Revelations that Iranian broadcaster Press TV is most likely fabricating multiple reports of alleged U.S. 'drone strikes' in Somalia will do little to bolster the channel's already tattered reputation. And its actions could impede those trying to hold the U.S. to genuine account for its covert war on terror.
According to Press TV's own publicity its 'global Tehran-based headquarters is staffed with outstanding Iranian and foreign media professionals.' But some accuse the station of being little more than a propaganda outlet for elements of the Iranian regime.
Last week the British media regulator Ofcom fined the station $150,000 [£100,000] after Press TV hid from UK viewers the fact that an 'interview' it carried was with a journalist being held against his will in Tehran, who was forced to read from a prepared statement.
Now Press TV's reporting in Somalia is under scrutiny. The station claims there have been at least 56 strikes by 'U.S. assassination drones' since September, which have killed more than 1,370 people -- hundreds of them civilians.
Yet a major study by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (where I lead a team looking at the U.S. covert war on terror) has found no supportive evidence.
We've spoken with the UN, with the rump Somali government, with aid agencies on the ground, with journalists, with U.S. diplomats and with the Pentagon. Not a single source can independently confirm any single attack. As far as we can tell, Press TV's reports of drone strikes are false. In the words of one senior United Nations official: 'Press TV is not a reliable source. It exaggerates and openly fabricates reports.'
By November, the TV station had become so complacent that it began cutting and pasting village names and casualty numbers into pre-prepared copy. At least four reports state identically, apart from casualty numbers and location, that:
'Somali tribal elders, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Press TV that the remote-controlled aerial vehicles fired several missiles at X village...'
Certainly many people are dying in Somalia as a result of ongoing chaos. It may be that some or even most of the reported casualties were killed in some form of violence. But U.S. drones do not appear to have been the cause.
Why does this matter? Well, the U.S. does carry out drone strikes in Somalia. And there is credible evidence of U.S. Special Forces operating inside Somalia for the past eight years. Multiple U.S. attacks (for example using airstrikes, cruise missiles or ground operations) have killed alleged militants. And from June 2011, the U.S. added armed drones to its regional arsenal -- with a small number of lethal strikes so far identified.
The U.S. target is militant organization al-Shabab, which controls much of the centre and south of the country. According to the Pentagon, the group is increasingly collaborating with Al Qaeda in nearby Yemen. Both countries have seen a marked rise in U.S. covert attacks in recent months.
President Obama is moving away from the recent U.S. model of tens of thousands of occupying troops on the ground. Instead elite Special Forces and the CIA -- backed by an ever-growing fleet of lethal drones -- will project U.S. force.
Yet these covert operations are still officially denied. There is no public accountability -- and precious little evidence of private accountability either. When NATO forces bombed two Pakistani military posts recently an inquiry was ordered. We will learn at least something of the truth.
But when a CIA or Special Forces drone strike kills civilians, as does happen, we hear nothing. No compensation has ever been paid to victims. No inquiry has ever been held that we are aware of.
Credible journalism is crucial if we are to hold those fighting the covert war to account. Every time Press TV issues another lazy claim of 'dozens killed by a U.S. assassination drone', it reduces accountability by further obscuring the evidence.
Chris Woods is a senior reporter at the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He has covered multiple conflicts throughout the world.