December 2, 2011

Written by

Chris Woods and Emma Slater
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Press TV claims at least 383 Somali civilians have been killed by US drone attacks.

An Iranian TV station appears to have faked dozens of accounts of US drone strikes in Somalia which it says have killed hundreds of civilians.

Press TV, which was fined £100,000 by Ofcom on Thursday after the station hid the fact that a 2009 ‘interviewee’ was being forcibly detained in Iran, has reported the deaths of more than 1,370 people in drone strikes in Somalia since September this year, of which 383 are categorised as civilians.

But research by the Bureau, published in the Guardian, has found no evidence of the alleged 1,370 fatalities, stemming from 56 claimed drone strikes.

Highly suspect
The first known lethal US drone strike in Somalia occurred on June 23 2011. A small number of similar attacks appear to have taken place since then, possibly in conjunction with operations by the French and Kenyan militaries.

The Pentagon does not comment on drone strikes, so there are no official figures for the numbers of civilian deaths. For years, the US has been carrying out other covert missions in Somalia, but started using armed drones in Somalia in June.

However the number of strikes reported by Press TV are questionable.

On September 15 2011, Press TV reported that US drone attacks on the outskirts of Kismayo town, Somalia, had killed nine women and children.

‘Press TV does have a penchant for exaggeration: in the past they have published conflict reports which, in reality, never occurred.’
Tony Burns, Somali charity SAACID

It was the first of many claims of drone strike civilian deaths in Somalia. No photographic or video evidence has ever been shown in support. At least four reports are identical in all but place name and casualty numbers, and sources are only named in four of the 56 ‘drone strike’ reports.

The Bureau has been unable to identify sources Hassan Ali and Colonel Aden Dheere, described as “Somali military officials” or Mohamud Abdirahman, an “eyewitness”, despite lodging a request with the Somali Government and with Press TV’s Iranian HQ.

Related article: The Press TV claims

No representatives from the UN, Amisom (African Union Mission in Somalia), NGOs or journalists in Somalia were able to confirm the strikes.Tony Burns, director of operations at Somali charity Saacid, which operates from Mogadishu, said that Press TV’s casualty figures are ‘simply not possible’.

‘SAACID’s experience has been that Press TV does have a penchant for exaggeration: in the past they have published conflict reports which, in reality, never occurred, and casualty figures that are simply not true.’

A senior UN official focusing on Somalia agreed, said: ‘Press TV is not a reliable source. It exaggerates and openly fabricates reports.’

Some organisations have, however, repeated Press TV’s claims. The Daily Nation, one of East Africa’s largest newspapers, has carried details of a number of ‘attacks’, for example. Global Research, a Canadian non-profit human rights group, has also given credence to reports.

Click here for the Bureau’s Covert Drone War investigation

While Press TV’s stories have been picked up around the globe, officials at the US embassy in Nairobi insist that the reports are ‘wholly false’. And a senior Pentagon spokesman, Lt Colonel Jim Gregory, told the Bureau that:

‘We cannot provide specific operational details; however we believe in providing timely and accurate information when possible about our activities, and we encourage all international outlets to contact us when they need assistance with their stories.  Regarding Somalia, we are supportive of the African Union Mission there and the Transitional Federal Government efforts as they continue to fight terrorism.’

Propaganda War
Jeremy Scahill of the Nation recently exposed secret CIA operations in Mogadishu. He has spoken publicly about US drones operating in Somalia and elsewhere.

Scahill believed that there could be innocent reasons for the misinformation, including a ‘benign misinterpretation’ of events on the ground amid the chaos. And US attacks with other weapons – including cruise missiles or airstrikes – may be being misreported.

Alternatively the reports could form part of a targeted anti-US news campaign, said Scahill.

‘There is an extreme propaganda war going on between Iran and the US at the moment. You’ve got to assume that everyone has an agenda.’

Asked if Press TV had exaggerated the number of drone strikes in Somalia, a spokesman for Press TV in Tehran yesterday declined to comment.

The Bureau presented its findings to Press TV in Tehran. Mr Barvasad, a senior Producer at the channel, said he had ‘nothing to add’.

OFCOM fine

Exposure of the Iranian TV station’s ‘fake’ reports comes as OFCOM, the UK media watchdog, this week fined the station £100,000. In 2009 Press TV ‘committed a serious breach of the Broadcasting Code’ when it aired an interview with Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist imprisoned in Iran.

Bahari says that he was interviewed under duress for the channel, and was forced to read from a prepared script: facts which Press TV hid from its its UK viewers.

The Bahari interview may not be the sole reason behind OFCOM’s decision. In February 2010, US and British diplomats met in London to discuss ways to ‘circumvent’ Iran’s blocking of western satellite channels. A ‘WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cable revealed that the UK government was looking for ways to limit Press TV’s UK operations.

Direct contact

An insider with knowledge of the Bahiri affair told the Bureau this week that the FCO has been in direct contact with OFCOM regarding Press TV  – something which the regulator is unhappy with.

‘OFCOM doesn’t like the Government being in touch with them on casework. Such action can make them look bad regardless of which way a decision goes.’

The source insisted, however, that the decision to fine Press TV was less linked to governmental pressure and more to do with ongoing fallout from the News International scandal. The regulator intends to crack down on all absentee landlords, the source said.

The regulator is also insisting that Press TV name on its licence the Tehran-based figure who actually controls its UK-based operations, instead of the ‘stooges’ currently named. If the channel fails to do so – as some suspect – Press TV may soon be off the air in Britain.

Additional research by David Pegg.