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Restraining Sensationalism

In the early morning hours of November 4th 2020, I woke up to messages that the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force had been attacked by militia loyal to and organized by the TPLF clique. My heart sank with realization that after twenty-eight years of oppression yet impunity, two and half years of provocation, and months of belligerence drumming up the war narrative, TPLF had openly demonstrated they were against the stability of the Ethiopian state and welfare of the Ethiopian people. After all, no patriot with love for country, would treasonously attack the guardians of its own national sovereignty – the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.

In the initial days following the Prime Minister’s announcement of rule of law operations commencing in the Tigray region, a flurry of international media headlines and stories startled me. In what seemed like an orchestrated narrative, reporters, news anchors, broadcasters, self-declared “political analysts” the world over began to emblazon their news headlines and content with ‘Nobel Winner.’ Beyond an effort to inform readers and listeners on who the protagonist to the current issue in Ethiopia was, the diligence with which the reference to the Prime Minister’s 2019 Nobel Prize was being used was sinister to say the least.

In what I believe to be a common trend of western media coverage of African countries, essentializing and condensing complex issues and historical context into a single narrative became immediately apparent of coverage on Ethiopia. It is not so much the heavy-handed attempts to tarnish the reputation of the Prime Minister that was concerning. Rather the disregard for context and background in coverage of what transpired on November 4th 2020 was worrying.

By disregarding and glossing over the genesis of TPLF’s transgressions that left the Federal Government with no other option except to respond, in my opinion, some western media became culpable in legitimizing the crimes and gross human rights violations of a renegade clique. It is no surprise that sensationalism sells stories more than hard facts do. Yet whitewashing almost three decades of corruption, deep networks of criminality stretching beyond national borders, overt and covert schemes to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn region over the past two and half years by the architects of ethnic strife, is a betrayal to millions of Ethiopians that have been freed from the shackles of TPLF’s destructive hegemony.

The dual ‘victim/hero’ narrative concocted by the TPLF clique and perpetuated by their global proxies unwittingly or otherwise, for example, overshadowed mass atrocities committed in Mai Kadra by youth affiliated with TPLF. While both Amnesty International and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission cited in their reports that crimes against humanity were committed against more than 1000 innocent civilians hacked to death in one night by TPLF’s ‘Samri’ youth vigilante, many international media and pundits buried their heads in the sand. As the ‘Nobel Winner’ touting continued by international media and so- called “analysts,”even international human rights organizations in their unrestrained rush for breaking news became a source of disinformation online, misrepresenting Mai Kadra reports through their official account, only to delete and apologize hours after their disinformation had spread.

The “pre-emptive” attack, as declared boastfully and publicly by the TPLF, that prompted a government offensive against a belligerent group, is without a doubt a source of pain for all Ethiopians – citizens and government. Armed confrontations take a toll on people’s lives. On those directly affected and all others indirectly affected. The misery and pain of many innocent people caught in circumstances that are not of their choosing is unbearable. And this is a painful feeling that permeates those in government even more.

With the purposeful destruction of telecommunication and electric transmission infrastructure by TPLF, many families were disconnected until recently. Yet while negative and hollow stories of an ‘African nation yet again mired in conflict and despair’ spread with the speed of lightening, the international media also failed to address the cause of communication line disruptions and rather parroted the narrative of TPLF’s well financed and organized digital media trolls. It is no secret that during the TPLF’s reign and particularly in the past two and half years, they organized a network of youth twitter and Facebook “activists” that were paid to spew false narratives which have been not only the source of disinformation but also catalysts for communal violence along ethnic and religious lines. 

Many other important issues also failed to make it on international media with the same zeal as the war narrative: the Prime Minister’s visit to Mekelle following the completion of the military operations; the successful formation of the Tigray Provisional Administration in many cities and towns across the region; the Federal Government’s successful provision of humanitarian assistance including medicine in its joint effort with international partners; the infrastructure repair works undertaken to restore electricity and telecommunications; the graduation of thousands of students from Mekelle University; resumption of flights to the Tigray region, and more recently, the apprehension and or demise of the clique’s key ring leaders.

Indeed, media must shed light on important issues and matters shaping the lives and suffering of citizens. Yet this must be done so in a manner that does not cast doubt on credibility of the media house and its allegiance. While African countries are put under the microscope of media, speech freedoms and democratic rights indexes designed and crafted by institutions that are neither African nor are inclusive of African voices, there is a necessity to ascertain that international media houses operating in loose yet close networks are not reflecting the political interests of the origin countries when producing stories on African countries. I should not be misconstrued here as expecting news reporting only to advance government positions. In fact, I believe an effective media that scrutinizes the work of any government is an essential component of a functioning democracy. Rather, I argue that news needs to be anchored in a nuanced and in-depth understanding of the context and people of a country, region, continent. Otherwise, it would fall flat as a colonial narrative!

In closing, I would like to address one crucial point. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2019 Nobel Prize was a deserved win that no amount of hatred or deliberate misrepresentation of character can take away. In 1998, when war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, millions of lives were affected during a span of two decades which was shadowed by mutual suspicion and enmity among people within and outside of the country. Many lives have been torn apart as a result and many missed opportunities for shared prosperity of the two countries. To have managed to end such a status quo is something that no entity or individual can take away from the person that enabled this process – award or no award!

Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize is a prestigious honour bestowed upon guardians of peace. However, to assume that this honour is a covenant for shaming and berating governing leaders with active national responsibilities into inaction, when faced with a grave threat of state disintegration and chaos, is simplistic at best!

In the end, whether the West champions the notion or not, Ethiopians will forever remember Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as the leader that remarkably ended TPLF’s three-decade hegemony, marked by state capture, high level corruption and embezzlement, treason, ethnic violence, grave crimes against humanity, institutional degeneration and moral decay. And for this, those that suffered these ills will award him for the accolade that matters most – keeping Ethiopia together!

Ed.’s Note: Billene Seyoum is Press Secretary for the Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.