By the Strathink Editorial Team
Center stage in U.S. politics today is the role of the media. The new administration has declared the media “the opposition party” and the contentiousness between the government and the mainstream media has been unprecedented. Before continuing this editorial, and Strathink would like to point out that we are rigorous in separating news from opinion, we come on the side of freedom of the press. We believe a free press is essential to a democracy and see the role of the press as a watchdog of the government. We also believe in the responsibility of the press to maintain the highest standards of integrity—there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”
At Strathink, we have opinions, which we express in our “Opinion Roundup,” clearing marked with the red graphic. We publish other peoples’ opinions that are clearly marked “Opinions Matter.” These are opinions, which we hope are backed up by the facts presented, but they are opinions. News is distinguished from opinion by the standard template of a news item: publication name, date and byline.(author’s name).
In this “Opinion Roundup,” we present our views on how the international media writes about Ethiopia using two examples: Graham Peebles and William Davison. Why Graham Peebles and William Davison? We think (again, our opinion) that the two represent two faces of the same phenomenon—one writes blatant opinion that is passed off as fact and the other is more tempered in his approach but succeeds in falling short of good journalism.
Let’s look at two articles and explain what we mean.
We begin with Graham Peebles. Mr. Peebles represents an extreme case of bias in his work. According to his website, Mr. Peebles lived in Ethiopia for two years and now, in addition to writing news about Ethiopia, runs a charity called Create Trust. We are not quite sure what the charity does, but it involves artists, puppeteers and storytellers with a webpage allowing people to make their financial contributions. Ok.
Let’s look at one of his recent articles, “In Ethiopia, famine stalks the land once again.” His thesis: The answer to famine is not increased levels of food aid, but strategic planning to enable communities to survive the impact of extreme weather, made more acute by climate change.
Mr. Peebles begins his article by quoting statistics about climate change and El Nino. Very good. Facts are important and weather patterns have a scientific explanation. He then inserts the ubiquitous quote from a villager in Wollo, one of Ethiopia’s hardest areas of drought. The villager compares the current drought to the one experienced in 1984—the focal point of Bob Geldof and the “We are the world” musicians. This gives his story a historical context that Western readers understand—a bunch of musicians “saving” Ethiopia by singing a song. Science. Music. An instant connection to far-away Ethiopia and hunger.
And then comes the real purpose of the article—“Duplicity and deceit.” Mr. Peebles opens this section with the following paragraph:
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has “earmarked $192 [£127] million for emergency food and other assistance, diverting money from projects such as road construction,” and the Integrated Regional Information Network news agency (IRIN) says that $163 million has been pledged by the ‘international community’. This is to be welcomed, but it’s nowhere near enough – according to aid agencies $600 million is needed.
Our readers might want to read this paragraph twice. We read that the Ethiopian government has earmarked money for food assistance, the international community has pledged money, but that the total money available is not enough, according to aid agencies.
From these statements by the government and IRIN, Mr., Peebles jumps to this conclusion:,” Not only are people on the verge of starvation, farmers, whose crops have failed due to the lack of rainfall, are being hounded by government thugs for loan repayments (taken to buy fertilizer that in all likelihood should have been given as aid) they cannot now make. ESAT news reports that, “local government officials jail farmers who could not pay their loans”.
Why? Well, he quotes Ethiopian Satellite radio and Television (ESAT), the propaganda arm of Ginbot 7, a SELF-DESCRIBED terrorist organization. Dude, really? Do your homework! He even uses an ESAT quote, the ruling regime “has gone to the extent of kidnapping people who enquire about the food aid even at this critical time.” Can anyone verify that quote? ESAT? Graham Peebles? Anyone?
The Ethiopian government has many faults but denying the drought and the need for food is not one of them. If Mr. Peebles did his homework, other than phoning Ginbot 7, he would read reports from the United Nations, the World Food Program and bilateral donors acknowledging Ethiopia’s timely and appropriate response to the drought. Mr. Peebles even calls the government safety net program “a sort of social safety net.” Evidence? Facts? Again, if Mr. Peebles did any kind of homework he would read from technical experts such as the Overseas Development Council (ODI), e.g. economists other than Berhanu Nega, that the productive safety net program is “an important policy initiative.” We guess that aid to Ethiopian farmers should come from a Western charity, not from the government.
What kind of reporting is this?
Let’s look at one more article dated February 17, 2017, “Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising.” It is clear that Mr. Peebles is romanticizing armed struggle. He writes: Angered and exasperated by the government’s intransigence and duplicity, small guerrilla groups made up of local armed people have formed in Amhara and elsewhere, and are conducting hit and run attacks on security forces.
And who is he citing as his source—again Ginbot 7’s ESAT. In this article, Mr. Peebles says the Ethiopian government labels “anyone who publicly disagrees with them” a terrorist yet reports on a hotel bombing in Gondar. We guess bombing a hotel, despite the fact that the hotel was filled with Ethiopian guests and Ethiopian hotel workers, is somehow ok because the bomb was planted by “freedom fighters” who disagreed with the government.
Ethiopia’s 2015 parliamentary election is mentioned as merely an exercise to please the U.S. and the U.K. That the EPRDF won 100% of the seats is simplified by not mentioning that Ethiopia’s seats are won by “first past the post”—meaning that winner takes all, like many states in the U.S. Electoral College. Ethiopia has promised to change the system to allow a more proportional representation. This is critical to advancing Ethiopia’s democratic process. There must be a platform for opposition voices in the government. A one-party state cannot be a democratic state.
By the way, in the U.S. today, one party controls the executive and legislative branches of government and nearly all of the state legislatures. A healthy situation? We don’t think so at all—in either Ethiopia or the United States. We just ask Mr. Peebles to be a little clearer in his characterization.
Mr. Peebles concludes with a call for conciliation. We like his conclusion. What we object to is passing himself off as a journalist when he has a clear agenda—one that is, unfortunately, driven by his naïve relationship with ESAT/Ginbot 7.
The case of William Davison is different. We do not put Mr. Davison in the same category as Mr. Peebles. We expect more from Mr. Davison because he is an authenticate journalist and we see glimpses of understanding the complex and nuanced political environment today. Yet, his latest article published in The Guardian, falls far short of the kind of reporting that could shed light on Ethiopia’s problems.
Mr. Davison begins with the cliché of the Oromo farmer furtively crossing his arms in a gesture of Oromo resistance. Ok. It’s clichéd but Mr. Davison needs to put a human face on the political upheaval of the past two years. He needs to give the Western audience a picture in their minds of an African because Western audiences respond better to an image than an explanation. The image conjures up all of the stereotypes of Africa. Poor farmer. Repressive government. The scene is set.
Mr. Davison then gives his readers an insight. He writes, “The problem for activists is how to translate popular anger stemming from grievances into political change. The security apparatus has shown it can quell protests and a de facto one-party state offers few opportunities for opposition activities. “ Yes, we agree and we find this insightful for a broad audience—how to transform anger into political change. And it certainly is true that there are few platforms for the opposition to be heard.
Mr. Davison gives a brief and superficial explanation of why the Oromo feel marginalized—but not false. It is true that Emperor Menelik, beginning in the late 1800s, expanded the Ethiopian empire across large swaths of the country occupied by the Oromo people. It is also true that that the TPLF led the EPRDF-coalition to form the current government. It is certainly a fact that Oromo leaders are responsible for the problems in Oromia, particularly in terms of enriching themselves by dispossessing farmers of their land. And it is also true that there is a perception of Tigrayan domination over the entire country.
So, what are Mr. Davison’s journalistic lapses? First, he throws the comment about land at the reader with a reckless abandon for the significance of land in Ethiopia. Land is fundamental to the household economy. The state does not own the land; the collectivity of the Ethiopian people owns the land. There is no private ownership but land is leased for 99 years. Why? The answer is an important piece of the story. Over 85% of the Ethiopian people are subsistence farmers. If there is an economic shock, their only asset is land. If people are forced to sell their only asset—land—during an economic shock, what will they do? Where will they go? Ethiopia’s economy cannot support them at the present time. They will starve. This is an important part of the story that needs to be explained.
The statement about Ethiopia’s ranking on the Human Development Scale, behind South Sudan, makes no sense in the context of 2017. Mr. Davison knows this and is using an outdated comparison for effect.
What really turned us away from Mr. Davison’s article is his statement about the arrest of Merara Gudina for “breaking emergency rules by communicating with a banned nationalist opposition leader at a European parliament hearing in Brussels.” Mr. Davison is fully aware that the banned opposition leaders is in fact a self-professed terrorist based in army with the stated goal of overthrowing the Ethiopian government using violence. Why doesn’t he say this?
We can answer the question. He doesn’t say this because it ruins the simplistic narrative of his story. Although in a much more subtle and sophisticated way, Mr. Davison echoes the tired story of Graham Peebles—freedom fighters battling an oppressive African government exercising its power over the people using brute force. This narrative continues to sell in the Western media.
As long as this narrative gives journalists a byline, the West will continue to view Africa as Joseph Conrad’s Marlow. Marlow lives on in the Western journalist writing about “the horror, the horror,” that is Africa—the binary narrative that refuses to die.
We conclude this opinion piece by calling out journalists who fail to adhere to the “journalistic truth.” The journalist truth is “a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts, and then trying to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, subject to further investigation.”
Mr. Peebles and Mr. Davison are just two journalists writing about African politics in a sea of journalists. Why is it important to single-out two with our criticism? It all adds up. Each story that simplifies and distorts Ethiopia’s narrative reinforces an outdated perception of Ethiopia, and Africa as a whole. Colonialism ended in the last century but the cultural lens that the outside world uses to view Africa is active today.
We call on journalists in the international media to stop repeating the clichés read from other journalists and become more rigorous in their facts and analysis. Ethiopia and Africa as a whole cannot be understood in a sound bite. Journalists need to add insight not injury to Africa’s 21st century narrative.
We hold ourselves accountable to this principle as well and invite both Mr. Peebles and Mr. Davison to respond to our “opinion roundup.”