(By Meqdela and Ethio-Zagol)
When news that three New York Times reporters were caught in Deghabur while they were trying to cover rebel activity in the region sipped through last week, American diplomats in Addis Ababa immediately contacted Ethiopian government officials, including the Prime Minister to demand their release.
That triggered a chain of reactions from the government, the diplomats and the press which reveal a curious collusion between a rogue government and institutions which claim to be the agents of the public.
The Ethiopians were insistent that they would only release the captives if the press didn't report about it. The message was immediately passed to Nairobi where most of the media have their regional bureaus. "Government officials were, not surprisingly, talking about the fact that the journalists went to Deghabur without permission, and about the disrespect for the rule of law. They were confrontational, and we were in deep shit, " said one American diplomat.
In Nairobi, regional bureau chiefs of the major international media agreed to put the story under the carpet. The decision was communicated to reporters here in Addis. "It was a gag order basically," said a foreign journalist in Addis Ababa. In the mean time, the captives were being dragged from one jail to another.
Some media observers here express their surprise with the agreement. AP, AFP, Reuters and the BBC are very competitive with each other. And in the country where getting and verifying news is hard, the slightest opportunity to outpace the competitors in breaking the news is grabbed with both hands. In fact, the observers claimed, the whole saga reveals one operational philosophy of the international media here - being cosy with the government.
"With threats of expulsion, withdrawal of accreditation and shutting them out from information, the Ethiopian government makes sure that the foreign journalists in Addis Ababa and their editors in Nairobi get into self-censorship and the policy of appeasement, " cried one observer. "They try hard, sometimes too hard, to write good stories about Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government."
Even within the correspondents here, there are some who are concerned about the implication of self-censorship Vis-a-Vis the public's right to know and the journalistic duty to impart information, but usually keep quiet to avoid diversely affecting their careers. Instead, these young journalists hob-nob with government officials and apologists of human rights violations in the grand hotels of Addis Ababa, and write reports which are at the very least neutral to the government. Those who dare to break this culture of comfort lose out as their editors reject their stories. "It is Nairobi, stupid!" said one journalist referring to the heavy censorship by the editors.
In the Kenyan capital, editors are more worried as to whether their presence in Ethiopia will be jeopardized if they write bad stories about the government than the public's right to know and fairness to the victims of human rights abuses. "They are obsessed with presence. This has partly to do with their career, but partly with the lack of role-theory," said a foreign journalist here in Addis Ababa. And there is also an agreement among many of them that, however bad the government is, it is better than the unknown or untested alternatives, and other African governments; a political judgement that not only contravenes their supposed objectivity, but the facts on the ground. Far from the close scrutiny of journalistic watchdogs in their homelands, these editors also collude with the diplomats of their countries in Nairobi and Ethiopia. They push the official line of their capitals. The foreign correspondent speak for this unholy collusion is "Protective Alliance." "It is like get closer to me baby and I will get you out when you are in trouble," Explained one journalist. It is a security insurance.
It took the release of the journalists for the news to get out. Even then, most of the wire services reported it after The Times issued a statement about it. "To put a counter factual question, Would they have reported it if The Times kept quiet?" asked one observer. We will never know. But we know that the decision to report it wouldn't be informed by accountability, but rather, by the interests of the Ethiopian government, and its foreign protectors.
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