The all-out conflict between the federal government and the Tigray regional state administration has given us an occasion to reflect on biases and blinkers that surface in the practice of journalism. The military campaign that started on 4 November after forces from the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked the federal army’s Northern Command has deservedly received a great deal of attention. There has been extensive media coverage of the military clashes, including aerial bombardments and attacks directed against civilians and the displacement of civilians. However, much of the comments on western media both about TPLF and the federal government exhibit a significant bias, partisanship, and downright inaccuracies. Journalists writing on the issue have exaggerated at best, invented at worst, to denigrate the federal government, while going to great lengths to cast its opponent TPLF in a positive light.
The standard line used by the Western media such as Reuters, BBC, VOA, DW was that “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader and the recipient of a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, launched a military offensive against his own people in the Tigray region”, in a typically clear-cut ‘good-versus-evil’ frame. The ‘evil’ side personified in a single figure of Abiy Ahmed. “His country is – at the very least – on the verge of civil war. Why has he chosen military force to resolve his dispute with Tigray?” asked Andrew Mueller of The Foreign Desk, the current affairs program on online radio station Monocle 24. This would have been a fair question had the Tigray leadership had been an innocent player and an irreproachable body. Disengaging the events from the broader issues relative to the conflict and disregarding the provocations TPLF has been mounting against the federal government for the past two years, the western media chose to focus on the PM, taking the liberty to label and demonize him as “the Nobel Peace Prize Winner turned Belligerent Warmaker”, while representing TPLF as an innocent victim, often in an insidious way.
The steps TPLF has been taking to sabotage Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rule in ways that harm the economy and the transition process has been overlooked by the media, even though a cursory look around suggests that. At least, that claim by the federal administration of justifying the offensive as the struggle to counter the continuing sabotage should have got fair coverage. However, the journalists, for some reasons, chose to reflect only TPLF’s storyline, unwittingly reinvigorated by so-called scholars who have picked up “facts” that were actually not facts to being with.
Most of the media glossed over the causes for the long-standing and simmering tensions between the federal government and TPLF that came with the coming of Abiy Ahmed. The so-called analysts have used an overblown piece of rhetoric to describe the situation in the country, not even bothering to show a semblance of neutrality and non-partisanship. “We are not on the brink of civil war, Ethiopia is in the midst of a civil war,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, head of the think tank Oslo Analytica and professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University in Oslo, Norway.
The Norwegian scholar who never cared to hide his blatantly pro-TPLF position has been interviewed as much as once a week about his predictions. He told, for example, VOA that “The conflict between the federal authorities and TPLF might be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.” “You have the potential of a serious, serious weakening of central authorities in Ethiopia. It is an extremely dire situation and I think it is very hard to see that things will return back to normality as it was before the conflict. The divisions are running too deep for that.”
The observation, limited and flawed though it is, are cited by many media houses. The whole country falling into civil war disregarded facts in favor of hyperbole. So much so that, the US ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor responded by saying that, “the rest of the country actually remains quite calm at present; no indications of anyone taking up comparable actions elsewhere, and in fact the opposite”.
But the western media was not only attempting to make the Prime Minister look like a villain who single-handedly provoked the conflict. But also they have been paying homage to the battle-hardened TPLF leaders and forecasting victory for the group, by selecting sources, angling, and using the narrative devices of frames. Borrowing similar words from each other, they talked about TPLF’s rich experience in the battle that could guarantee a more apparent victorious outcome for TPLF. For instance, Reuter’s East Africa deputy bureau chief, Maggie Fick, who signed a piece “Battle-hardy Tigray back in spotlight as Ethiopia conflict flares”, made a large number of claims that run counter to the situation on the ground. She cited “Ethiopia expert” Alex de Waal as saying that Abiy may have underestimated the Tigray leaders’ skills at both politics and war. “The Tufts University academic recalled the words of Tsadkan Gebretensae, a Tigrayan who once commanded Ethiopia’s army against Eritrea, in a conversation with him: “War is primarily an intellectual activity,” she wrote.
Mary Harper, BBC’s Africa Editor spoke at length with Monocle’s The Foreign Desk, saying that “the Tigrayans don’t make up a big percentage of the Ethiopian population, but when you think about the war that they fought in the 1980s and early 90s to dislodge the former dictatorial ruler Mengistu Hailemariam, they are a group of people who are battle-hardened, they are used to fighting. Given the fact that they also dominated the government from 1991 until the rise of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, they have military resources, they have military know-how, the old generation is part of military culture, they are going to be a match for the forces of the federal government in terms of their battle-hardened mentality. They are not going to be an easy force to deal with.”
The celebrated London-based business daily, Financial Times, even headlined one of its articles, “Tigray crisis: ‘They know how to fight and they can do it ’til the end.’” The quote was ascribed to certain Samahagn Genet, a former soldier who, aged 17, handled bombs in the Ethiopian army during the war with Eritrea.
Of course, subsequent events have shown that those predictions were way off the mark. The TPLF leadership was far from the invisible force portrayed by the journalists, as the federal forces had defeated the group, seizing major Tigrayan cities including Mekelle in a short span of time. The TPLF forces were in defeat and disarray on the battlefield, even though to this day the journalists and so-called analysts continue to spin it by claiming that the TPLF leaders returned to the mountains to launch a guerrilla war against the federal government.
Incidents like this of course would strengthen the already existing prevalent doubts about the accuracy of the Western press among Ethiopians about their own country, as was it described by a Twitter user, Biruk Terrefe who said that “the grotesquely simplified, misinformed, partial outputs by reputable media outlets and armchair analysts/”experts”, makes me question everything I thought I knew about other spaces/conflicts/countries”.
What has become clear from this incidence is that how media organizations, even well-intentioned some of them could be, could take sides in the complex conflict and, in some cases, encourage even greater polarisation in the country’s political system. Eager to defend the “underdog”, reporting has begun to be conflated with opposition to the ruling regime, and not represent its views and the facts as seen from it. Nicole Stremlau in her book, Media, Conflict, and the State in Africa says that those journalists that present the strongest opposition pieces in the media are often held up by international organizations as the bearers of democracy and many have become adept at manipulating the organizations and gaining undeserving support. “The discourse of human rights advocacy groups has been adopted and reinterpreted by many journalists, yet in practice, only some share their priorities. Along with listening in on less obvious spaces, a more nuanced understanding of the complex roles journalists have in the nation-building process rather than what is normally defined for them is required,” Nicole writes.
But this also emphasizes how important it is for Ethiopians to have their own media in the battle to tell their own stories accurately and reappropriate their own public sphere. There is a need to establish and support local media institutions to disseminate news about events affecting the country and counteract biased and stereotypes prevalent in the western press. Above all, the government should lift the repressive political situation for the public to have serious internal debate and criticism. And also there is a need to invest in media literacy to combat misinformation and myths which confuse and mislead public debate.
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