Roadmaps should guide us, including through Sudan

Sudan may be hard for geography-challenged Americans to find on a map, but Reuters — one of the largest news organizations — is an old hand at world coverage.

Unfortunately, Reuters presents more of a puzzle than a map in its update on the case of Mariam Yahya Ibrahim, who has been desperately trying to escape Sudan with her husband, her child and her life.

As you may remember, the militantly Islamic government of Sudan accused Ibrahim of deserting Islam for Christianity and for marrying an American Christian man. Her original sentence was 100 lashes for “adultery,” then execution for “apostasy.”

On June 23, an appellate court overturned the decision, and the family prepared to leave the country — only to have security agents re-arrest her at the airport in Khartoum. Now let’s see how well Reuters follows up.

Well, the story gets mushy right out of the gate:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese authorities and U.S. officials in Khartoum are negotiating to allow a Sudanese woman, who married an American and was recently spared the death penalty for converting to Christianity, to leave Sudan, sources close to the case said.

Not exactly. As CNN and other media report, Ibrahim has stated that she was raised Christian and never professed Islam.

Another puzzle in the story: Why were she and her family staying at the U.S. embassy? Reuters says:

Her lawyer Mohaned Mostafa said Ibrahim, her husband and two children had all been staying at the U.S. embassy in Khartoum since her release, which was granted on the condition that Ibrahim remains in Sudan.

The Irish Independent explains that one: “She headed to the embassy for fear of ‘assault’ either by relatives or angry residents, according to her lawyer, ElShareef Ali Mohammed.” (Of course, this raises another question of how many lawyers she has.)

Puzzle 3: Where were Ibrahim and her family going? In one place, the story says her release was granted on the condition that she remain in Sudan. In another, it says negotiations were aiming to get her out of Sudan on a Sudanese passport. In still another, it says: ” A U.S. spokeswoman said on Thursday before Ibrahim’s release that Ibrahim had all the documents she needed to travel to the United States.”

Finally: Why was Ibrahim considered an apostate? Says Reuters:

Despite lifting her death sentence after huge international pressure, Sudan still does not acknowledge Ibrahim’s new identity as a Christian South Sudanese because it does not recognise her marriage. Muslim women are not permitted to marry Christian men under the Islamic laws that Sudan applies.

Why aren’t Muslim women allowed to marry Christian men? The reasons do get complicated. According to a 2011 fatwa by Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, it has to do with the power to convert.

El Fadl’s two main reasons are that (1) children are assumed to be the religion of the father, and (2) Islamic law forbids a husband trying to force her wife to become Muslim, but Jews and Christians have no such stricture. Therefore, Muslim women must never have to deal with this dilemma. (The whole reasoning is based on the assumption that the husband is the “stronger” partner, more likely to convert than to be converted.)

OK, explaining all that would add bulk. Reuters probably wanted to market the story for print. For the online version of the story, though, the news service could have linked to some site like El Fadl’s.

So that’s four hanging questions in a mere 457 words. I’m tempted to say that this is what happens when media staffs are cut to the bone, but this story was produced by three writers and two editors. Then again, it was probably one of several stories in their workload.

Reuters may also be laboring under a length limit, like the Associated Press announced in May. Newspapers likewise have shrunk their news space: In 2012, my last year at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, 490 words was the limit for most articles.

Still, news should get us nodding our heads, not scratching them. News holes and readers’ attention may be shrinking, but the mission of news organizations hasn’t changed. They are meant to inform and explain. To give answers, not keep us guessing. To make maps, not puzzles.

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About Jim Davis
  • Brett

    Part of the problem could be that there are different factions and power structures within the Sudanese government that are using the family for their own ends against each other. Thus the different reporters talk to different groups and each pushes its own particular viewpoint and agenda, leaving us with a disconnected story.

    Part of the problem could also be that some dim sense of awareness has penetrated some of these gangs of medievalists that a significant percentage of the part of the world that gives them money doesn’t think that one’s religious status is a capital crime, or that beating the mother of a pre-schooler is an acceptable way to act. In order to make certain that the foreign aid spigot doesn’t turn off, they will now speak as reasonably as they are capable of doing and ignore earlier statements. Again, reporters receive conflicting messages.

    And shame on the “Irish Independent” for putting “safety” in scare quotes in the headline and treating “assault” in the same way in the story. Ms. Ibrahim was under a death sentence from a government whose guarantee of protection of basic human rights has been risible for years; there is no question she is justified in fearing for her safety. Given the Sudanese government itself insists she is an apostate, the possibility of mob violence against her by those who accept that view and its consequent punishment is real and would very likely constitute more than an assault.

    • Jim Davis

      The conflicting messages may well be the situation, Brett. Other media mentioned speculation that Sudan is run both by civil and Sharia law. Also that the security service is trying to flex its muscle and show it’s relevant. But it’s still the job of editors to edit. One of them should have seen the discrepancy and held the story until it was resolved.

      I hadn’t thought of the “scare quotes” in the Independent piece, but you may be right. I was thinking mainly of the danger of Ibrahim being attacked by civilians. But as you say, the danger is more than theoretical.

      • Brett

        Jim — Yes, the editing was sloppy/lazy. At the very least maybe including the note about the different interest groups to point out a reason for the contrasting stories.


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