The segment was part of an episode of the Sveriges Television (SVT) series on media and journalism, Korrespondenterna (‘The Correspondents’). The episode examined propaganda in modern times and used the BBC Niger reports as an example of how the media can shape people’s understanding of events.
The SVT report showcased efforts by a film crew from Norwegian public television to follow up on the 2005 Niger famine, a story first reported by the BBC’s Hilary Andersson in July 2005 following a statement by Doctors Without Borders warning about malnutrition in the country.
The BBC reports generated worldwide attention about the situation in Niger, resulting in widespread media coverage as well as a response from the UN and aid organizations.
Producer Mats Ektvedt from Norway’s TV2 tells SVT reporter Erika Bjerström that his team originally went to Niger to make a film about a failed aid programme.
“We asked about the food catastrophe and no one knew what we were talking about,” he said.
“There was no one who had heard of anyone dying from the famine of 2005.”
Ektvedt and his team then began investigating whether or not it was possible that the 2005 Niger food crisis was a fabrication.
In interviews with experts from the international development community, other journalists, Niger’s prime minister at the time, as well as local farmers from the village of Zinder in Niger where the first BBC reports originated, Ektvedt uncovered evidence to suggest that BBC had misrepresented the facts.
“I’ve never heard of anyone starving to death here,” said one woman from Zinder in the Norwegian documentary “Sultbløffen” (‘The Hunger Bluff’).
“It was tough, but I never saw anyone die of hunger.”
Yet the BBC stories from the time report that thousands of people were dying from starvation in Zinder.
Anneli Eriksson currently chairs the board of Doctors Without Borders’ Swedish chapter. She was working as a nurse in Niger in 2005 for what she said was characterized as a “very serious” situation and saw many children in Zinder die from hunger.
“2005 was an extremely hard year and there were lots of children suffering from malnutrition, and infant mortality was approaching catastrophic levels,” she told The Local.
But Eriksson stopped short of characterizing the situation as an all out famine.
“It wasn’t a famine of catastrophic proportions, but it was a very serious nutritional crisis,” she said.
But Eriksson did not have any outright criticism of the BBC’s reporting, saying she was thankful for the attention it generated.
If the BBC and other media outlets are guilty of anything, Eriksson believes it is a lack of nuanced reporting about the situation.
“The reporting seemed very one-dimensional. It’s either there are no problems or there is a major famine,” she said.
“Clearly, when there is a crisis, reporting can get a bit inflated.”
When confronted with the discrepancies between the Norwegian documentary and the original BBC reports, the British broadcaster has refused to answer questions or offer any explanation and demanded that Ektvedt cut out BBC footage from the documentary, despite the fact that Norway’s TV2 had purchased broadcast rights for the images.
“BBC claims [our investigation] lacks legitimacy. We claim to be posing totally legitimate questions,” said Ektvedt.
SVT also made attempts to arrange an interview with officials from BBC for its Korrespondenterna report, but received only an emailed statement in response.
“BBC News refuted the TV2 allegations unequivocally and we absolutely stand by the validity and professionalism of Hilary Andersson’s reports,” reads the BBC’s statement to SVT, which was also supplied to The Local.
“Reports of crisis in Niger were circulating in the British and international media weeks prior to Hilary’s arrival in the country, so it would have been plain wrong of us not to have examined the story.”
Alex de Waal, a visiting Africa expert from Harvard University, was also interviewed by Ektvedt for the documentary.
He too voiced his suspicions about the 2005 Niger crisis.
“The Niger crisis is an example of how a crisis in an African country is portrayed according to a particular script which doesn’t actually necessarily fit the reality of that crisis,” he said.
Ektvedt said the incident shows the power that respected media outlets and international organizations have in shaping public perception.
“When the BBC, the UN, and Doctors Without Borders are united, then it’s true. It’s by definition true,” he said.
To read the full text of the BBC’s statement to SVT click here.