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Why Ethiopians think the West is in the thrall of TPLF propaganda

Ethiopians’ claim that the West is biased against the federal government is well-founded.

The irresponsible report by CNN that TPLF and OLA fighters were at the doorstep of Addis Abeba is the most recent example of how western mainstream media has come under the influence of the propaganda war.

Such propagandistic and biased reporting on the conflict in Ethiopia is so common that it would be a mistake to treat the recent CNN report as an isolated incident of the usual media bias towards sensational stories. Systemic bias against the Ethiopian government in western media is symptomatic of fundamental problems that raise questions about the underlying forces driving western media coverage of this conflict

This media bias in the narration, contextualization, and analysis of the conflict is very harmful, as it influences international policy responses towards Ethiopia. Accordingly, such reckless reporting has become damaging to Ethiopia’s security.

It would, of course, be incorrect to say that all of the criticism, condemnation, and accusations against the government by western media are Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) propaganda. As the recently released Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) made clear, atrocities have been committed on both sides of this conflict. There is no doubt that there are also some honest concerns and disagreements in the West about the direction in which the country is heading.

However, the most odious accusations that turned western opinion against the government in this conflict—such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, deliberate starvation, and systemic use of rape as a weapon of war—are trumped-up charges by the TPLF propaganda machine and have never been independently verified. In fact, the JIT finding confirmed previous reports that ethnic-based massacres were first initiated in this conflict by the TPLF itself in Mai Kadra.

The exaggerated and wild accusations against the Ethiopian government and the unverified (or unverifiable) pictures of atrocious acts widely circulated on social media by the TPLF propaganda machine gained traction and were accepted as the truth in the West owing to the ‘credibility’ and ‘trustworthiness’ of a handful of western scholars and experts who are partial to the TPLF in this conflict.

By unquestioningly repeating the narratives concocted by the TPLF and its foreign enablers, the western mainstream media establishment has revealed a deep-seated bias that has turned public opinion and policy influencers in the West against the Ethiopian government.

Ethiopians’ perspective

Many Ethiopians have longstanding suspicion of the West’s intentions towards the country and see the current media bias as a confirmation of such views. This deep-rooted suspicion of the West has some historical and even recent justifications to it.

However, focusing on the current bias without going back in history to re-litigate past betrayals, it is important to remember how the West, in general, welcomed the end of the TPLF rule and the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with relief and ecstasy only three years ago.

In fact, western diplomats and experts had misgivings about the TPLF’s brand of ethnicized politics and were very receptive to Abiy’s medemer (unity) vision. As this shows, western powers are not always against the unity and sovereignty of the country as many Ethiopians suspect, nor has western opinion always been sympathetic and partial towards the TPLF.

The question Ethiopians should be asking right now is, therefore: Why did the western media and policy establishment that welcomed the new administration of Prime Minister Abiy three years ago with such enthusiasm turn against his government in this conflict with such vim?

Most Ethiopians were content to see the TPLF dislodged from federal power after four years of popular uprisings that rocked the nation, and an all-out civil war was almost inconceivable for many Ethiopians three years ago.

However, the Prime Minister’s decision a year ago to go to war with the disgruntled TPLF leaders who had retreated to their regional stronghold was supported by the majority of Ethiopians who witnessed the intransigence and the various provocations of the TPLF for two years.

Most importantly, Ethiopians could not tolerate the treacherous act the TPLF committed against Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) Northern Command. Most Ethiopians also genuinely believed the initial presentation of this conflict by the government as a law enforcement operation with a limited scope and duration.

Western opposition began soon after the government was able to secure a swift victory over the TPLF regional armed forces and pushed the TPLF leadership into hiding in the mountains. Most Ethiopians were dumbfounded, aggrieved, and furious to see the West’s opposition. Convinced that justice was on their side and that military victory would be swift, most Ethiopians also viewed any western condemnation of the government as an unjust attempt by TPLF sympathizers to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

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It is indeed quite reasonable to argue that the consequences and the risks of the government’s decision to pursue an all-out war against the Tigray regional forces were detrimental to the stability of the country, as some in the West now argue with the benefit of hindsight. It has also now become common to see western commentators assert that the ‘real’ cause of this conflict was TPLF’s decision to hold regional elections in defiance of the federal government’s decision to postpone both federal and regional elections due to the pandemic.

The fact remains that the TPLF had repeatedly provoked the federal government into confrontation, and this confrontation culminated in such cruel and blatant treason against the national defense force.

No amount of western equivocation about the real causes of the conflict or hindsight analysis can possibly dissuade the majority of Ethiopians from their conviction that the TPLF is unambiguously in the wrong in this conflict.

Given their deep-rooted suspicion of the West, it is no wonder that Ethiopians shrug off western allegations of serious crimes and equate any external opposition and pushback against the government with outright support to the TPLF.

This does not, however, mean that the government needs to respond to every western accusation and pushback to end this conflict as a neo-imperialist intervention. In fact, the government’s initial tone-deaf responses to some credible allegations from reputable international organizations—together with its unimpressive communication strategy—is one of the reasons why the TPLF propaganda machine was so effective in convincing the West that the government has waged a genocidal war against the people of Tigray.

The fallout from the initial isolated incidences of human rights abuses and other atrocities that could possibly amount to war crimes—which is tragically unavoidable in asymmetric warfare where the enemy wages a guerilla war from within—could have been contained early on with engagement and articulated responses before they could be blown out of proportion into accusations of a genocidal war by TPLF propaganda.

The exaggerations and pure fabrications, such as accusations of chemical warfare, could have been effectively refuted and turned against the credibility of foreign enablers of TPLF propaganda with an effective communications strategy in place. The government could even have won over some of its critics in policy and diplomatic circles with pragmatism and institutional diplomatic efforts, rather than pushing potential allies towards the enemy.

Instead, the government tended towards reflexive reactions and issued blanket responses to every allegation from the west. One cannot help but conclude that, in its response to western criticism and offers of mediation to end the conflict, the government appeared to be too arrogant, with little to be arrogant about.

The government did such a terrible job in communicating its message to the world that the narration of the conflict was practically hijacked from the beginning by a few well-connected western scholars and experts who were partial to the TPLF rule and weren’t welcoming to the Prime Minister’s vision in the first place.

To be fair, the government showed flexibility and openness by allowing for and fully cooperating with an independent investigation of the alleged crimes. The Attorney General’s office had even swiftly moved to bring some of the perpetrators of the crimes to justice. While these were audacious decisions and very important steps to see justice done in this conflict, the West has not cut any slack to the government for doing the right thing. What we are witnessing instead is western critics downplaying the findings of the JIT and the fabrication of new outrages.

Intellectual brigade

At the center of western accusations and condemnations against the Ethiopian government lies the role of a handful of western scholars and experts in packaging and propagating TPLF propaganda in a way that resonates with western audiences.

Had it not been for the credibility and trustworthiness of these intellectuals in the eyes of western media, the exaggerated allegations and outright fabrications of the TPLF propaganda machine would not have been as effective in tarnishing the Ethiopian government’s international standing.

Ethiopians are used to seeing western scholars and diplomats paint a rosy picture of TPLF’s rule, which helped the regime to gain international support and accolades. However, the full-throated support for the TPLF in this conflict, which itself instigated, has been a hard pill to swallow for most Ethiopians.

Ethiopians watched in despair as this group of influential scholars and well-connected experts led the charge of western condemnations against the government, knowing full well that these individuals are partial towards the TPLF. Such individuals are unbalanced and biased against the government in their views and analysis of the conflict.

The “credible reports” of crop burning and animal slaughtering that found their way into the mainstream media were first propagated by this group. It was also these scholars and experts of famine who first indicted the government by saying it is deliberately starving the whole of Tigray before the media found the government guilty as charged. Of all the heinous crimes the government stands accused of by this group, this particular accusation is what western mainstream media found most credible and what agitates Ethiopians the most.

The JIT could not confirm the accusation of the government’s “deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance,” and said that impediments were rather due to “active conflict, lack of functional local administrative bodies for coordination, and lack of cooperation.”

It is also comical to watch how these experts of famine turned to propagating TPLF victories and downplaying the chance for a ceasefire when the fortunes on the battlefield reversed to the side of TPLF fighters, thereby belying their true concerns in this conflict.

The other unfounded claims of genocide and ethnic cleansing—both terms being used sensationally without the relevant human rights organizations designating them as such—that led western media and policy discourse astray were tirelessly drummed up by this group of intellectuals and their cyber army until the mainstream media finally took them seriously.

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Even when the TPLF overplayed its hand and fabricated the use of banned chemical weapons by the government, these individuals obliged by propagating this incredible allegation in their online platforms and social networks. The media, to its shame, gave full coverage to this fake news.

It is astonishing to see how this group of individuals persuaded the West to focus on exaggerated and fabricated allegations against the government when in fact the first independently verified massacre was committed by the TPLF on ethnic Amharas in the town of Mai Kadra.

To be clear, there are no grounds to accuse these individuals of malpractices or having financial dealings with the TPLF. It appears that what motivates these scholars and experts, at least the principal ones, are ideological and based on sympathies for the TPLF’s political agenda. But, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, vested ideas could be far more dangerous than economic interests. They also seem to share an irredeemable aversion towards the historical formation of the Ethiopian state in general.

Even after the JIT finding could not verify and support their wild allegations, these enablers of the TPLF propaganda could not let it go. They went on to attack the investigation and tried to discredit the report, first by attacking the independence of the investigation and, when that failed to hold, by attacking the methodology or cherry-picking from the report.

There are, of course, independent analysts associated with reputable international organizations who cannot be lumped together with these hardcore TPLF supporters but who nonetheless propagated similarly wild allegations against the government.

Even these “independent” country analysts—who make the effort to maintain a sense of balance and who are ubiquitous talking heads for this conflict in the international media—are very reliant on the TPLF propaganda machine as a major source of information. This leads them to dismiss any information from the government side as unreliable and skews their analysis of this conflict.

To analyze this conflict as an outcome of the interplay of multiple forces and to pinpoint various escalating events leading to the conflict is a valid argument. But to assert that the tipping point of this conflict was TPLF’s exercise of a democratic right in defiance of the federal government, and to gloss over the treacherous crime of the TPLF against the national defense force, is rather echoing TPLF propaganda and is evidence of implicit bias.

Worse still, when it came time for the TPLF’s counterattack and expansion of the conflict to neighboring regions with great humanitarian consequences, they nodded in agreement with the TPLF that this time it was a “humanitarian operationto lift the siege on Tigray. Ethiopians could only describe such biased analysts who echo TPLF propaganda lines under a disguise of independent analysis as “TPLF-lites.”

Affinity and sympathy

What made the attack by a few armchair warriors so damaging is the media’s deference to these individuals as arbiters of the truth. While it is standard for the media to turn to country experts and analysts for background and in-depth analysis, the government’s understandable media restrictions and sometimes unjustified general communication blackout in the conflict zones forced western journalists to rely heavily on these country experts for views and perspectives. What turned this standard practice into fraud and outright bias is the media’s blind spot for these individuals as a result of their closeness to the media establishment and their presumed credentials.

The western mainstream media gave these individuals a free pass from the outset of this conflict, well before the allegations of the heinous crimes emerged. One leading member of the group sensationalized the conflict by highlighting the death of a blind TPLF politburo member in combat. The BBC followed without pause by explaining the conflict through the lens of “What a blind man’s death reveals.”

Another leading scholar of the group eulogized a “martyred” former foreign minister-turned enemy combatant, Seyoum Mesfin, incredulously likening his death in combat with illegal executions during a previous era. A “lesser” opinion writer parroted on the pages of The Guardian this same “illegal execution” of a respected former diplomat by a “lesser prime minister,” as he put it.

While all these sensationalized stories were being circulated in the mainstream media, no one seemed to have the good sense to point out that these were enemy combatants who refused repeated calls to surrender and lay down their arms. No one wanted to acknowledge the fact that the government has generally treated combatants and political leaders who surrendered humanely and decently and brought them to stand before the court of Justice.

Dishearteningly, even those individual media figures who earned their reputation as voices of conscience in the region are not spared from being manipulated by such fraudulent analysis. I was personally dismayed and hurt to see Michela Wrong, who should have known better, go along with such sensational news and unwarranted accusations against the Ethiopian government.

No one can say for sure how this tragic conflict will continue to evolve, let alone how it is going to be resolved. But when the history of this conflict is finally written, there is no doubt future historians will marvel at how a handful of western experts were able to shift all of the blame and condemnation against the Ethiopian government, when in fact it was the TPLF that fired the first shot and committed the first heinous massacre in this conflict.

This should serve as a lesson to the world in how, in this age of social media and opinion-based journalism, it has become dangerously easy for a few well-placed pundits and experts to turn a fragile transitioning country into a pariah state.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Ethiopians and Eritreans at a #NoMore protest in Manitoba, Canada; November 2021; CBC/ Travis Golby.

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