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NYT Offering a Dangerous Version of ‘Truth’ in Ethiopia

Irresponsible reporting by The New York Times could lead to lasting damage in Ethiopia.
New York

Has the New York Times irresponsibly fed the beast with its attention-grabbing headline and story claiming “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Ethiopia?

It appears the “internal United States government report” that is the linchpin of the NYT’s claims may have been far less official and substantial than the paper suggests. Instead, it was an unclassified, routine situation report based on impressions and part of a leaked embassy cable, a Senate aide familiar with the Tigray crisis has said.

The NYT’s Feb. 26 article, titled “Ethiopia’s War Leads to Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray Region, U.S. Report Says,” stated:

Fighters and officials from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia, who entered Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,” the report says.

The article describes the U.S. government’s report as detailing “in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for,” concluding that the leaked report suggests “Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters”—which means from the Amhara region—”are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.”

Without doubt there is a dreadful conflict occurring in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, one which may well be turning into an entrenched insurgency. All the additional mayhem that represents will come on top of more than 110 days of bloodshed and destruction that has already decimated the land and livelihoods of millions of Tigrayans.

But the conflict is also increasingly being waged in the nefarious online world of social media. Both the Ethiopian government and its opponents are firing out reams of propaganda and leveraging claims of fake news to suit their own ends. Clearly, the trend for real conflict to develop a digital information war aspect is all but inevitable in our technologically advanced world. But during the last five years of covering Ethiopia, I have noticed, and written about, how Ethiopians—especially the large diaspora in the U.S.—are particularly savvy and active in, and correspondingly susceptible to, the use of social media, both for good and for bad, all of which the NYT article plays into.

“The allegation of systematic ethnic cleansing in the U.S. government report, as conveyed by the New York Times, [is] concerning and confusing,” the Amhara Association of America (AAA) said in a statement. AAA is a U.S.-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group.

The statement lists a litany of problems it sees with the article, ranging from the mysteriously unspecified nature of the document that is the basis of the article, to questions about what methods were used to substantiate the information in the so-called report and the timeline of the alleged incidents.

The rivalry between the neighboring Tigray and Amhara regions has lasted as long as the regions have existed, since the creation of Ethiopia’s ethnically based federation in 1994. But animosities between the Tigrayan and Amhara peoples go back centuries. Therein lies the combustible significance of and potential problem with the NYT article’s assertions based on what amounts to a formalized email—embassy cables have moved on from telegrams and physical documents in the diplomatic bag. Talk of ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans by Amhara could not be more incendiary.

Seen in this light, the article offers a case study in the long-established difficulties of reporting conflicts. In the NYT’s defense, the dilemma is exacerbated in Tigray by the Ethiopian government’s lockdown of the region, which is forcing a sizeable amount of remote reporting. It appears the NYT article was composed by a correspondent in Nairobi, with additional input from an Addis Ababa-based correspondent. Having myself done plenty of so-called on-the-ground reporting from Addis Ababa, I can vouch for how the Ethiopian capital can be a hermetically sealed bubble from the rest of Ethiopia, with all the problems that can inculcate, and especially from Tigray lying about 500 kilometers away.

But the article also serves as a case study in the enormous influence of big-name media such as the NYT. Given that they are viewed as infallible by default and the authoritative truth in the eyes of so many, that places them under an onus. I fell into this reverential trap myself, quoting the NYT article’s claims about the report and systematic ethnic cleansing in a recent article I did about Tigray. Being a freelancing one-man band, with a meagre media footprint, I can perhaps be more easily excused for such journalistic fumbles. But for the NYT to err with all its resources is more concerning, especially if it contributes to propaganda being wielded on social media to toxic ends.

Social media users in the Ethiopian diaspora leapt on the NYT article, not surprisingly. At the same time, it was also leapt on by numerous media organizations with far more sway than my little byline. On March 3, the Washington Post recycled the NYT’s account in an editorial board opinion piece, with no additional scrutiny or analysis, while on the same day Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief summarized the article with the subject line “On Biden’s desk,” implying that the report constituted an authoritative assessment by the U.S. government.

But it wasn’t, according to the Senate aide. At the same time, he says this doesn’t “diminish the troubling information” contained in the report, noting how numerous similar cables are coming through–and which supplement other non-US government reports from international agencies emerging–of events and tactics that may well amount to ethnic cleansing and which must, and can only, be confirmed through rigorous on-the-ground investigation.The aide went on to say “it is a stretch” to conclude the NYT article prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to speak out about Tigray the next day on Feb. 27. The contents of the leaked document, along with other situation reports, were likely known by the State Department for weeks and part of an assessment process that culminated in the Feb. 27 announcement. But Blinken’s announcement notably called for the “immediate withdrawal” from Tigray not only of Eritrean forces—about whom there is significant evidence and substantive reports regarding atrocities—but also Amhara regional forces.

“The misleading NYT article painted the Amhara community as committing a horrific act,” said Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America. He noted that assessments by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and various Western media that have managed some ground investigations in the western Tigray areas in question have not reported actions amounting to systematic ethnic cleansing. “It is this type of reporting that has led many Ethiopians to lose confidence in the Western media and analysts that solely depend on Western media.”

The AAA clearly has an agenda that is biased toward the Amhara. But the AAA statement raises entirely justifiable concerns, such as that systemic ethnic cleansing is a big claim and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The AAA does not refute that atrocities have occurred, with both Tigrayans and Amhara killed by the other side. But they are right to note that as tragic and repulsive as individual atrocities are, there remains a bar set by the U.S. government for what constitutes ethnic cleansing. Currently, it is simply not established that this has been reached in Tigray.

“The misleading reporting by the NY Times has been reproduced by other western outlets and referenced by policymakers,” AAA’s Tewodrose says. “It is now part of the ecosystem and will continue to be a key element of disinformation campaigns unless and until the NYT understands the damage the article has caused and retracts and apologizes to Ethiopians and its general readership. We hope NYT does the right thing and helps heal divisions it intensified among our Ethiopian community.”

The AAA explains that one of its main concerns is how the article, as well as the announcement by Blinken, “will sow further divisions in the Ethiopian American community.” As I wrote in an article for The American Conservative in early 2019, when some social media users in America appeared to be stoking ethnic violence in Ethiopia, due to decades of government suppression, Ethiopia’s media landscape is institutionally weak. This means that many Ethiopians seek outside sources for their news, including activists and diaspora-run media in the U.S. It’s a double-edged sword: capable of filling a sore need for more information but also of pushing Ethiopia toward even greater calamity when freedom of expression is abused by media and activists to foment tension and partisanship, even ethnic violence.

The anti-Ethiopian government strategy is very social media heavy—especially on Twitter—with supporters encouraged to create new accounts and respond to content about the conflict while also spreading hashtags and tweeting at influential Twitter users. The Ethiopian government, no slouch with online propaganda either, has countered by positioning itself in the role of fact-checker and provider of reliable information, using spurious claims to leverage its position as the voice of reason and accuracy, usurping the job that the media should be doing. The result is an extremely confusing information environment compounded by a general sense of suspicion about the information coming out about the conflict.

How best to combat the untruths? For a start, by not risking adding fuel to the fire. It’s impossible to know the editorial oversight process applied by the NYT to the article’s publication. The AAA reached out to the paper to express its concerns and has not heard anything back apart from the Nairobi-based correspondent replying that everything that could be said about the document was in the story.

There’s been a fair bit of coverage lately of internal frictions at the New York Times, with a younger, more progressive section of the staff clashing with older and more senior editors who might err on the side of restraint and balance. Perhaps there was a rigorous appraisal in the paper’s office that the headline about ethnic cleansing—which handily would also be clickbait gold—was entirely justified based on the evidence. But for an Ethiopian diaspora association to then do a good editorial job of highlighting journalistic errors and lapses indicates the NYT’s oversight process wasn’t as thorough as when the Old Gray Lady had the likes of myself swooning with admiration when I went to journalism school in 2010.

The most obvious and short-term solution to the question of what has happened in western Tigray resides in Addis Ababa, with its pool of professional, smart, eager, non-partisan journalists, some of whom I know and have communicated with about the Tigray conflict. They are ready to go to the region. Regardless of the size or cachet of the media they are affiliated with, they are good at their jobs and knowledgeable about Ethiopia, with the vast majority especially fond of the country and its people. They are as trustworthy resources of information as you are likely to get.

Continued pressure should be applied until the Ethiopian government permits and facilitates access to Tigray by media—and not just the big names—and relevant foreign and independent agencies, so they can conduct effective investigative reporting without harassment and impediment. After that happens, we will all be awaiting a vital update from the NYT’s correspondents in Nairobi and Addis on whether systematic ethnic cleansing has occurred. It’s an essential, vital point, clearly. That way we may get closer to the truth about what is happening in Tigray.

James Jeffrey spent nine years in the British Army, serving in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, before attending journalism school in Austin, Texas. Since 2012 he has freelanced in America and the Horn of Africa, writing for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and Instagram james_rfj.