Western Media Mischaracterising and Misrepresenting Tigray War – One BBC article as an example

What is considered an acceptable standard of journalism by the BBC, in the context of the Tigray war, continues to be striking – though not in the least surprising.

Let us take an article headlined ”Ethiopia war in Tigray: Eritrean soldiers accused of rape despite peace deal” that was published by BBC News on Wednesday 15 February 2023.

If a similar article was written in the context of the Ukraine war, there would certainly be an international outcry, and the author would – rightly – likely soon find themselves unemployed.

But – due to historic reasons – Ethiopian society and politics have been so little understood – by many Africans, by the West, and by the international community – and the BBC has simply not been in a position to produce better-quality articles on the topic, but no one seems to mind, or to find it necessary to call out the BBC. As a powerful example, let us take this article – being generous in our criticism.

■ “Ethiopia war in Tigray: Eritrean soldiers accused of rape despite peace deal”
Why not call it ‘Tigray war’?

That is a rather misleading ‘headline’. The fact that Eritrean soldiers have been raping girls and women in Tigray has been documented and established beyond any doubt. It is quite strange to use the word ‘accused’ in such a context. A phrase like ‘credible reports of …’ would have been a journalistically more acceptable choice.

■ “Ethiopia’s government signed a peace deal with forces from the northern Tigray region last November …”
Oh, so the TPLF and leaders from Tigray are no longer referred to as ‘rebels’. Bravo! Let us give credit where credit is due.

■ “Forces from Tigray have also been accused of sexually assaulting women in the Amhara region as they made a push towards Ethiopia’s capital.”

There it is again, all in the service of ‘neutrality’: ‘both sides have done it; others have suffered, too’.
No one is denying that there were reports of rape in the Amhara region. But it is just not correct, and grossly misleading, to, somehow, juxtapose or compare the situations. In order to understand the nature of the Tigray war, it is crucial to make the distinction: As is always the case in wartime, all sides have suffered, both sides committed crimes. But only the Ethiopian government and its Eritrean and, to a lesser extent, Amhara militia, allies have used rape as a weapon of war, as a strategy – constituting an element of genocide.

■ “Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died in the war”
That has been established. There is no ‘are thought to’ about it.

■ “For two years, from November 2020, the two sides in the civil war fought for control of Tigray. The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.”

That is factually incorrect, a mischaracterisation, at best. The Abiy government tried to remove the TPLF – which had got a majority in the (constitutionally mandated, many have argued) regional elections in September 2020 – from power. The death toll is, not ‘could be’, in the hundreds of thousands.

■ “There was hope that after the peace agreement was signed in November, the assaults on civilians would stop.”
No, there really was not. It has been evident that the Abiy government never negotiated in good faith; and it has no control over Eritrea’s troops.

■ “… journalists are not being given government permission to travel to Tigray.”
That is a misleading statement; it might be rephrased: “journalists who did not echo the regime’s narrative have not been given government permission …”

The government’s strategy has been to prevent any information that contradicts its narrative from getting out of Tigray (this France24 article being a perfect example ). The communication blackout that was put in place, right at the start of the war, was simply part of the government’s strategy, and understanding that is crucial for understanding the nature of the Tigray war – and reporting on it accurately.

■ “It is difficult to know the true number of sexual assaults committed during the war.”
Try “hundreds of thousands”. Again: That has been established. Why not simply state the facts?

■ “… while telecommunications had been cut off during the fighting.”
That is a grossly misleading way of putting it. A near-total communication blackout was put in place by the federal government and its responsible agencies at the very start of the war. Had that not been the case, the international community would have had a much clearer picture in the first place – which would, in all likelihood, have resulted in the isolation of the Abiy government, in much the same way Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea (in other words: the five countries that voted not to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine) have been isolated and considered dictatorial regimes by the international community.

The communication blackout was a very deliberate strategy by the Abiy government. If this fact is not properly understood, the nature of the Tigray war cannot be understood.

■ “According to data from the official Tigray Health Bureau in November and December 2022 – after the peace deal was signed – 852 cases were reported in centres set up to help survivors.”
And what would be considered the ‘official Health Bureau’? Would that be one staffed with either individuals the Abiy government approves of or employees too scared to do their job, or an institution that is staffed with conscientious bureaucrats? It is not clear from the text.

■ “President Isaias Afwerki denies all allegations of atrocities by Eritrean forces”
President Putin denies all allegations of atrocities by Russian forces. It is what dictatorial leaders will always do, and has no journalistic value whatsoever. Why state the obvious and expected?

■ “We have sent the allegations in this report to the Ethiopian government’s communications minister and the African Union, which brokered the peace deal, for comment, but neither have responded.”
You might have noticed, by now, that Abiy Ahmed’s government will either not respond to, or categorically deny, allegations of atrocities, or use a standard phrase like, ‘These allegations will be investigated, and the perpetrators held accountable.’. It will only – all too happily – engage with a free press, if it can safely assume that the resulting story will echo its plainly propagandist narrative.

■ “Some families have been reunited and others have spoken to each other for the first time in more than a year.”
Factually wrong. Why not ask people? They would have told you that many had not spoken to friends or family since the start of the war, for about two years.

■ “Ms Bader says investigations will be crucial if survivors are to get justice and for any reconciliation process.”
By now, you might possibly have noticed that the Abiy government does not have the least bit of interest in justice for the victims, accountability and the like.

■ “The mother of three had already fled her home in Humera to the town of Shirao …!
Very embarrassing error! The town is called Shiraro.

■ “Satellite images taken on 26 September and released by the company Maxar Technologies, showed the build-up of what appeared to be Eritrean or Ethiopian forces in Shiraro.”
AT this point, we must acknowledge the value of this company’s contribution in the context of both the Tigray war and the Ukraine war.

■ “The war raged for two years but was largely hidden from the world’s view, with communications cut off and entry restricted”
Alas, the international community and media organisations – including the BBC – still have, apparently, not connected the dots: The communication blackout was part of the government’s war strategy. Its aim was exactly that: that the war should ‘largely be hidden from the world’s view’. As could be observed, this strategy worked horrifically well. This very article is another powerful example of that.

Understanding this is necessary, in order to understand the nature of the Tigray war – and would, in all likelihood, have resulted in the international community isolating the Abiy government and considering Ethiopia to be among the dictatorial regimes of the world; along with Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea – the ally without which the Abiy government could never have gone to war with Tigray in the first place.

■ “The peace deal requires them to leave Tigray and though they have pulled out of major cities and towns, they maintain a presence in areas close to their border with Tigray.”

For decades, Isaias Afwerkih has strived to weaken Tigray, to destroy his arch enemy, the TPLF, and to, as much as possible, undermine, control and exploit Ethiopia for his regime’s benefit. That is a well known fact, which the BBC, surely, must take into account. Eritrean troops will not leave – unless they have no choice. Isaias will not withdraw his conscripts of his own accord.

Not understanding or mischaracterising these issues makes it impossible to understand the nature of the Tigray war – and to report on it accurately.