Strangely, we continue to witness the deterioration of the free press at the hands of the few correspondents in this country who remain truly free.
The official restrictions on national press have been well-documented by human rights watchdog organizations, but little has been written on the shameful contributions made by Ethiopia's foreign correspondents. I am continually amazed by what I have observed here among this small circle of journalists—at the perpetual politicization of the news, and appalling distortions of the truth so easily excused by self-interested editors and comfortable journalists.
To shed some light on the workings of the Addis foreign press corps:
To secure accreditation, certain leading wire correspondents are encouraged by their editors to assure the appropriate Ministers of their intentions to write exclusively “happy” stories, which portray the country in a “favourable light”. Despite the blatantly inappropriate nature of such negotiations, these correspondents have, nevertheless, proven willing to go to great lengths to uphold this ludicrous promise to the Ethiopian government (the current social and political climate notwithstanding)—scrambling to uncover the happy stories in a place where, for so many, true happiness is found only in precious fleeting moments, development in a land where economic growth is virtually stagnant, and isolated incidents of political leniency in one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Consequently, in Ethiopia, stories are routinely ignored or intentionally killed by the international wire services, whose journalists are even, on occasion, encouraged by bureau chiefs to re-interpret, or “contextualize” the more inflammatory responses of government spokesman (with a suggestive, “surely that is not what he actually meant!”)!
Even more worrying, is that Ambassadors and State Department officials also influence which events ultimately make it to print, ordering correspondents into silence or spinning stories for diplomatic advantage (recent examples being the arrest of NY Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in the Ogeden region, which was deliberately suppressed by Ambassador Yamamoto for nearly a week, before finally being reported by blogger Ethio-Zagol, and the premature leaking of the ongoing political negotiations between the government and political prisoners).
Perhaps I am merely naïve, but something seems intrinsically wrong when major news outlets are encouraging their journalists to perpetually wine and dine government officials on the company expense account, while strictly advising them to avoid socializing with known opposition members and supporters, whose activities are to be regarded as automatically subversive.
It is simply unfathomable to me that the few foreign correspondents granted permission to work at length within the country (all citizens of free and democratic societies, lest they forget) could somehow begin with a "necessary, temporary effort to placate a hostile government", and in only a few months time end up functioning as government stooges—consciously neglecting subjects certain to upset the ruling party, and reluctantly investigating instances of widespread government brutality only upon official approval, with state-sponsored escorts.
The most popular justification amongst African press circles is clearly the claim that their organization would otherwise be expelled from the country. But, it seems to me, that if their primary agenda is actually to deliver unbiased regional news to their readers, the expulsion of their organization for merely documenting events as they unfold, is also, in itself, a strikingly accurate indication of national conditions. Regardless--since when did tailoring the news to suit the temperament of a brutal dictator become an acceptable compromise?
Yet, this has become more than acceptable practice here in Addis; in fact, it has become routine. And, naturally, when other publications (such as the Economist, New York Times or the Washington Post) break a controversial story first, the local correspondents can usually be found grumbling over drinks at the Sheraton Office Bar, berating said papers’ “unethical” means of gathering information and the “dangerous” community of in-country fixers, stringers, freelancers and bloggers on which they rely.
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