By Tessema Ijjigu and Mekonnen Haile
The western media’s reporting on the conflict in northern Ethiopia has been unbalanced and consistently biased against Ethiopia. This should come as no surprise. It is characteristic of how the West treats developing countries, especially when they are acting in their own national interest
The general outline of the western media’s vilification of Ethiopia is: that the conflict is due to the provocative arrogance of the Ethiopian government; that the Ethiopian government has attacked innocent civilians, its own Tigrean people; that the TPLF is legitimately defending itself against the central government; that the TPLF is more sinned against than sinning; that the Ethiopian government would not resolve the conflict using peaceful and diplomatic means prior to the outbreak of hostilities; that the Ethiopian government callously rejected negotiations after the outbreak of hostilities; that Ethiopia is gambling its reputation and leadership in the African Union; that Ethiopia is destabilizing the whole region; and that PM Abiy probably should not have been recognized as a man of peace.
Why this unfairness?
On November 25, BBC Monitor tweeted a quote falsely attributed to PM Abiy Ahmed. The BBC Monitor tweet said: “Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed says the military operation to oust the authorities in Tigray state ‘will not stop, no matter who dies’, as federal troops brace for an onslaught on the regional capital, Mekele.” The tweet was taken down 4 hours later (as announced by “Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check”). On Nov. 27, BBC Monitor posted : “We have deleted an earlier tweet on Ethiopia which was based on a video clip broadcast on Fana TV this morning which we misreported. We are reviewing what went wrong and offer our sincere apologies for the error.” The “not our fault” finger-pointing against Fana was rather pitiful. And though the admission was welcome, the damage was done. “No matter who dies” is not the kind of language that PM Abiy is inclined to use. They should have double and triple-checked Fana as the report does not pass the smell test. But the BBC hastily posted it.
Foreign Policy had an article on November 14, “Sudan Will Decide the Outcome of the Ethiopian Civil War”. The FP article is filled with grossly exaggerated figures. The article is a thinly-veiled propaganda intended to sway the opinion of policy makers in the U.S. establishment who are indisposed to thinking for themselves.Further, the sensational, emotive language FP uses makes it clear that it is not even interested in the poise of journalistic objectivity. An example: “Both Abiy and Issais….have a bloodlust for the TPLF.” “Bloodlust” is the language of cheap romance novels.
FP lacks the polish of the older, more established, vastly more reputable media services. Without seeming to, they violate every single rule of logic and journalistic integrity. They are uninterested in reporting the facts of the ongoing crisis in northern Ethiopia. They are uninterested in informing their readers’ opinions in any kind of truthful way. And they are ignoring Ethiopia’s sovereign to the point of contempt.
The western media is doing little to no investigative reporting. It does not even try to give a complete picture of the conflict. It has not looked carefully at the role that the TPLF has played in the Ethiopian problem.
What explains this failure?
The BBC is an interesting case in point. It is the most reputable news organization in the world, a model organization that has been at the forefront of good journalism for the better part of a century. Thanks to the BBC, a British accent is the standard of quality and reliability for reporting the world over.
The reason for the BBC’s unfairness to Ethiopia is that its fidelity to British national interest is much greater than its fidelity to objective journalism. The BBC’s slant may be unconscious, but it is there: to view the world through the prism of British national interest. This fidelity to the national interests of their own countries over their fidelity to good journalism is true of most of the western media. This is why the western media has been so predictably negative against Ethiopia. Ethiopia is at war to preserve its sovereign integrity. By definition, this places it against the overreaching interests of the powerful nations.
This nationalistic priority coupled with the “enormous freedom” of the western press means that it will present a highly distorted picture of any complex current situation.
In a 1978 speech at Harvard, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave a trenchant critique of the western media: “[The western media is primarily concerned] not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers…or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? It hardly ever happens … A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist usually always gets away with it. …One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.”
“Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids…and none of them will ever be rectified…How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification…. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it…. the press has become the
greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? ….”
“Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis [on] those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend…There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices [from developing countries] cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”
This “self-deluding interpretation” by the western media goes into overdrive when a developing nation acts vigorously in its own sovereign interest, even within its own borders. At such times, the vilification that portrays the developing nation as a halfway house of thwarted adults who are a danger to themselves, to their neighbors, and to the global family of nations, becomes hysterical.
China and Russia are a little enigmatic at the moment. But it is naive to expect that they will be much nicer to the developing nations than the old colonial powers. They too will act in their own interests. If their interests don’t align with the interests of the other great powers, then Ethiopia will benefit from them.
Right now, the BBC has Ethiopia surrounded by news services in Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Tigre, and Somali. Why this solicitude?
How would Britain–how would the BBC–have felt about such solicitude from the Russians or the Chinese, were Britain being racked with one of its periodic outbreaks of ethnic nationalistic violence in Northern Ireland, if bombs had been killing British civilians and soldiers in Belfast or in London? Or if Britain were holding its breath during one of those periodic rumblings of nationalism from Scotland, when the Scots were debating staying or leaving? Or even, God forbid, ethnic nationalism in relatively peaceful Wales?
How would the BBC feel about unctuous moralizing by the news organizations of powerful nations? If they were to tread all over Britain’s sovereign prerogatives, pretending to know and care more about Britain’s situation than Britain does, oversimplifying complex issues to the point of outright lies, and slanting their reporting to aid those elements working to break Britain apart? How would the BBC like the powerful media of powerful nations to mock Britain’s convulsions? What would the BBC think of foreign media deviously feigning solidarity with Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, or Scottish nationalist, and made broadcasts to stir the ethnic nationalities of their citizens in the various Celtic languages of the islands: Welsh, or Irish and Scottish Gaelic? If they were to play traditional Celtic songs to rouse the ethnic, and interview historians about the injustice that the Celtic aboriginals have suffered at the hands of the Germanic English? A Cockney accent, or any British accent other than the RP, would make a nice substitute for the lead presenters.
The British are old hands at subtlety and intrigue though hardly the only ones whose predatory instincts are aroused when developing nations start bleeding internally.
After the collapse of the USSR and the removal of Mengistu’s regime, Ethiopia received good press as an exemplary junior. It was a pleasing African nation to the west because it was behaving well economically, but stayed weak and divided nationally. It got top billing as an African miracle, an up-and-coming star.
Ethiopia was held up as an adult nation in the making.
But since early November, when the Ethiopian government finally reacted to the unrelenting provocations and violent attacks of the TPLF, the narrative has been spinning against Ethiopia. The gloves have come off. P.M. Abiy’s Nobel did not suffice to keep him in the traces. So now, the Nobel is being questioned.
There has been hand wringing and second guessing about the Ethiopian prime minister’s character: “perhaps he is not a man of peace as we thought? Perhaps he does not deserve this great recognition?” This steady storm of media abuse against Ethiopia would be laughable, being so naked. But this is no laughing matter.
The western media weaponizes its journalism against non-client nations by using the Trojan Horse of humanitarian concern. Not just western news organizations, but often their humanitarian non-governmental entities have been unwitting agents in this game of patronizing and vilifying developing nations behind the shield of humanitarian advocacy and concern.
The Asian nations are fast escaping this peculiar ghettoization. But African nations forsaking their assigned orbits will continue to be battered by the western press. The scramble for Africa is ongoing. In every conceivable way, the powerful, organized nations will continue to treat the African people and their governments as mere inconveniences and obstacles to their own self-enrichment. Africa is the last great imperial frontier.
Right now, Ethiopia is experiencing this Orwellian onslaught.
In the 19th century Leopold II, powerless prince of a just-born nation, used humanitarian concern as his Trojan horse. He fooled widows and spinsters who sent him money from as far away as America. He outwitted fearsome lions like Bismarck, experienced colonial nations like Britain and France, and the whole European corps of diplomats and ministers. He charmed them into docility.
Right from underneath the noses of these hard men, Leopold carved out the Congo, the largest and richest piece of the big African chocolate pie for which the great European nations were scrambling. He won this huge, impossibly rich territory without an army or treasury. He used magic. His chant: “I want nothing but to help the Africans.” It is perhaps the greatest example of wizardry in the history of colonialism.
It proved irresistible, the saintly, crusading concern of this 19th century Albert Schweitzer who wanted to save the naked Africans from benighted savagery–to save them from themselves!!–and transform their lives with the light of Europe’s enlightenment, charmed his opponents into docility.
Leopold went on to unleash the first true holocaust of the 20th century. No one knows how many millions of Africans were slave-driven, beaten, shot and hacked to death in the bloodbath of the Belgian Congo.
Leopold’s two-faced inhumanity created the first international outcry against genocide. Mark Twain, the great American writer, was a leading voice. Leopold’s genocide is directly responsible for planting the seeds of the recent genocides in Rwanda and Burundi.
But with the enormous wealth he plundered, Leopold helped to rapidly establish the state of Belgium, which is now the seat of the EU. He helped give Belgium a secure place under the European sun.
Self-interest is very real and hard. But so is the suffering of the innocent. Ethiopia, and despite their protestations all nations, no matter their extenuating circumstances, desperately need accountability. Especially during war, which even when unavoidable and justifiable, is disastrous.
The western media know this. But they are ruthlessly squandering this great responsibility.
To cry “wolf” without separating the false wolf of their cynical self-interest from the real wolf of humanitarian disaster makes the western media not just cynical. It makes them active agents of injustice.
This is because their cynical manipulation hardens the governments of the developing nations. The governments of developing nations like Ethiopia can easily see they are being abused and manipulated. They become suspicious and they close off, even towards the non-governmental agents that may be sincere. And rightly so. War is war, after all. Inter arma enim silent leges. “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”
Given this reality, it is a credit to PM Abiy Ahmed’s government that the effort to give the UN a toehold in Tigrai is already underway.
Alas. The western media will not change. It will continue to behave unfairly.
Our focus must be on making Ethiopians, and fair-minded people the world over, aware of the failure of the western media. Ethiopians, especially the coming generations, will continue to face this gauntlet. They must not give much credence to the astrologizing and prejudicial treatment of the western media.
At critical times like the one we are in now, Ethiopians are alone in dealing with the “pitiless crowbar of events.” There will be no mediation from the news organizations of the powerful nations. It must not be looked for. In fact, as they are now doing, the media of the powerful nations must be expected to attack Ethiopia. Ethiopians must not be disappointed by this, far less disoriented. They must maintain a courageous, clear-eyed and vigilant stance against these hard-hearted purveyors of topical truth.
Ethiopians, like their ancestors, should not be surprised by the predatory adventures of the self-interested foreigner. Ethiopians must not expect anyone to do for them what they must do for themselves.
But Ethiopians should never retreat inside a xenophobic shell. They just need to be alert and pragmatic about how the game is played, particularly during such critical moments. They must take heart from their own exertions when they find the game rigged, as it is. Neither look for, nor despair about, fairness from the western nations or their media.
Soon enough, the nations today working for Ethiopia’s dissolution will tomorrow be her friends and allies again.
We wish to make an emphatic distinction between the western governments and their media on the one hand, and western people on the other. The governments of the western democracies are arguably “of, by and for the people.” But the foreign policies of the governments, when ill-informed and ruthless, fail to represent the will or the interests of their own people. Neither does the western media when it is a blatant tool of national interest. This article is not about the people of the West.
Westerners from every walk of life have given their time, genius and lives, to helping people all over the world, Ethiopia significantly included. Sir Winston Churchill, Brigadier Sandford, Colonel Wingate and the Pankhursts–Sylvia, and Drs. Richard and Alula–and Dr. Edward Ullendorf, are just a few of the countless many Britons who have done so much for Ethiopia. Westerners have been teachers, advisors, mentors, doctors, bankers, war allies, missionaries and friends to Ethiopia. They have taken many tens of thousands of Ethiopians into their own lands to learn, to live and prosper, to marry, and to die. They have long done extraordinary work for Ethiopia and her citizens. She owes them all a great debt which can only be repaid with her deep, unending gratitude and friendship.
In concluding, a note of gratitude to the many Ethiopians, at home and abroad, who for many years have quietly labored to bring change. They have steadily agitated, to inform and encourage their compatriots, to resist and to give voice to the issues, and to shine a light on the underlying problems. May others take their place.
This article is dedicated to them.