When ‘Desperate Journey’ Becomes ‘Deadly Journey’

Posted by Michael Getler on

The Republican National Convention had ended a few days earlier and the Democratic National Convention was about to begin. Politics, if that’s what you want to call it, talking heads, truths, half-truths and no-truths filled the air. But before the special coverage of the DNC—via a special collaboration by PBS and NPR—was to start a few hours later, the PBS NewsHour on July 25 ended its regular evening broadcast with a long, tragic dose of the real world.

NewsHour anchor Hari Sreenivasan introduced it this way: “They died horrible deaths. The identities of all but one of them are unknown. And 21 of the 22 will be buried in unmarked graves. They are the victims of a disaster off the Libyan coast last week, when yet another unseaworthy boat, overcrowded with migrants, became a sad statistic to the unscrupulous and cheap traffickers who set them afloat. The immediate aftermath was witnessed and recorded by ‘NewsHour’ special correspondent Malcolm Brabant, who filmed images in this report that, we should warn, some viewers will find upsetting. Malcolm spent two weeks on board a rescue ship that is jointly operated by Doctors Without Borders, known as MSF and SOS Mediterranee. Here’s his third and final report from aboard the ship Aquarius.”

I’ve written about this series before; about the importance to news consumers of the NewsHour’s commitment to international news reporting, something in short supply on the nation’s commercial and even cable networks, and the extraordinary, year-long reporting effort about this continuing tragedy by correspondent Malcolm Brabant. I wanted to write about this new report at the time and to commend the NewsHour and Brabant once again for not only continuing to cover this but also for devoting more than 10 minutes—a big chunk of TV time and also something other networks don’t do—to this segment at the end of their program at a time when no one seemed to be focusing on anything but American politics.

Some things intruded on my writing about this right away, politics high among them. But there was also one question I, and a viewer who wrote to me, and some others who commented on the NewsHour website, had. I felt that was worth going back to Malcolm about and he has responded.

A Troubling Finding

The most staggering fact about this episode is that all 22 people who died under horrible conditions on that unseaworthy vessel were women. All the survivors, the numbers were not mentioned, were men.

What follows below is the full response to me from Brabant to my questions about whether this aspect could have been pursued further in the NewsHour segment or about any further investigations. I should also say that, as I watched, there certainly were attempts by the reporter to find out what happened and that I was subsequently told by the NewsHour that Brabant “is awaiting autopsy results and other information from the Italian authorities and may update the story when or if there is more information about the fate of the women.”

Here Is the Response from Brabant:

“Let me assure you I did everything in my power to try to answer the question: why did the women die? Let me just provide the transcript of the segment of the film, which attempts to answer that question.” 

David, from Nigeria described how the decking on which women were sitting cracked. Shards of wood punctured the thin rubber, and the women were crushed in the panic.

SOT David, Survivor. [SOT means sound on tape] The girls were sitting down inside the center. Then the boys were sitting all around the boat. By the time the plywood got boxed (collapsed), the next thing everyone is running, scattering, running to this side, running to this side, the fuel was mixing with the water, we took buckets, started baling water out of the boat, baling water out of the boat, but the water was still gushing inside.’

SOT Denis Osei from Ghana: ‘I think the rushing of the men to where we were standing, that came by the women. They (the women) were sitting down, and you know, but if you are coming you can stamp on them, (as) you move forward.’

v/o [v/o is Brabant’s voice-over in the film]

Eric Felice, lost his wife Texie in the crush. It happened when salvation appeared on the horizon. But for Texie and the other women, the rescuers were too late.

SOT Eric Felice, widower. ‘As we are approaching the boat, literally we can see water coming through our boat. I call out to my wife, come to this place. That place is ok, ok. I didn’t know. (that she had gone) At the time we see the rescue (boat) I was happy. I went to call my girl, my woman. She’s already dead. It’s finished. 

Q What happened to her. 

A I don’t know, I don’t know.

 v/o

In the small clinic next door to the sanctuary, Dr Erna Rijnierse prepares twenty two death certificates, which she will give to the Italian authorities.

SOT Dr. Erna Rijnierse, Doctors without Borders physician. “People have inhaled fumes, maybe people have fainted, they went under the other ones, they asphyxiated. They died a horrible death, really really bad.’

“In total I interviewed five men from the ‘death’ boat and decided only to use three. Their stories were consistent with the women sitting in the middle of the boat. When the plywood base of the dingy cracked, the women fell into the well of the boat, and as the water came in, the men at the back of the raft rushed forward and, as one witness said, ‘probably’ stomped on the women. This was confirmed by the ship’s physician, Dr Erna Rijnierse, after she had conducted checks on the bodies and had issued death certificates. I was aware she was not a pathologist, but she is a veteran of MSF operations around the world, and I had no reason to doubt her explanations of the cause of death. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have emphasized the point that in the chaos of the water entering the boat and the ensuing panic, it was the physically weakest who succumbed. 

“I think the lack of clarity also comes from the language used by the witnesses. They were using very basic English and did not have the vocabulary to articulate the precise nature of the disaster. And so, despite the attempt to improve the dialogue with captions, some viewers may have found the narrative difficult to grasp.

“Let me assure you that I applied a healthy level of skepticism when talking to the witnesses, as I was anxious to get a proper explanation. And in truth, I was rather frustrated by the answers I received. I was also relying very heavily on MSF as they were collecting testimony and were listening out for discrepancies. And at no time did the crew give any indication of any inconsistencies. In truth I would have liked more time to have interviewed the migrants concerned. But I was rather constrained by the hours of daylight and the ethical guidelines that I was required to sign up to at the start of the voyage. 

“MSF is very protective about its survivors. It insists that close up images of people can only be taken with the subject’s permission. It also requires journalists to allow survivors a certain period of rest and recuperation after a rescue before approaching them. I did not start interviewing survivors until 24 hours after the rescue. And I had to wait until daylight had almost gone on Thursday, July 21, before interviewing Mr. Felice, in the presence of the communications officer.”

Posted on Aug. 5, 2016 at 1:42 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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