By Worku Aberra
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) won a major victory against the Abiy government on February 15. The renegade bishops returned to the church and the government relented. Abiy Ahmed tried to control the church, but thanks to the far-sighted leadership of the church and the perseverance, dedication, and sacrifices of its members, the church prevailed. It’s a victory that highlighted the unity of the Ethiopian people across all regions, ethnic groups, and religious denominations. It is a victory for all Ethiopians to celebrate.
On February 12, the Abiy government prevented followers of the EOC from attending church services, violating their fundamental right to worship. That date will go down in history as one of the darkest days in Ethiopia. No government in Ethiopia has ever stopped worshippers from attending religious services. The Abiy government stands out for its infamy. It will always be remembered for its brutality. History will not be kind to Abiy Ahmed for his government’s intimidation, beating, imprisonment, and killing of EOC members. Their crime? Wearing black clothes, heeding the advice of their Abuna, praying in and around their churches, holding candlelit vigils, rejecting government control of their church.
The church, historians tell us, is the institution with the broadest support, the largest members, and the most influence in Ethiopia. Its victory against the government testifies to that reality. The relationship between the church and the state has been complex. Rulers have sought the validation of the church for their legitimacy, and the church has directly or indirectly granted its blessings for one or the other faction of the elite, while the clergy, particularly the hermits, have stood for justice. The EOC is committed to Ethiopia’s sovereignty and national unity, a stand that irks separatists.
Abiy Ahmed wants more than support from the church; he would like to impose his political agenda on the church. He wants to control the church, to instrumentalize it for his authoritarian rule and for achieving his political project. And the victory doesn’t mean that he has abandoned his plan. Imprudent as he is, he may strike at the opportune moment, but the church is ready to fight back.
The Silence of the US Media
During the past two weeks, Ethiopia had been rocked by large-scale peaceful demonstrations against the government’s attempt to control the church. The breadth and depth of the resistance to the government plan was unprecedented. The all-inclusive movement rejected ethnicism, the state ideology of Ethiopia since the 1991, to the disappointment of ethnicist politicians.
The historical significance of the protests of millions was evident, and yet the US media chose to ignore it. Reuters reported on February 10 that the government restricted access to social media platforms. Its coverage focused on the restriction and side stepped the main event, the people’s resistance. It also distorted the issue by saying the conflict was between two factions of the EOC, between the splinter group and the main church, whereas the conflict was between the government and the church.
Reuters, AP, and Aljazeera reported that the TPLF leaders and government officials, led by Abiy Ahmed, met on February 3, an inconsequential event that was, in fact, staged to divert attention from the popular demonstrations. Clara Anna of AP, who frequently reports the TPLF’s statements, has been quiet about the plight of millions of EOC followers.
Similarly, when eight individuals, who had no political followers, formed a coalition with the TPLF on November 5, 2021, in Washington, with assistance from the State Department, to establish an alternative government in Ethiopia, Ethiopians laughed at the absurd announcement, but it was considered newsworthy and reported, analyzed, opined by the New York Times, Aljazeera, CTV News, Reuters, VOA, PBS, CNN , among others media organizations, claiming that the alliance will usher in a new era in Ethiopia. Of course, the alliance lasted barely a month, let alone form a government. Other trivial events reported as news abound. Bias blinds the eyes.
The journalists who have relentlessly reported about human rights violations in Tigray, such as Nima Elbagir of CNN, Jeffery York of The Globe and Mail, Declan Walsh of The New York Times, and others were silent as the fundamental right to worship of 55 million Ethiopians was violated. The bias of the US media cannot be clearer.
The Propaganda Model
If we need any proof of media bias, the omission by the US media of the largest peaceful demonstrations that took place throughout Ethiopia and around the world in the past two weeks provides one. Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain media bias. The liberal-conservative ideological divide of the owners of news organizations has been taken as a source of bias, but the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model explains the structural basis for media bias.
In the propaganda model, Chomsky and Herman present five structural mechanisms that produce biased reporting. These mechanisms (filters)—ownership, advertisement, news sources, fear ideology, and flak—determine media bias in liberal democracies. Each of these variables can be discussed in detail, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
The model postulates that media outlets are owned by conglomerates that are profit driven, not truth seekers. Profit maximization determines the commission and omission of events as news. What is newsworthy and what is not newsworthy is a function of profitability. The preoccupation with profit creates bias. For newspapers, it results in biased news reporting, partisan opinion pieces, and slanted editorials. For television channels, profit-seeking editors decide which events will be covered.
Certain events that jeopardize profits will be ignored, although newsworthy; while trivial items like celebrity gossip that increase profits will be covered. Journalists are increasingly dependent on official statements, press releases, and news conferences as their source of news. The source of news and the choice of events as news create consensus among the public that are consistent with the opinions, positions, and interests of the elite. Chomsky and Herman call this process ‘manufacturing consent’.
To increase readership or viewership and not offend advertisers, the media often focuses on sensational stories such as crimes, wars, starvation, and famines. The war in Tigray fit the bill. It had abundant pictures or videos of starving children, dead soldiers, live executions, child soldiers, thousands of Ethiopian soldiers being paraded and jeered at in the streets of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. This ‘sensationality’ of the war is one of the reasons that the war received extensive coverage by media outlets in the West. The coverage of the Tigray war was, without a doubt, sensational but unethical, immoral, and even racist.
Racist stereotypes permeated the coverage of the Tigray war. The reporting has been used to demonstrate how Ethiopians are ‘uncivilized.’ For example, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes in the Tigray war ‘…, men have been clubbed to death… the slaughter of Tigryans… ‘.
To be sure, there has been much atrocity in the Tigray war, just as there is in any other war, but there has been no evidence of men ‘being clubbed to death’ in the war. He manufactured it. The exaggerated number of gang rapes, which the UN representative in Ethiopia describes as media hype, the display of live executions of unarmed civilians by CNN, Samantha Power’s statement about Ethiopian soldiers crushing chicks under their boots, and the other repugnant media accounts indicate racist and sensationalist representation of the Tigray war.
The US media has shown great disrespect to the war victims in Tigray. Nima Elbagir of CNN showing the live executions of civilians, allegedly by Ethiopian soldiers, demonstrates CNN’s utmost disregard for the victims, their families, their humanity. What is even more appalling is that the media and entertainment industry, instead of reprimanding her unethical reporting, gave her the Tony Award in 2022 for her semi-fictious documentary about the Tigray war. CNN promoted her as the Chief International Investigative Correspondent in January 2022. Bigoted and false reporting pay.
CNN has never shown live executions of Ukrainians or Russians or their dead bodies. The war in Ukraine has not been presented as disrespectfully as the war in Tigray. The US media’s racist representation of the Tigray war is indisputable.
If we want to apply the Chomsky-Herman model to explain the US media’s bias in covering events in Ethiopia, we must include an important variable that is excluded from the model: the disposition of reporters, contrary to their journalistic professionalism. Some reporters display a positive disposition towards Ethiopia (Jeff Pearce), while others manifest a hostile mindset towards Ethiopia (Nima Elbagir of CNN).
The number of US journalists reporting from abroad has diminished significantly over the years. Foreign bureaus have been closed. Media outlets rely on the wire services for their foreign reporting. Although media interest in Ethiopia has increased over the last decade, it is only a small US journalists, mostly based in Nairobi, who regularly report on Ethiopia. These individuals have a considerable degree of influence on what events and how these events in Ethiopia are presented to the American public and the world. Especially, reporters working for Reuters and AP, effectively determine which events in Ethiopia are covered, biased or unbiased.
AP provides news to 15,000 news outlets throughout the world. This means, for example, a biased or false report by Clara Anna could be repeated by 15, 000 media outlets. Reuters also provides news to many media organizations globally. Because of their monopoly over news about Ethiopia reported outside Ethiopia, three to five reporters determine which events in Ethiopia are newsworthy. Reporting by this tiny number of journalists, with their pro-TPLF disposition and support for the Biden administration’s policy towards Ethiopia, has influenced public opinion in the West about the Tigray war.
US Foreign Intervention and the US Media
The propaganda model posits that the US media supports US foreign policy because of ideology, the ideology of anti-communism, counterterrorism, unfettered markets, or fear. Further, there is a symbiotic relationship between US government officials and journalists. Governments want their messages to be distributed to the public and time-pressed journalists rely on official sources for their stories. This mutual dependence compels journalists to toe the US official line. As a result, the US media generally sanctions US foreign intervention. The New York Times is probably the most influential newspaper in the US; it has been described as the agenda setter for the US elite. Typically, it supports US foreign policy and endorses the measures taken by the US against other countries.
When the US dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima during World War II, it published an article on September 13, 1945, titled “NO RADIOACTIVITY IN HIROSHIMA RUIN:..”. No need to comment. Judith Miller of The New York Times authored several articles in 2002 falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, justifying the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The US media’s coverage of the Tigray war is consistent with the prediction of the propaganda model. The model predicts that the coverage of the Tigray war will be slanted to reflect the official position of the US government. That is exactly what happened. The mainstream media supported the Biden government’s position on the war.
The New York Times has published numerous articles, columns, opinion pieces, and videos cheering the Biden administration and demanding that it intervene more in Ethiopia. Other US media outlets, CNN, PBS, CBS, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, have taken a similar position on the Tigray war. The uniformity of the mainstream media’s perspective on the war has been remarkable. There has been no diversity of opinion on the Tigray war. Truth dies in biasedness, to paraphrase The Washington Post’s slogan.
The Biden administration, the media, and NGOs (Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) all have expressed their concerns about human rights violations in Tigray. However, their concern about human rights abuses in Ethiopia, as elsewhere, is highly selective. They have shown no consistency in condemning human rights violations around the world or in Ethiopia.
The focus has been on the violation of human rights in certain countries or of certain groups in a country while ignoring similar or even egregious human rights abuses in other countries or of other groups in the same country, depending on political considerations. In Ethiopia, the US, the other Western governments, and the media have been vocal about human rights abuses in Tigray, but essentially silent about parallel or wore situations in Oromia, Benishangul, and the other regions of Ethiopia.
‘Worthy’ and ‘Unworthy’ Victims
Chomsky and Herman, when discussing selective concerns about political persecution, distinguish ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. ‘Worthy’ victims are victims who live under regimes that the US government opposes, for example, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. ‘Unworthy’ victims are victims who live under regimes that the US government supports, such as Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. In Ethiopia, for various political reasons, the Biden administration considers Tigrayans ‘worthy’ victims.
Consequently, the Biden administration is selectively concerned about human rights abuses in Tigray; USAID inequitably allocates food aid to Tigray. The US has distributed more food aid to Tigray than to any other region in Ethiopia, according to S. W. Omamo, the former Director of the World Food Program for Ethiopia. The war victims who live in Afar and Amhara have not received as much food aid from the US as the victims in Tigray.
The concept of ‘worthiness’ extends beyond political persecution. Whether victims of natural calamities receive disaster relief or not depends on their government’s relationship with the US government. Today, the US provides assistance to the victims of the earthquake in Turkey, but not to the victims in Syria. The famine victims in southern Ethiopia are almost unnoticed by USAID.
Just as the US media ignored the resistance of the EOC followers, the US State Department remained silent as their freedom to worship was violated. Unlike its defense of human rights in Tigray, the US government was conspicuously quiet when the right to religious freedom was violated in Ethiopia.
Ted Price, the spokesperson for the State Department, was asked about the issue on February 15, but he appeared clueless, baffled, confused. It was obvious that he was not briefed. For the US, the plight of 55 million EOC members was a non-issue. EOC followers won their right to practice their religion as they deem fit, without the support of the US government and without the US media’s coverage. This makes their victory doubly significant.
The Abiy government temporarily succeeded in stopping EOC followers from attending church services on February 12 in Addis Ababa, but its ‘victory’ was shallow, short-sighted, and short-lived. Just four days later, the church won the right to run its affairs without government interference. The government was defeated. The victory will embolden others to assert their rights as well. The church should support the Ethiopian people’s struggle for freedom, equality, and justice, just as they stood with it in its struggle against the government.
Worku Aberra is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.