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Thursday, May 30, 2002

Dan Rather Duped on Sudanese Slavery

By Lawrence Morahan
CNSNews.com Senior Staff Writer

A coalition of civil rights groups calling for an end to slavery in Sudan attacked a recent CBS News report that questioned the effectiveness and authenticity of slave redemptions in the Muslim-governed country.

The May 15 report on "60 Minutes II," which was hosted by news anchor Dan Rather, was incomplete at best, they said.

"It was disappointing that whoever wrote the story never even cared to indicate whether CBS acknowledges the very existence of slavery," said Abdon Agaw Nhial, vice president of the Sudanese Human Rights Organization, in a letter to the show's producer.

"By this report, CBS has created the unmistakable impression that the resurgence of the scourge of slavery does not bother them at all," Nhial wrote CBS producer Jeff Fager.

The report highlighted a transaction by John Eibner, an official with Christian Solidarity International (CSI), who reportedly paid about $50 each for approximately 400 Sudanese men, women and children to secure their freedom from slave traders.

Rather, reporting from the studio, interviewed Jim Jacobson, a former slave redeemer, who called the scene "a circus," and "a staged event."

Jacobson said commanders of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army had previously duped him by rounding up village children and trying to pass them as slaves who could be redeemed for money.

Carol Bellamy, a United Nations official, told Rather that paying for slaves tended to exacerbate the problem of fake slaves being offered.

The CBS report was one of several to appear recently in establishment media outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, alleging that fake slaves were being used by slave traders to collect redemption money.

A CBS spokeswoman said the Rather report "was both fair and accurate."

But civil rights workers, while admitting there is evidence of abuse in slave redemption programs, strongly challenged assertions that the practice is widespread. They also criticized the news coverage.

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, said the media were practicing a "herd instinct" when it came to reporting on Sudan.

"Once The New York Times takes a position, everybody stampedes as a herd in the elite media, and Dan Rather's part of the herd now. There's no independent journalism here. He did not do his own investigation. He just repeated what others had done," Shea said.

Nhial said, "It was astonishing that a highly regarded TV journalist like Dan Rather could allow himself to render an armchair report on an issue which he had studiously avoided despite specific invitations by CSI to witness one such redemption process."

"Slavery in Sudan is not a scam," Rev. Henry Chuir Riak, a bishop with the Episcopal Church of Sudan, wrote Fager. Not only are Sudanese families being reunited as a result of John Eibner's work, "but the freed slaves are a true testimony to what the government of Sudan is doing to us in southern Sudan," he said.

In an op-ed piece for The Washington Times, commentator Nat Hentoff also criticized Rather for not going to Sudan to interview former slaves, village chiefs or black clergy for his report.

"The American Anti-Slavery Group and Solidarity International, who rescue slaves, have not been duped," Hentoff said. "Dan Rather was duped."

The media's focus on fake slave redemptions undermines the real problem of slavery in Sudan, civil rights groups allege. They say slavery is not only condoned and tolerated by the fundamentalist Muslim government in Khartoum, but is organized by that entity against the mostly Christian population in the south.

This has been documented by numerous international agencies, including the U.S. State Department, the civil rights activists said.

"Government militias, armed by the government," capture Christians for slavery, according to Shea. "This is a counter-revolutionary strategy carried out by the government." And redemptions are "the only means of rescuing slaves offered by the international community that works. Some may be frauds but many, many are real slaves who are being freed," she added.

Charles Jacobs, president of American Anti-Slavery Group, said white people who make up the human rights communities, act quickly when they see evil being done by other white people, as in the case of South Africa during apartheid and in Bosnia.

"But when decent white people see evil done by non-whites, they choke. They're paralyzed in part because they feel they could be accused of being hypocrites," said Jacobs, who says he witnessed the redemption of more than 2,900 slaves in Sudan in March 2001.

This factor undermines the principle of a universal standard of human rights and abandons people who have the unfortunate fate of having non-white oppressors, said Jacobs.

"If you want to determine where the human rights world acts, you don't ask who the victim is, you ask who the oppressor is," Jacobs said.

If the oppressor is Arab or is associated with Islam, people are wary because they don't wish to be called anti-Arab or anti-Islamic bigots, Jacobs added. Moreover, he said, the Arab League has declared it is an insult to Islam to say there is slavery in Sudan.

"The slavery issue is the one thing that keeps this Sudan thing from being handled in the normal diplomatic way," according to Jacobs.

More than two million people have died in the past 20 years from the civil war and resulting famine in Sudan. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who acted as special envoy to Sudan, earlier this year held talks with Khartoum and the main opposition group, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLA).

Those talks ended with President Omar Bashir refusing to permit international observers to determine whether the aerial bombing of civilian areas in the south had stopped. The Sudanese leader did offer to suspend the attacks temporarily.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 people from the south have been enslaved by forces of the regime in the north and sold into slavery in other countries, such as Libya, human rights groups report. Since he began his work in 1995, Eibner said he has freed about 60,000 slaves.

E-mail a news tip to Lawrence Morahan.

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