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UK Press Coverage of Zanzibar Acid Attack Risks Inflaming Religious Tensions

The UK press coverage of the acid attack on two British teens, Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee, both aged 18, is misleading and risks inflaming religious tensions in Tanzania, says Ben Taylor, who blogs about development, politics, the media and Tanzania.

Currently, there are simmering political and religious tensions in Zanzibar. Early this year, a Catholic priest was shot dead and a church set on fire during the Sounds of Wisdom festival, which promotes religious tolerance. Political tensions on the Island mainly revolve around the issues of the Union between Tanganyika (Mainland Tanzania) and Zanzibar. Some people want the Union to be dissolved.

The two teens were attacked in Zanzibar on August 7, 2013, while they were on a volunteering holiday. It is not yet clear if the attack is connected to political and religious tensions on the island.

Ben Taylor's criticism of the UK press centres on reports of the shooting and arrest of radical cleric Sheikh Issa Ponda. Sheikh Ponda, the Secretary of the Council of Islamic Organisation, was injured by a tear gas canister while running away from the police. He is currently at the main hospital in Tanzania, Muhimbili, in Dar Es Salaam.

Almost all leading UK media houses, including The Sun, the Mirror, The Times, Sky News, and The Telegraph, have connected his arrest to the attack on the two teens.

However, a press statement [sw] from the Tanzanian police says that Sheikh Ponda was arrested for inciting violence in his fiery speeches.

A screen shot of Mail Online on Ben Taylor's post.

A screen shot of Mail Online on Ben Taylor's post.

Taylor begins his post by criticising the UK press and giving credit to the Tanzanian press:

The UK media is unsurprisingly following up closely on the story of the two teenage British girls who suffered a horrific attack in Stone Town, Zanzibar. But in their haste to get a good story, and in a situation where the known facts are few, they are making some serious errors.

Yesterday, according to some reports in the Tanzanian media, Sheikh Ponda, a radical Zanzibari cleric, was shot and injured in the town of Morogoro. Some are saying it was the police who shot him, some that unsuccessful attempts were made by the police to arrest him. Other media outlets dispute these “facts”, claiming that he is now in hospital. Overall, and to their credit, the Tanzanian press appears to be responding to uncertainty with caution: being noticeably transparent about facts that are unclear.

What’s more, none (that I have seen) has linked Sheikh Ponda or this reported shooting / attempted arrest to the Zanzibar acid attack.

But look at how the UK media has covered the same story.

He goes on to identify significant errors in the UK press coverage and concludes that:

If I am right, this is pretty disgraceful on the part of the UK press. First, it misleads the families of these two girls by suggesting that progress is being made in tracking down their attackers. Second, and more worryingly, it risks inflaming religious tensions in Tanzania further, on the flimsiest of evidence.

I have seen no evidence that this attack was religiously or politically motivated, and none that it was connected to Sheikh Ponda [an extremist cleric]. It may be that it was, but equally, it may be that it was motivated by something else entirely. Much of the UK press seems to have decided the matter for itself already. They’re not letting the (absence of) facts get in the way of a good story, irrespective of the damage it might do.

He notes that the Director of Public Prosecutions in Tanzania called for Sheikh Ponda's arrest for reasons apparently unrelated to the acid attacks. The DPP said that Ponda disobeyed a lawful court order.

A market stall in Stone Town, Zanzibar, which is one of the most popular sites for tourists. Photo released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Wikipedia user Esculapio.

A market stall in Stone Town, Zanzibar, which is one of the most popular sites for tourists. Photo released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Wikipedia user Esculapio.

Taylor posted an update in the same post the following day August 12, 2013:

The Mirror and Mail have substantially and significantly revised their stories, both posted at the same URL web address as the stories I linked to yesterday. In other words, the previous stories are no longer available.

In the update, he notes that the Mirror withdrew all suggestion that Sheikh Ponda is wanted in connection with the acid attack while the Mail did the same but went as far as to suggest a second possible motive for the attack.

He writes:

Times and Telegraph (twice) have posted new articles that repeat the claim that Ponda is wanted in connection with the attack.

And finally, the Guardian has come in on the story. Their star media commentator, Roy Greenslade, cites this blogpost in questioning whether other UK media may have got it wrong.

A Kenya-based correspondent covering East, West and Central Africa for The Daily Telegraph and East Africa for the Christian Science Monitor, Mike Pflanz (@MikePflanz) spoke to Sheikh Ponda in hospital. He refuted the allegations of inspiring the attack:

One of the two teenagers injured in the attack, Kirstie Trup, has been discharged from hospital. Both will require skin grafts to repair the damage.

Jaf Shah, the executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International is quoted by the New York Times saying that the acid attack appears to be the first such assault on a Western tourist or aid worker in Zanzibar.

According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, there 1,500 cases recorded around the world every year, although the actual figures might be higher. Women and girls are victims in 75-80% of cases. Of the female victims, about 30% are under 18.

This post was proofread in English by Georgi McCarthy.

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