By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post
The New York Times has sparked an international incident by publishing an op-ed article under the byline of a foreign official who never agreed to it, according to his supporters.
The newspaper this week blundered into the bloody politics of South Sudan, the fledgling east African nation, by posting a column ostensibly written by that country’s president and first vice president, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, respectively. The column argues for an internal, government-led “truth and reconciliation” commission to investigate atrocities stemming from South Sudan’s two-year civil war rather than an international war-crimes tribunal that was part of a peace agreement brokered by the United States and Great Britain last year.
Only one problem: Machar’s supporters say that he didn’t sign on to the editorial and doesn’t agree with it. They suggest the Times was effectively hoodwinked by Kiir’s faction into running the column with his name on it.
The newspaper on Saturday added an editor’s note to the column acknowledging that Machar “disavowed the contents, saying that he had not been consulted about the essay, which was submitted by representatives of Kiir. The president’s spokesman maintains that Machar had been consulted before the essay was written.”
Kiir and Machar were allies in the long struggle for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, which concluded in 2011. But they were rivals in the internal struggle that followed that war. The civil war left as many as 300,000 people dead and displaced more than 1.5 million.
Both Kiir and Machar and their supporters potentially face trials for human-rights abuses under an international court supervised by the African Union. Both men agreed to support such a court when they signed the peace settlement last summer.
But their Times column argued the opposite. The international court will “destabilize efforts to unite our nation by keeping alive anger and hatred among the people of South Sudan,” it said, adding ominously, “It is easy to see how some people, having known nothing but war, may prefer to return to the battlefield than stand trial in a foreign country.”
The Times acknowledged Thursday that it couldn’t verify that one of the two authors — Machar — actually had anything to do with the column.
“This piece came to us through representatives of the government of South Sudan with assurances that they were working on behalf of both President Kiir and Vice President Machar,” Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Today we learned that Vice President Machar does not agree with the content of the op-ed. We should have sought direct confirmation of the argument of the piece from both parties.”
The newspaper said that it had learned of Machar’s displeasure through the newspaper’s foreign desk and that it had sought direct comment from Machar.
Newspapers such as the Times and The Washington Post routinely receive proposed columns from government officials and others through intermediaries. In this case, the Times said it received assurances from a third party, which it didn’t identify, that it represented both the president and vice president of South Sudan. “In retrospect,” said one Times official, “we obviously should have taken it a step further” and verified that both men gave their assent.
A senior official in the South Sudanese embassy in Washington, Gordon Buay, said the article was “authentic” and had the approval of the two leaders,according to Radio Tamazuj, a South Sudanese broadcaster and news service. But a spokesman for Machar, James Gatdet Dak, said the column was false and disavowed it, according to the station.
In a speech at the United Nations on Thursday, David Pressman, the U.S. representative for special political affairs, said he was surprised and disappointed by the editorial. “As we have seen in countless other settings after widespread violence, reconciliation and justice are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive,” he said. “And that is precisely why both are included in the August 2015 peace agreement, and it is precisely why the United States will continue to make every effort to both support the African Union in its establishment of the hybrid court.”