it asked the Al Jazeera correspondant about the source of his figures he sent over a link to this blog. One must assume that this is the relevant link as the page discusses the issue of the numbers of deaths

Now, had actually read this page it would have seen that it discuses 8 different estimates on the numbers of deaths - including that of the government's and of Mofidul Huq of the Liberation War Museum who state that 3 million died - and provide some context about their credibility/accuracy. It does not state its own view as to how many people died or were killed in the war.

The blog page does describe one particular research study, done by the then Cholera hospital (by Lincoln Chen amongst others), as 'Perhaps the most reliable estimate of number of deaths'. This estimated that 500,000 had died as a result of the war - but there were many caveats in that report, which were also noted in the blog, and the blog does not claim that this number is correct. (see here for further discussion of that study, and you can download the whole study here).

Although the reporter makes an acerbic reference to me, I don't know of any other source which pulls together all the research as this page does on this matter - though I am sure that it could be improved.

4. Numbers of what?
In dealing with numbers of those who died in 1971, it is important to be aware that there are different categories of death

- there are civilians murdered by the Pakistani/collaborators 
- there are civilians who died in Bangladesh from war related diseases, hunger etc
- there are civilians who died in India in the camps
- there are those Pakistani solders and Mukti Bahini who died in the course of battle
- there are those Pakistani solders and Mukti Bahini who were were killed after being captured.
- there are Biharis who were killed by the Mukti Bahini

The first three categories are assumed to be the largest. However there is an important distinction between those who were killed, and those who died - those who were killed being a smaller subset of those who died.

These all make up the category of those who died as a result of the 1971 war. Not all of these who died in the war were (a) killed and (b) killed by the Pakistani/collaborators

5. What number should journalists use?
First of all, journalists should be clear whether they are talking about those who were killed and those who died. 

Secondly, journalists do need, if possible, to refer at some point in their reports to the government's official number of 3 million. It is the government's view - and also the Tribunal has repeated this number in its judgements. So it does deserve to be noted simply on that basis. (It is not clear however whether the 3 million figure is the number who are considered to have been killed in the war or more widely to have died as a result of the war)

Thirdly, journalists do need to be aware that there is limited evidential support for the official number - and there are other lower estimates of death undertaken by independent researchers. At the same time, these other figures can also not be entirely relied upon.

On the basis of that evidence, I would suggest that one should say something like: 'Hundreds of thousands of people died in the war, with government estimates as high as 3 million'

Indeed on the Al Jazeera programme which is the subject of the Al Jazeera article, I said:
'The numbers of death are disputed, but very large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, the officials figures are 3 million, very large numbers.'
Of course, bdnews24 did not feel it appropriate to mention that either!


  1. "So perhaps a more appropriate criticism of this Al Jazeera piece is its failure to be consistent in dealing with the number of those who died in the war."

    I don't think that's an appropriate criticism either. The quotes are "Historians estimate 300,000 to 500,000...", and "It(Bangladesh) says around 3 million people were killed". Both of which are actually true statements in that there are historians who estimated that number, and the state of Bangladesh do claim officially that the number is actually 3 million. This is similar to your statement "'The numbers of death are disputed, but very large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, the officials figures are 3 million, very large numbers.'", except that it would have been better for them to have reported the differing figures at the same time rather than one towards the beginning and the other towards the end of the programme. On the contrary, when you say "official" figures are 3 million it may not be clear to all viewers that it is just the official claim of the state of Bangladesh.

  2. @ Anonymous - when you say that the figure of 3 million may be qualified as the official claim of GOB, I want to say that the GOB, judiciary don't want to make that qualification and say that it is a 'settled' number and questions asked or call for an objective review is not tolerated at all - they consider it tantamount to 'treason' And that is the problem.