Western media’s federal govt bias in coverage of Tigray conflict

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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.

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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.

Kjetil Tronvoll, head of the think tank Oslo Analytica

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.

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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”.

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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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6 Comments

  1. Mr. Kjetil Tronvoll is a well known TPLF man in Norway. He traveled to Tigray before the conflict as an election observer. Sources in Oslo both Norwegian, Eritrean and Ethiopia say that he is well paid by the TPLF and as a lobbyist he sells his service to spread false and baseless news on the conflict in Ethiopia. The TPLF hires such western figures to post them as front figures in its campaigns of misinformation and deception in the west.

    • tenchachachu amhara elites congarulations for your success in dismantling tigray with an extensive support from Somalia, UAE and Eritrean leader, your uncle from Gonder.

      Many of eritreans were happy to celebrate epiphany with you . Did you show them where many of your forefathers killed kids and women for Devil to drink their blood? You are born with magic and your people choose to doo any social activities after consulting debteras and local magicians . Amhara region is dominated by superstition.

      Your churches are overcroweded by men and women who come to talk to debteras and magicians who disguised themselves as nuns, monks and hermits while they recite book of satan and satanic version of little dog-eared books. Most of them arrive in remote churches to get their destiny foretold and win victiry over people living next door.

      jealousy , hate , savagery and superstiton and lies are the identity of amhara elites for years to come .People will identify you with those traits who you are and to whom you belong as a tribal memeber due to your barbaric act not we . A disgraced land and country as of 2021!!

  2. Western lobbyists and media outlets are mostly after money and do not consider how and who pays them. The TPLF which is also popularly known as the Tigray People`s Looting Front had been looting Ethiopia during its repressive rule and it is part of this loot that is being paid to western lobbyists and media outlets. That means they receive the money stolen away from the starving poor in Ethiopia and this business raises the issue of ethics and morality. The TPLF looters are being hunted down in their hiding caves and are caught or killed. Their hired western lobbyists and media folk can never save them how hard they feed the western world with false and fabricated news and information they get from the TPLF Diaspora community.

  3. There are several western individuals who are tirelessly working to support the rebels in the Tigray province of Ethiopia by spreading blatant lies on some western media. These individuals and the media conduct a campaign for ruthless and brutal group who also have stashed billions of dollars of looted money, which some suspect is used to pay the liars.

  4. In 1936 in multiple parts of Northern Ethiopia the invader Mussolini’s fighter jet planes bombed the northern part of Ethiopia with dangerous chemicals which turned the fertile lands of Tigray into a land no plants can grow on. Since then for 80+ years the effects of the poison gas which the people of Tigray suffered at the time combined with the loss of lands to farm on resulted in millions of Tigrayan people loosing their lives to famine , exile , civil war and diseases. To curb this devastation Tigray suffers the late “World-Class visionary” PM/President of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi had vowed to change the climate of Tigray by any means necessary. He intended to buy so many fertilizers from Norway thus Meles Zenawi was awarded the first African Green Revolution Yara Prize by Norway in 2005 just before the 2005 Ethiopian election. In 2005 Meles Zenawi even wanted to impose mandatory city wide farming service similar to እድገት በህብረት ዘመቻ on the youth of the City of Addis Ababa, intending to make the youth work for free in the farm fertilizing development in Tigray. Meles with the help of fellow conspirators put the youth of Addis Ababa in concentration camps hoping to put them in hard labor farming initiatives in Tigray trying to turn Tigray become arable by applying the fertilizers from Norway in mass by using the free labor of the Addis Ababa youth , this initiative was only approved by Meles’s scientists and the Norwegian government scientists who manufactured this ” miracle worker fertilizer”. But because the opposition to the rape and sodomy by the then Agazi who is similar to the now Samri was met with deadly attacks Meles Zenawi was finally forced to let go those Addis Ababa residents in detention camps without putting them into the forced labor in Tigray so Meles devised a new strategy which is to get the Addis Ababa youth get pushed out of Addis Ababa by a demography change. He brought Oromia headquarters into Addis Ababa telling the Oromos OPDOs “In Addis Ababa there are more residential buildings in Addis Ababa than the Addis Ababa youth needs , the Addis Ababa youth is breaking the buildings by throwing stones because Addis Ababa got surplus buildings “. Throughout all these since the early 1990’s Meles Zenawi publicly claimed he got to power to make the goal of the farmer’s revolution ( የገበሬው አብዮት ) come true. The true meaning of the farmers revolution (የገበሬው አብዮት) according to Meles was to make all of Tigray arable using the Norway fertilizer buying fertilizers in extremely huge amounts in bulk by spending any economic growth Meles Zenawi’s “war on poverty ” might bring. All in all the Yara award givers did not give up on these “fertilizing Tigray” or should we say robbing Ethiopia by making unrealistic promises to turn Tigray as stable as the Amara or Afar regions,self sufficient in food. To continue the fertilizing Tigray initiative they are smoothing out the current leaders with awards and other seemingly generous tokens of appreciation so Meles Zenawi farmers revolution የገበሬ አብዮት finally becomes a reality by repeating history once again by declaring another forced labor on the youth shackled to “fertilize” Tigray.

    Oslo Stock Exchange:YAR – GlobeNewswire Meles GlobeNewswire › 2005/07/19 › Ethi…
    Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi awarded the first African Green Revolution Yara Prize Oslo Stock Exchange:YAR – GlobeNewswire

    • On one occasion the late Tigraian leader Meles Zenawi said that Badme is a land forsaken by God.
      I think that this statement applies to a large part of Tigray as God forsaken lands. The very costly but ineffective greening and agricultural development projects Zenawi has launched in Tigray diverted and wasted a lot of resources from the more productive and suitable parts of the country. In addition to seizing some fertile lands from Gondar and Wollo, Zemnawi`s over ambition was to make Tigray the breadbasket. But nature is not so friendly and easy to change or manipulate as politics and the region has continued to be the major food deficit part in the country. The food deficit or shortage in Tigray is not the consequence of the current conflict but the one that has been persistent. The expert analysis is that Tigray will not be the region that will produce enough or surplus to be self sufficient .

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