An article reporting systematic ethnic cleansing in the Tigray conflict illustrates potential perils of journalistic overreach.
MARCH 15, 2021| AMJAMES JEFFREY – theamericanconservative
Has the New York Times irresponsibly fed the beast with its attention-grabbing headline and story claiming “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Ethiopia? It appears the “internal United States government report” that is the linchpin of the NYT’s claims may have been far less official and substantial than the paper suggests. Instead, it was an unclassified, routine situation report based on impressions and part of a leaked embassy cable, a Senate aide familiar with the Tigray crisis has said. The NYT’s Feb. 26 article, titled “Ethiopia’s War Leads to Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray Region, U.S. Report Says,” stated:
Fighters and officials from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia, who entered Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,” the report says.The article describes the U.S. government’s report as detailing “in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for,” concluding that the leaked report suggests “Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters”—which means from the Amhara region—”are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.” Without doubt there is a dreadful conflict occurring in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, one which may well be turning into an entrenched insurgency. All the additional mayhem that represents will come on top of more than 110 days of bloodshed and destruction that has already decimated the land and livelihoods of millions of Tigrayans. But the conflict is also increasingly being waged in the nefarious online world of social media. Both the Ethiopian government and its opponents are firing out reams of propaganda and leveraging claims of fake news to suit their own ends. Clearly, the trend for real conflict to develop a digital information war aspect is all but inevitable in our technologically advanced world. But during the last five years of covering Ethiopia, I have noticed, and written about, how Ethiopians—especially the large diaspora in the U.S.—are particularly savvy and active in, and correspondingly susceptible to, the use of social media, both for good and for bad, all of which the NYT article plays into. “The allegation of systematic ethnic cleansing in the U.S. government report, as conveyed by the New York Times, [is] concerning and confusing,” the Amhara Association of America (AAA) said in a statement. AAA is a U.S.-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group. The statement lists a litany of problems it sees with the article, ranging from the mysteriously unspecified nature of the document that is the basis of the article, to questions about what methods were used to substantiate the information in the so-called report and the timeline of the alleged incidents.
“The misleading NYT article painted the Amhara community as committing a horrific act,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America. He noted that assessments by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and various Western media that have managed some ground investigations in the western Tigray areas in question have not reported actions amounting to systematic ethnic cleansing. “It is this type of reporting that has led many Ethiopians to lose confidence in the Western media and analysts that solely depend on Western media.” The AAA clearly has an agenda that is biased toward the Amhara. But the AAA statement raises entirely justifiable concerns, such as that systemic ethnic cleansing is a big claim and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The AAA does not refute that atrocities have occurred, with both Tigrayans and Amhara killed by the other side. But they are right to note that as tragic and repulsive as individual atrocities are, there remains a bar set by the U.S. government for what constitutes ethnic cleansing. Currently, it is simply not established that this has been reached in Tigray. “The misleading reporting by the NY Times has been reproduced by other western outlets and referenced by policymakers,” AAA’s Tewodrose says. “It is now part of the ecosystem and will continue to be a key element of disinformation campaigns unless and until the NYT understands the damage the article has caused and retracts and apologizes to Ethiopians and its general readership. We hope NYT does the right thing and helps heal divisions it intensified among our Ethiopian community.” The AAA explains that one of its main concerns is how the article, as well as the announcement by Blinken, “will sow further divisions in the Ethiopian American community.” As I wrote in an article for The American Conservative in early 2019, when some social media users in America appeared to be stoking ethnic violence in Ethiopia, due to decades of government suppression, Ethiopia’s media landscape is institutionally weak. This means that many Ethiopians seek outside sources for their news, including activists and diaspora-run media in the U.S. It’s a double-edged sword: capable of filling a sore need for more information but also of pushing Ethiopia toward even greater calamity when freedom of expression is abused by media and activists to foment tension and partisanship, even ethnic violence. The anti-Ethiopian government strategy is very social media heavy—especially on Twitter—with supporters encouraged to create new accounts and respond to content about the conflict while also spreading hashtags and tweeting at influential Twitter users. The Ethiopian government, no slouch with online propaganda either, has countered by positioning itself in the role of fact-checker and provider of reliable information, using spurious claims to leverage its position as the voice of reason and accuracy, usurping the job that the media should be doing. The result is an extremely confusing information environment compounded by a general sense of suspicion about the information coming out about the conflict.
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