The law enforcement operation in Tigray and the media: Lessons learnt

1 Jan 2021

Demeke Mekonnen
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs

It has been two months since the TPLF clique has launched its onslaught on the Ethiopian Defence Forces stationed in Mekelle. What they call ‘a pre-emptive lightning’ attack has unveiled the true nature of the group both to the international community and the people of Ethiopia.

Ethiopians have observed how the group gradually morphed from being the ‘friends of the oppressed’ into evil incarnate during the group’s grip on power for almost three decades. However, the unwarranted strike not only took the nation by surprise but shock it to the core given the detail of the project that mercilessly butchered the unsuspected soldiers as well as hundreds of civilian people in Mai-Kadra town.

It was not that hard for Ethiopian’s to adjust their understanding of the group and to what extent it debases itself in its cupidity and lust for power.

But it was extremely hard, if not impossible, to change the minds of the international community that the clique stupefied with its propaganda for almost three to four decades. Thus, we were not that much surprised to observe renowned media outlets succumb to the group’s propaganda and kept on philosophizing on why and how the government started the war.

They prefer to stick to their narrative that the government used the law enforcement operation as a pretext to attack the group and weaken the federal governing structure than digging to find facts on the ground. Thanks to one of the members of the junta who officially gloated on their own media the clique’s success in the pre-emptive attack of the Northern Command, the world seems to understand who the belligerent side was.

The junta has been active in leading an orchestrated mainstream and social media campaign that perpetuates lies and seems to impair some members of the international community’s ability to pass informed decisions on the matter.

Sensing the government’s and the people of Ethiopia’s uncompromising attitude to protect the country’s sovereignty, the clique had launched rockets to cities in the Amhara region and neighbouring Eritrea in its desperate attempt to cover up its criminal deeds under the ‘guise’ of regionalized war.

Due to the inflated self-image that it has portrayed in the minds of the international community, the group wanted to sell the message that it was not a group of thugs under a ‘wanted list’ by the government but a legitimate group that can stand on equal footing with the federal government of Ethiopia and the Eritrean government.

The trick seemed to have worked for a while when the international community urged and sometimes ‘pressurized’ the Ethiopian government to sit for negotiation with the criminals.

I have seen the impact of the cliques’ propaganda during my tour in Europe leading an Ethiopian delegation and met as well as brief the Leaders on the objectives of the law enforcement operation. Although they understood what was going on the ground, they also seem to have been bought into some of the clique’s intentionally exaggerated and distorted narratives propelled by disproportionate coverage of the issue by the mainstream media and social media accounts of well-known people and trollers too.

It took quite a time to make the leaders really understand that the group had been playing victim while it was the belligerent, summarily kill people, displace them and loot their property while implicating it on the federal government.

Our delegation’s efforts were successful although some statements issued by the European Union seem to indicate the presence of remaining undercurrents which, we suspect, are the influence of the clique’s propaganda.

Just like in Ethiopia, in most of the neighbouring countries that I visited recently, the mainstream and social media penetration is relatively low compared to the developed nations. Thus, it would be very hard to get leaders that are easily deceived by the sheer volume of information on the media, which may or may not be true.

This was helpful to the delegation that I led to these countries since they were not victims of prejudices regarding the objectives of the law enforcement operation in Tigray. Their direct or indirect experience with the junta, during its time at the wheel, might have also contributed a lot in sympathizing with the law enforcement measure taken against the TPLF clique.

The success of the diplomatic efforts of Ethiopia and its genuine and friendly attitude towards its neighbours has already been manifested during the recently held IGAD’s 38th Extraordinary Assembly.

We believe that the media are there not just to inform but to influence policymakers too. But unless the media remains to be ‘the marketplace of ideas,’ in its true sense, then relevant stories tend to be stifled and the true nature of things left to be uncovered.

A casual observation of social media messages, for instance under the heading #Ethiopia on Twitter, at any given moment, will tell you how an organised and orchestrated group stifles the free flow of information by releasing a cumbersome amount of lies almost on every second.

If such lies are accompanied by the mainstream media, which already suffer from selective perception in dealing with some issues related to the law enforcement operation, then one can find potent weapons to attack the truth.

Yes, in the absence of information and access to facts, journalism suffers. But when ample information and evidence are provided and reveal the naked truth on issues of the law enforcement operation, the government and people of Ethiopia expect a fair, if not objective, report from seasoned media outlets.

Yes, no access to banking, telecommunication and transport and other services is a news story. But how is that not newsworthy when evidence is provided on the responsible bodies who disrupted such services in the first place? And above all, doesn’t the restoration of communication and electric lines qualify as a news story? To my knowledge, no media has made a report on the video that was provided by the Ethiopian Telecommunication office at Mekelle showing how some people cut the lines before the government announced the capture of Mekelle.

No one also reported the TPLF clique-led bank robberies that made resuming banking services difficult in the region. There was no mentioning of the destruction on infrastructure which includes the destruction of Axum Airport.

Despite the continued misrepresentation in the media, we are really deep into forming a new administrative structure in the Tigray region. The interim government of Tigray has been busy restoring normal administrative services in the region by forming responsible bodies that are deemed to fit to serve the public.

Leaders of competing political parties even get the chance, for the first time in decades, to serve the public and voice their opinions on things that matter in the region.

The interim government has been mobilizing the public from the grassroots level and engaging all people from all walks of life to participate in the process of normalizing life in the region. People in Tigray deserve peace and they are eventually getting it. Isn’t that good news? But true to form, some media outlets have never considered this as a legitimate agenda for coverage.

The ‘good news doesn’t sell media outlets,’ seem to be unhappy with the unexpected demise of the TPLF clique. The main news actors, whom the Ethiopian government is hunting for criminal deeds, are no more in the scene.

The reality on the ground now is relative peace in the region and remarkable joint efforts of the federal government and the interim government of Tigray to rehabilitate affected people and displace ones in addition to rebuilding public goods that were demolished by the irresponsible criminal clique.

The media seem to reverberate with unfounded statements by some international organizations and aid agencies, which sometimes amount to outright infringements on the sovereignty of the country. Echoing and magnifying every accusation, including those forwarded by international agencies and their leaders is a far cry from Ethical journalism.

Reporting some sporadic incidents in the Tigray region as manifestations of protracted insurgencies wouldn’t also help anyone. What makes us free all here is the public’s right to know the truth shall not be hampered by hidden agendas and vested interests of various bodies.

As I write this, people in the Tigray region are enjoying the fruits of peace and tranquillity and have started to exercise their rights, such as entertaining pluralistic views regarding politics or anything else for that matter, for the first time since the change in the political dispensation two and half years ago.

The TPLF clique, for decades, have been trying to persuade the people of Tigray, other Ethiopians and the international community that the fate and the wellbeing of the Tigrean people are intertwined with the fate of the TPLF. In a sense, it amounts to say that the Tigrean people are one and the same with the TPLF. How on earth is this humanly possible? And yet some people, including some elements in the international community, seem to buy this propaganda.

Following the capture of Mekelle by the federal government forces, the opposite of what many have feared to occur has happened. Now people are free, people have realized that the fate of the Tigrean people cannot be tied to the life span of a political party, which proved itself criminal at the end of the day.

People and professional journalists should carefully consume the social media messages of the privileged few Tigreans who happen to live abroad. Their lies, and sometimes genuine information formulated on unfounded fear, should not confuse the international community on the true needs of the public in the Tigray region.

Talk to people in the streets of Mekelle or anywhere in Tigray, they will gladly tell you that they are happy for not sacrificing their lives to the selfish needs of the TPLF clique who did almost nothing to the betterment of the Tigrean people during their nearly 30 years stay in power.

The government in concert with pertinent local and international partners has been providing the affected community in Tigray with all the needed humanitarian aids in addition to carrying out coordinated activities to sustainably rehabilitate the people.

I have observed that some Ethiopians who live abroad and those of Ethiopian origin are countering the false media narratives of TPLF sympathizers and reckless statements by some politicians and ‘scholars’ in Europe and the US. Some Ethiopians have gone to the extent of petitioning against statements made by our partners in Europe that failed to paint the true picture in Tigray. I appreciate all of these initiatives but a lot remains to be done.

Although the truth finally prevails, we should not idly wait for it to arrive. We should strive, at least, to minimize the damage that the lies inflict on the image of our country and our people. While thanking those compatriots who relentlessly try to disseminate the truth about the situation, I would like to remind all that you don’t need to be well versed to write complicated issues in defending the sovereignty of your country.

You can at least tweet unceasingly on the positive things of your country. You may have to prefer group efforts to individual ones to exert maximum pressure. Remember, we are now in a different time where technology is dramatically shifting the meaning and works of diplomats.

In a sense, with social media at hand, every Ethiopian living abroad is his country’s diplomat. The new diplomacy along with the traditional ones impersonated through our diplomats in various missions should work in tandem for exerting maximum pressure to keep our country’s integrity and well-being intact.

The way the media portrays the federal government’s law enforcement operation and the orchestrated heinous and inimical messages of some social media trollers is a wake-up call to our Ministry.

It has reminded us of the need to undertake institutional level transformation on using social media platforms in addition to the mainstream ones. We are now giving training to our staffers to make them fit the requirements of the new age diplomacy.

We have also been working with social media users who relate their works in various languages and subject matters to address audiences who are fragmented in line with age, language and other interests. Building media institutions that are well versed with the application of the new age communication platforms should also be the assignment of the government to dwell serious time on.

Source: Ethiopian Press Agency 

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