Dead-elephants saga exposes bias of western media – and govt’s crisis unpreparedness

10 Sep 2018

When Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana and United States-registered NGO put out the controversial statement about some 87 elephants having been killed by poachers since May on Monday night, the western media lapped it up.

By Tuesday morning, major international news outlets like CNN, BBC, Washington Post and The Guardian were running the story, setting off a tidal wave of outrage from westerners. These outlets reach hundreds of millions around the world. Probably having the story on BBC, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, released a statement via her official Twitter account. Not being Donald Trump she was very diplomatic in her choice of words but one could tell that she genuinely believed that a large-scale massacre of elephants had indeed happened.

The most basic knowledge of journalism should have set alarm bells ringing about EWB’s report which all channels regurgitated. Firstly, it didn’t quote any Botswana official. For that reason, the story failed to meet a golden standard in journalism – balance, which in turn affects the other two related standards: fairness and accuracy. Secondly, for a report that alleged that 87 elephants had died, photographic evidence was in the form of only three supposedly dead elephants. However, those anomalies didn’t stop international media from running the story all day - and westerners from flooding the Botswana government’s Facebook wall with angry commentary and declarations of blackmail.

When the government did finally “inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading”, it was more than 12 hours later. One would have expected western media to meet a standard that it set itself by giving this rebuttal as much publicity as it did the EWB but that didn’t happen. As late as Friday evening, when Sunday Standard went to press, the government’s rebuttal had been published by very few media outlets, most of them African. Not a single one of the websites of major international outlets that had been over-eager to run EWB’s report had accorded the government the right of reply – which responsible journalism requires. As far as the massive audience that these outlets reaches – which feat the Botswana government cannot match – the EWB report is true because the government has not rebutted it. 

However, the government itself didn’t help its case by treating what is undoubtedly a crisis as an issue. But supposing it treated the publication of the EWB report as a crisis, the government failed to observe standard crisis management protocols. The ideal crisis response time is the first hour after a crisis occurs. Such promptness enables a party to regain control of the situation by setting the record straight and eliminating speculation that may damage its reputation. What the government did instead was take that hour and stretch it to more than half a day, thus heightening the possibility of long-term reputational damage that will definitely cost hundreds of millions of pula to repair. On the basis of what EWB alleges, some westerners are threatening to boycott Botswana’s tourism, which will definitely force the government to launch an expensive PR offensive on a global scale. The message coordination was as wanting because while the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, confirmed to a French news agency, the slaughter that his Permanent Secretary, Thato Raphaka, denied in the government’s rebuttal.

For what it is worth, a London-based pressure group, Survival International, is uncharacteristically backing the Botswana government. Late afternoon Friday, SI’s Communications Director, Jonathan Mazower, told Sunday Standard that his organisation was trying to publicise the Botswana government’s statement that EWB’s story about the large-scale slaughter of elephants by poachers is false and misleading.

He added: “We’re dismayed by how few of the major media outlets have corrected their story, or reported that there are now serious questions being asked about its accuracy. We believe they have a duty to report that there are now credible doubts both about the original story, and about the motivations of those who first pushed it. We’ve urged them to publish corrections or retractions, and are still working to get them to do so.”