Anything goes for reporting on Ethiopia

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This is a brief take from Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong by Veteran Horn of Africa Correspondent, Rasmus Sonderriis

They rank among the great and the good of our media, academia, humanitarian work, politics and diplomacy. Yet they demonized a friendly people and fueled a big war in Ethiopia, with dire mis-predictions and shocking lies. Who were they? How could they get away with it? What was the full picture that they so distorted? And why?

Immediately after the Pretoria Peace Agreement on November 2, 2022, massive inflows of all kinds of relief supplies were proudly announced by the big aid agencies. And yet, speaking in the name of the WHO, Dr. Tedros and his sidekick, Michael Ryan, still lamented some unspecified insufficiency of humanitarian access. Even more worryingly, stories about continued looting, abductions, rape, and outright massacres were still pumped out by the world press for months, now pointing the accusing finger at Eritrean troops. The sources indicated were TPLF-controlled Tigrayan authorities, anonymous aid workers and eyewitnesses. The Associated Press, never held accountable for spreading the church- and hyena-centered rendering of the Axum massacre, once again lent its credibility, and was uncritically cited by senior human-rights figures.

In early 2023, Professor Kindeya Gebrehiwot (named as the high-ranking TPLF man who brought the disgraced American neurosurgeon Tony Magaña to Tigray) presented the Tigrayan authorities’ figure as 3,708 Tigrayans killed by foreign troops after the peace deal. He also published a photo of some donkeys, supposedly documenting Eritrean troops looting people’s livestock.

As mentioned, Mirjam van Reisen’s EEPA organization was the source of Martin Plaut’s original fabricated version of the church massacre in Axum. When she reported yet another massacre on November 28, 2022, her credibility had finally been exhausted. Her fans would still retweet eagerly, but no serious news outlet picked up this latest piece of disinformation.
She has since deleted this and countless other such tweets.

I cannot know for sure if any of these horrors might have occurred, but this war has taught me to exercise caution in trusting poorly sourced reports, even when coming from reputable news organizations. And yet, mindless repetition can turn anything into a truism. Thus, on January 12, 2023, The Economist did not even bother with a source, but stated as fact that Eritrean troops “have continued to loot towns and rape and murder civilians”.

While the media had little concern about running with odd claims that were later called out as hoaxes, and routinely repurposed photographic material to fit their stories, they bothered even less with the quality control of their analysis. This gave free rein to glory-hunting Africa adventurers. Declan Walsh is a textbook example of the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect. He was referred to as “knowledgeable” by Mark Lowcock, who was returning the favor after Declan Walsh had just quoted Mark Lowcock suggesting that Abiy Ahmed’s war aim was to “destroy Tigray” and predicting that he was going to lose. Indeed, all the analysts and academics ever quoted in an authoritative manner by Mr. Walsh have been of the same pro-TPLF bent. He has clearly never researched Ethiopian affairs in any depth. Yet he devised a grand unified theory about the cause of the war being Abiy Ahmed’s mental state, addled by the Nobel Peace Prize. For this baloney he won the ultimate trophy of authoring the triumphant journalistic school of thought about the conflict.

However, Michael Rubin takes First Prize for Self-Overestimation, which he boasts on top of the previously awarded title as Craziest of Crazy Journalists for calling for the US to arm the TPLF. He also bought into the notion that “prior planning” was tantamount to starting the war, and it is remarkable how little his publisher, the American Enterprise Institute, cared to follow up on his mishits. It began with his assurance that Abiy Ahmed had “condemned Ethiopia to dissolution”, which was not just a looming danger but had now gone “beyond the point of no return”. He went on to compose the most extreme version of every TPLF-sponsored falsehood, fixating on the personality of the prime minister, whom he compared to Idi AminMohammed bin SalmanRobert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein. As the TPLF’s last-gasp offensive was obviously running out of steam, and most media were becoming more nuanced, he persisted in his alternate reality: “The simple reality is the United StatesEuropean Union, and many African countries no longer see Abiy as redeemable. For peace and prosperity in Ethiopia, the only course of action is Abiy’s exit.” Ironically, he pontificates about learning from mistakes. So what can we learn from his mistakes? That there is zero accountability for an opinionated journalist who is proved even more dead wrong than anybody else.

No apology, just more getting it wrong

As the end came into sight, I looked forward not only to Ethiopian military victory, but also to the media having to accept that the Ethiopian war aim had all along been peace and not genocide.

Just as I correctly foresaw the war was drawing to a positive close, I let down my guard and tweeted out this mispre­dic­tion. As poin­ted out by an astute commenta­tor, I was en­ga­ging in wishful thinking about the media being about to admit to its mistakes.
Some may re­mem­ber Eliza­beth Shackel­ford from 2017, when she resigned from US diplomatic ser­vice with great fanfare in protest against the Trump administration.
After her macabre smear job on the very soldiers who would bring peace, she had to block a stream of Ethio­pians from her Twitter feed, all of whom had infinitely more insight into the conflict than her.

This was my last pang of being in denial about the media’s stubborn commitment to narrative over truth-seeking.

For instance, as late as July 27, 2023, US National Public Radio put out a slick and shiny 52-minute program for mass consumption. It gives special thanks to Martin Plaut, who might as well have scripted it. It starts off with audio from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, before portraying Abiy Ahmed as a centralizing, religious fanatic, who rode to power on a popular wave of resentment against Tigrayans as a people in order to snuff out the 27 years of progress under the TPLF/EPRDF. The historical context description goes back to pre-Biblical times and covers everything until the war, except the crucial 2½ years of escalation and the attack on the Northern Command. The fighting is presented as a one-way street of ethnic violence against Tigrayans. There is no mention that the rebels marched on the capital, or that their military defeat brought peace, not genocide. The main interviewee is Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie, the Netherlands-based founder and editor of the fiercely pro-TPLF magazine Tghat. He gets to end it on a note of “it’s not over”.

The Economist did not go that far in getting captured by the TPLF propaganda apparatus. It refrained from using the term genocide, and it was too highbrow to report, for instance, that hundreds of people had been eaten by hyenas in the central square of Axum. But it did level shocking accusations. On July 9, 2023, it set about justifying its inability to produce the evidence by writing that war crimes in Tigray were now being “covered up or forgotten”. Apart from the usual unnamed sources, fantastical readings of satellite pictures and insinuations that would provoke scorn in a serious courtroom, this latest claim was backed by reference to two other media stories, both of which have been looked into in this paper. One was about the bodies floating down the Tekeze River. The source for this must have been CNN dispatching from eastern Sudan with a backstory that contradicted the channel’s own forensic experts and ignored the signs of coordination between those dumping and those collecting the bodies. The other was that “the BBC reported that security forces from Amhara (…) had been digging up mass graves and disposing of bodies”. Invoking the BBC sounds more respectable than what the BBC based it on, namely Lucy Kassa’s anonymous witness statements, which also featured professors from the University of Gondar as body-dissolving specialists in a vast conspiracy to pass off 1-year-old corpses as 30-40-year-old bones. In practice, rather than digging any further, CNN and BBC have since abandoned these two stories by no longer talking about them and by not awarding any prizes for them. This does not stop The Economist from keeping them reverberating inside the media echo chamber.

Meanwhile, The Economist’s harshest war-crimes accusation of all, namely that humanitarian aid was being blocked by the federal government wielding starvation as a weapon, seems to have been quietly ditched. Who knows, some diligent editor might have gotten a bad taste in the mouth after reading former WFP Country Director Steven Were Omamo’s testimony about overt politicization to fabricate a famine. Having read and loved The Economist for decades, I cannot put it completely beyond the human beings who work for it to have a conscience.

Nonetheless, it was always too naïve of me to expect The Economist, or any other media, to examine their own role in channeling lies and fueling war, let alone to apologize to the victims, unless something forces their hand. They are also unlikely to engage in good-faith debate over this paper. I have learned the hard way that they are not genuinely interested in putting their narrative to the reality test, at least not as much as they are in their careers in the story-telling business.

The real hyenas

In conclusion, the real hyenas in this conflict were big media. From beginning to end, they howled as a pack, lacking the instinct for individuality. When Ethiopia’s experiment in democracy set off, strutting with youthfulness and promise, they bowed to it and purred. But as soon as it came under attack, was weakened and fighting for survival, they bared their teeth and salivated in anticipation of it succumbing for them to devour the pieces. Since the attackers were fought off, they have been perplexed and sullen, but not the least contrite over their hyena-like nature.

This creature is not that clever, not even in human form. As the historian Noah Yuval Harari has highlighted, Homo sapiens is less of a truth-seeking than a story-loving animal. It is not the ambitious reporter’s fault that that portraying suffering up close grabs more attention and wins more prizes than painting the bigger political picture. We have seen time and again how easily the media will fall for the most ridiculous hoax, as long as it fits their plot-line. The TPLF’s well-oiled disinformation machine had a field day, playing deftly to the prejudices of Westerners ready to always believe the worst about Ethiopia.

Unverified reports by the Washington Post were widely shared as proof of atrocities, adding to the confusion and disinformation.

Big media and activist hangers-on hitching their wagon to the TPLF propaganda train put pressure on Western politicians and diplomacy to get tough on Ethiopia. It also served to sow fear, division and hate in Ethiopia, making the Russian-funded fake-news trolls undermining Western societies look like complete amateurs by comparison. But the worst consequence was probably to strengthen the hand of the TPLF against the Tigrayan people. From the perspective of worldly Tigrayans, that is, those best placed to challenge the narrative with some healthy skepticism of the old, discredited leaders and their shrill tribalism, it must have made a huge impression that the ethnic-war narrative was echoed by the New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, CNN, Der Spiegel, El País, The Globe and Mail, The Telegraph, The Economist, you name it. Among those living in Tigray, it reinforced the ‘kill-or-get-killed’ choice presented to them. And among those in the diaspora, it mobilized to send money and advocate for the rebel army.

There was no tangible evidence for the bombing of Shire or of any street battles, yet social media activists continued to drum up fake narratives that would fuel the disinformation campaign.

Their brief was simple: Vilify the enemy, play on the stereotype of the African genocide; make the emotional appeals to humanity that are so associated with Ethiopia; distract from the politics to focus only on atrocities. As this strategy worked its magic with the sources that Westerners trust, the steps required for rebuttal by those of us who knew better became tricky: Explain the intricacies of Ethiopian affairs and how this is no longer the 80s; convey the nuances of relations between as well as within numerous ethnicities; condemn unjustifiable acts yet dispute that killing civilians is the government’s war aim; complain, like some far-right or far-left conspiracy theorist, about the uniformity of mainstream media; and tear into a string of figures with shining halos, such as well-established academics, award-winning journalists, and humanitarian high-ups.

This is why, outside of Ethiopia, we were so few who insisted that Ethiopian military victory was the path to peace and not genocide. Even though we were proved right in the terrain of northern Ethiopia, we are still facing an uphill battle in the media landscape of our post-factual world.

And frankly, if I had not known Ethiopia personally, I doubt I would have been able to resist the massive imbalance of forces in the overall narrative about the war. I do like to think, however, that I would have questioned the scant attention being paid to the legitimacy to use force. That I would have been curious about dissenting views. And that I would have distrusted the most blood-curdling accounts.

Part 1 ventured that the Western response to the war in Ethiopia says a lot more about the West than it does about the war in Ethiopia. So what does it say about us?

To read the full story of Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong: Click Here

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