Two British news outlets made headlines last week when they published a story on Ethiopia claiming it is a product of their ‘joint undercover investigation’. The two are: Newsnight program of BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and a recently launched British media pompously named ‘The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)’.
It was the Friday August 5 broadcast on BBC Newsnight, titled Ethiopia ‘using aid as weapon of oppression’, which claims ‘a joint undercover investigation by BBC Newsnight and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence…’, that gained wider public attention and strong criticism.
However, it was TBIJ which first published the story on its own website on Thursday, August 4 – an arrangement, as a rule, indicative of the primary sponsor of the joint project.
In fact, the three other British media – Telegraph(on Aug. 4), the Daily Mail and the Guardian (on Aug 5), which picked the story, relied on TBIJ’s post. Especially, the first two simply paraphrased and re-posted TTBIJ’s story. It was this version that was parroted by all other outlets branded as “BBC’s & TBIJ’s joint investigative report”.
Moreover, TBIJ published the story in 12 pieces, with different yet equally alarmist titles, claiming that it is the product of their joint investigation with BBC. Though the slicing of the story into 12 pieces might be intended for maximum impact, it helps us observe what was really uncovered during the ‘joint undercover investigation’.
Indeed, after posting 12 items, TBIJ cannot possibly claim there was something that was not presented for want of space. In fact, given the repetitions among the 12 items, we can be certain that they wrote down all they know or they think they know.
For these and other reasons indicated below, it is necessary and appropriate to discuss the stories posted on TBIJ website, so that we can judge whether there was really a ‘joint undercover investigation’ and what were its findings.
Dear reader: Make no mistake. I was as disturbed as you were upon reading the titles of the story by TBIJ and BBC Newsnight. I have no illusion that the state of Human Rights is ideal in this country. Surely, any allegations should be investigated and, if true, be prosecuted. If such crimes are found to be systematic and organized, the masterminds should literally be hanged publicly.
Yet, this doesn’t mean we should naively believe anyone who comes up with a report of rights violation. The credibility of the data and conclusions of a report depend on several factors. Before everything else, it must be based on a genuine research.
Thus, it is because you and me are concerned about human rights, that we shall critically review the story by TBIJ and BBC Newsnight and judge if it is in fact based on upon an investigation and its quality.
Let’s take a brief look at each of the stories.
The introductory post, titled ‘Revealed: Aid to Ethiopia increases despite serious human rights abuses’, is apparently intended to serve as a sort of summary/intro. It provides brief remarks on a range of issues with links to the other 11 posts.
However, there are three noteworthy points in this post.
By way of introduction, it claims:
An undercover investigation by the Bureau and BBC Newsnight reveals that as areas of Ethiopia fall victim to drought and famine, whole communities are being denied basic food, seed and fertilizer for failing to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The investigation has also gathered evidence of ongoing ethnic cleansing, mass detentions, the widespread use of torture and extra-judicial killings by Ethiopian government forces.
Note the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘famine’.
TBIJ provides nowhere on its website provides an explanation regarding the time and place of ethnic cleansing. Leave alone explanation, the word ethnic cleansing is not repeated anywhere on its website. Well, let’s consider this, for now, as some sort of unexplained mistake. By the way, this word is totally absent on BBC’s report, but repeated by other websites.
Similarly, there is no explanation for the word famine. To claim there is a famine in Ethiopia, TBIJ must either coin its own definition for famine (See: Famine defined). Or else, it should present data that meets the internationally agreed criteria of famine – just like United Nations did when it declared Famine in Somalia. We can assume TBIJ’s editors used the word famine in layman sense – to refer to lack of food, but that would be to question their intelligence.
Still the rest of the allegations are serious enough to startle any Ethiopian, or any human being for that matter. Of course, we have heard time and time again most of these allegations from the opposition parties and Human Rights Watch, while the government denies them.
But now, it is claimed, an investigative journalism found evidences that corroborate the allegations.
There is no need to resort into defining what the term ‘investigative journalism’ means and the quality of reports it is expected to produce. We all can agree that it doesn’t mean news roundup or summary, rather something new – new evidence or a fresh insight /understanding.
Thus, let’s go through the 11 posts and see the findings of the undercover investigative journalism work.
#1. The first post, titled ‘Aid as a weapon of political oppression in the Southern Regions’, begins with the following statement:
‘Perched in the arid south east of the country, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) is an area notorious for its precarious harvest……The region is heavily dependent on foreign aid, but according to many of the people the Bureau spoke to, aid is not getting through.
Many say that the lack of assistance here is because the region backed the opposition in the 2005 election. At the time it was thought that opposition parties had made great headway in what observers considered to be genuine, open and democratic elections.
But the results were never made public.
The opposition parties in the SNNPR filed one of the highest number of complaints, and ballots were re-held across 31 constituencies. But again the results were kept from the people.
And now insiders believe voters are continuing to pay the price of their ‘disloyalty’ to the ruling ENRPF, by being denied aid.’
Let’s generously ignore the relatively minor errors – like, the SNNRP region being located in the ‘south-east of the country’. But the claim that ballots for election 2005 were repeated ‘across 31 constituencies’ in the region and ‘the results were kept from the people’ reveals either they didn’t ask or were grossly misinformed about the issue. No doubt they didn’t bother to read election observers’ report, not even the one by Ana Gomez(whom they interviewed).
Yet, they boldly concluded the region is denied aid due to that election.
Let’s see the three ‘evidences’ presented to backup the claim of ‘denying aid for SNNPR’.
* The first evidence comes from a mother of seven who told them, during their visit to a small village in SNNPR:
‘The situation is desperate. If the family cannot do their business [begging] we would have nothing. It all depends what the children get. Apart from the grace of god we are living. There is nothing we can do. We have been abandoned. It is a matter of chance if we live or die.’
Sad, Ethiopia doesn’t have a comprehensive social welfare system and no doubt most of the beggars have a few or no alternatives. But the journalists could have found such beggars in Addis Ababa and need not make a ‘secret journey’ to observe that. But how does this evidence that the region is denied Humanitarian aid?
Unsurprisingly, the Guardian, which apparently, noted the flaw said, when reporting the TBIJ & BBC story, said:
‘[it is] development aid in Ethiopia is alleged to have been withheld from those opposed to the government. These are longer-term funds aimed at poverty reduction, not the emergency aid currently needed.’
However, as we saw at the beginning, TBIJ clearly claimed that ‘An undercover investigation… reveals that,…whole communities are being denied basic food.’
Last I checked, it is Humanitarian aid needed for people who are between life and death, like the mother quoted above, not a long-term development aid.
* The second evidence is a ‘secret’ meeting with a group of ‘elders’, which was presented as follows:
‘In the south we met a group of village elders. Scared for their lives, they met us in scrub land on the edge of the village.
“Fertilizers and good seeds are only given to those in good favour. The poor never get anything. We registered for aid, but they told us we were late. That is the only reason they gave.’
One of the group added: ‘Due to my political views my land has been taken away. My children are dispersed. The clothes that I wear are provided by my relatives living abroad. They took away my farm land, it went to the local authority – the only judge as such. I’m only surviving by working on other people’s farms”’.’
You can imagine who arranged the ‘secret meeting’. Of course, the journalists and the ‘elders’ didn’t bump into one another in Sheraton Addis Hotel or via Facebook. Surely, there might be farmers who are unjustifiably denied of services. I don’t think the government denies flaws in its service provision. On the other hand, individuals could exaggerate or misrepresent facts for political or some other reason. Plus, there are already similar stories in the Human Rights Watch report last year. So, what is needed was not more unverified and probably unverifiable stories.
The question here is that whether there is a systemic and widespread denial of development aid or public services. The answer is no, according to repeated assessments by DAG – a consortium of 26 donor countries and organizations in Ethiopia.
Curiously, the ‘investigative journalism’ somehow ignored DAG’s reports.
* The third and last evidence comes from an Interview with Prof. Beyene Petros, an opposition party leader. It was reported as follows:
‘He told us that opposition supporters are being turned away when they try to register for food aid, seeds or fertilizer. Instead they are told to rely on the parties they voted for.’
Notably, it seems Beyene Petros only claimed that ‘opposition supporters’ are denied of Humanitarian and development aid. I hope he doesn’t claim the entire region or village is his supporter. If so, then the allegation by TBIJ & BBC went even farther than their source – an opposition leader.
#2. The second post, titled ‘Case studies: Voices of the tortured’, provides brief, yet horrific sad, stories of 6 individuals, who allegedly been arrested without warrant and tortured by Ethiopian forces.
Understandably, names are not disclosed. Yet, even the time and place of their alleged is arrest is not clearly indicated, except for one or two. However, when BBC Newsnight presented the same story, it was indicated that the interviews took place ‘in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.’
That is why, Ethiopia’s Dep. Ambassador to the UK, Abdirashid Dulane, a ethnic-Somali himself, criticized the journalist for relying on information provided by ONLF people in the Dadaab camp in Kenya.
But that is not the point here. Human Rights Watch had already made such allegations based on similar interviews in Dadaab camp. And, the Ethiopian government rejected it for the same reason. Both the statements by Human Rights Watch and the Ethiopian government are available online.
Worse, TBIJ stated a disclaimer at the top of the story:
‘The Bureau has spoken to many in Ethiopia who claim to have been arrested or tortured by the Ethiopian authorities. Similarly, BBC noted We cannot substantiate these individual allegations.’
So, where is the ‘case study’?
#3. The next post has an even more provocative title: ‘Reign of terror in Maikelawi detention centre’. Despite what the title, there is practically nothing in this post.
It claims ‘according to opposition members it is mostly political opponents who are taken to the police’s Central Investigation Centre in Maikelawi.’
It briefly repeats a story of an individual that was already presented in the post discussed above.
It quotes a Human Rights Watch’s report.
Then, unsurprisingly, it presents torture claims by two individuals. These two names and stories had already been presented several months ago in an article prepared and circulated by ‘GInbot 7’ claiming that its members, who took part in its failed plot to assassinate officials in 2009, were tortured.
It is not unlikely that the journalist of TBIJ & BBC copied the stories from that article.
Here again, as if to underline the hollowness of the post, TBIJ stated that it ‘has been unable to independently identify each of the testimonies.’
Then, I ask, what was that TBIJ & BBC investigated at all?
#4. The fourth post, titled ‘Abuse and terror in the Ogaden’, begins claiming:
‘The war-torn Ogaden region in Ethiopia is a land scarred by terror. …..An ongoing struggle for autonomy is being fought between the outlawed ONLF and Eth military.’
This very statement indicates the journalists relied solely on what ONLF told them, since ONLF avoids the word ‘secession’ when it contacts westerners. Though, its political program, available on its official website, clearly declares that it’s struggling ‘for the removal of [Ethiopian] colonial military forces’ from Ogaden. Again, it is ONLF which insists on calling the Somali region as Ogaden, though there are Somali clans in the region that do not belong to the Ogaden lineage.
After such a flawed introductory remark, which reveals the ‘depth’ of the ‘investigative journalism’, the post goes on to claiming:
An undercover investigation by the Bureau and the BBC’s Newsnight provides new evidence of ongoing brutal human rights abuses by Ethiopian government forces.
Well, let’s see the four ‘new evidences’:
* The first evidence is a couple of pictures described as:
‘Human Rights Watch and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) produced before and after satellite images of villages razed to the ground.’
Now the investigation clearly turned to mere Googling, as this is no new evidence or new analysis. Though goggle mysteriously hide from them the 47-pages long investigative report by the Ethiopian government, which extensively discusses what the satellite images do and do not tell. (See: Flawed Methodology, Unsubstantiated Allegations – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2008)
* The second evidence is presented as follows:
‘in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world in northern Kenya, there are thousands, who have fled from the Ogaden region, claiming to have been subjected to horrific abuses by Ethiopian government troops.’
Then, it briefly quotes two individuals who were already presented in the post we discussed above at #2.
* The third evidence is a quote from another document as follows:
‘a 2010 report the UN Committee Against Torture stated concern about numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by state security officers against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorist suspects and alleged supporters of insurgent groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).’
Yes, the UN Committee Against Torture said that last November and recommended Ethiopia ‘to investigate, prosecute and punish all acts of torture’. But the Committee does not conduct investigations, thus has no original report. It simply makes recommendations after reviewing the government’s report and allegations made against it.
In this case, reports of allegations against Ethiopia were made by Human Rights Watch and 4 other ‘local’ NGOs, which actually operate in Diaspora and clearly affiliated to OLF and ONLF. Having seen the ‘numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations’ presented by the five NGOs, it recommended the government ‘to investigate, prosecute and punish’ the allegations.
This is a 9 month old story. The cause of the ‘consistency’ of the allegations of the 6 NGOs is no mystery and the way the Committee operates and makes recommendations is known to all who cared to inquire.
What was needed was for an investigative journalism is that indicates the allegations are true or not. Not a misleading copy-paste work.
* The fourth evidence is a couple photos described as: ‘These photographs show villages razed to the ground in the Ogaden region.’ [These are the same photographs presented in another post we will discuss at #6 below]
Then, the post is concluded with the following statement:
‘Recently the ONLF’s status as a terrorist organisation means that all individuals who associate with the group are at risk of being arrested on terrorism charges.’
You may be wondering whether ‘associating with ONLF’ wasn’t a crime even before the Ethiopian parliament, and later IGAD, proscribed ONLF as terrorist last June. Curiously, their update on ONLF’s status failed to include the fact that ONLF murdered some 70 Ethiopian and Chinese civilians and publicly bragged about it. In fact, they even failed to note the UN report which revealed its link in Eritrean terrorism.
So much for investigative journalism.
But, there are a few more irrelevant post.
#5. The relevance of the fifth post, titled ‘Leaked reports expose abuses’, could only be to dramatize the whole issue and to play with the curiosity of readers to leaked and secret documents.
I am not going to discuss, for now, a number of important questions that any journalist should ask when presented with a ‘leaked’ document. In short,
* The e-mails were allegedly sent by Timothy Clarke, former EU Ambassador to Ethiopia at the time, to his bosses in Brussels between May 24-July 8, 2005. Mark you, the ballot of election 2005 took place on May 15 and the post-electoral violence went on and off until November.
* The e-mails do not reveal anything that has not been already reported by the government and the media.
If there is anything new in the-mails, it is the following remark by the Ambassador concerning the interview of the leader of a now-defunct coalition with BBC hard talk on July 2005. Ambassador Timothy Clarke wrote:
‘The Chair of CUD, Hailu Shawel, was interviewed last night on Hardtalk, one day after Meles [Zenawi]. He came across very badly, incoherent and inarticulate. He committee the cardinal sin of lying – denying several times any CUD involvement in a CUD Press Release inciting violence – yet I was in a meeting with him at the very moment the Press Release came out, where I strongly criticized him for the text. He also threatened that CUD MPS may not take up their seats in Parliament – this is against the Declaration.’
[the ‘declaration’ was an agreement signed, after the June 2005 violence, by major parties to resolve their issues vial legal and peaceful means.]
This is one of the few important items in the e-mails. Because, as Ambassador Timothy Clarke himself clearly indicated, he was not out of his office during the violence, nor did he visit detention centers and hospitals. Thus, much of his knowledge about matters on the street is second-hand information.
The editor of TBIJ and the other media apparently sensed this, thus emphasized more on their claim that Amb. Timothy Clarke ‘requested for strong response from EU’ but the latter ignored.
To the contrary, throughout the e-mails Timothy Clarke is seen advising his bosses in Brussels to be patient. In fact, at one point he criticizes a strong-worded draft statement prepared by the European Parliament to criticise the post-election situation as ‘hectoring, untimely and unhelpful’ and urged for its revision.
At any rate, these six years old ‘leaked e-mails’ could only serve, at best, to tell the post-election 2005 saga. It takes a stretch of imagination, or the lack of it, to conclude that whatever defects observed then still exist.
#6. The six post, titled ‘In Pictures: Ogaden villages burned’, needs no discussion, as it speaks for itself.
‘These images purport to show villages in the Ogaden burned by Ethiopian forces as part of a campaign against the ethnic Ogaden people.
These images were handed to the Bureau by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an opposition movement which has been labeled a ‘terrorist group’ by the Ethiopian government. We have not been able to independently verify these photographs.’
Then, it displays 8 photos – some of which apparently taken from one place but different angles.
#7. The seventh post, titled ‘In Pictures: Civilian victims of violence’, is similarly presented by ONLF.
It is described as:
‘These images purport to show evidence of violence inflicted on civilians in the Ogaden region by Ethiopian forces….These images were handed to the Bureau by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).….we have not been able to independently verify these photographs.’
Then, it presents 8 photos of apparently 5 individuals.
#8. The next post, titled ‘In Pictures: Forced displacement in the Ogaden’, similarly states:
‘While reporting undercover in Ethiopia’s the Bureau and Newsnight team were handed photographs taken in the Ogaden region. We were told the pictures show displaced people but have been unable to corroborate pictures.’
Then, it displays 7 photographs claiming that they ‘were taken in June and July 2011.’ How the hell did they know that? They were not even able to confirm the authenticity of the photos, let alone know the date!
I shall hastily note that, it is strange that the journalists would go the SNNP Region rather than to the Ogden zone of Somali region, during their alleged ‘undercover travel’ to Ethiopia. There is no restriction in the first one, while foreigners need to notify the authorities when traveling to the Ogaden area – for reasons of national security and their own safety, as ONLF frequently kidnaps and assassinates foreigners.
#9. The ninth post, titled ‘Analysis: Europe’s taxpayers fund abuses in Ethiopia’, is an article written by Ana Gomes – a Portuguese Member of European Parliament who served as head of EU election observatory team in 2005.
There is nothing new on Ana Gomez’s article. In fact, it contains less information and more factual errors compared to her previous public statements – which indicates the lady has become even more forgetful of objective facts and focused on ideological positions.
This is more evident when she says:
‘[Meles] Zenawi’s rule is… a source of regional instability, as Somalia is showing…..[Somalia’s] Al Shabab militia have only grown stronger and survival has been made more difficult, as current famine attests, since Ethiopian troops invaded in 2006, at the behest of George W. Bush.’
I am not going to debate whether Ethiopia intervened in Somalia to protect its own interest, whether it was successful, etc. What surprises me of such statements is that the contradiction between claiming that ‘George Bush ordered Ethiopia’ and, at the same time, ‘Ethiopia is to be blamed.’ How could they ‘blame’ Ethiopia if it is by United States order?
More relevant to our issues is that TBIJ forgot to mention there were other observers in 2005 election – not even the Carter Center observers’ mission led by frm. US President Jimmy Carter himself.
They also forgot to inform readers that Ana Gomez officially backs ‘Ginbot 7’, led by Berhanu Nega(PhD), which, along its allies OLF and ONLF, is recently proscribed a terrorist group by the regional inter-governmental body IGAD.
At any rate, Ana Gomez’s account is several years old and of historical interest, if any. On other hand, her implied claim that Prof. Beyen is not a major opposition leader contradicts with TIBJ’s presentation of Beyene Petros in the post I discussed at #1 above.
#10. As if the blunders in the other posts were not enough, TBIJ provided a post titled ‘Ethiopia: the definitive guide’, which reveals further the shallowness of the ‘investigative journalism’.
Just three examples suffice to indicate that it should have been titled ‘a misleading guide to Ethiopia’.
* ‘the Derg or Mengistu regime was in power from 1974 until 1987.’ Then, who was in power from 1987-1991?
* ‘There are 2 state owned newspapers as well as three private owned and two business weekly publications.’ I am not sure of the current total number, but I am certain there are several dozens publications currently in print. In fact, 11 newspapers and 31 magazines were registered between July 2010 and June 2011.
* ‘There are over 30 political parties in Ethiopia and general elections are held every five years.’ Actually, about 90 political participated in the election last year – of which, only 10 parties are members or associates of the coalition currently in power.
#11. Perhaps, the motive of the ‘investigative journalism’ is indicated in the final post, titled ‘Get the data: UK Aid to Ethiopia’.
The data is incomplete, not that informative, and even misleading, to say the least.
For example, it claims: ‘Today the country is receiving £290m, making it the largest recipient of UK aid in Africa.’
What about the data of aid per capita, which puts Ethiopia at the tenth aid recipient of UK aid in Africa? That is why, the Development Assistance Group (DAG-Ethiopia), the consortium of 16 Donor countries and agencies said last year, Ethiopia remains ‘comparatively under-aided on a per capita basis’.
The political motive of the data presentation becomes evident when it comments:
‘the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC), which receives USD$6m in aid has consistently failed to report human rights abuses, torture and rape of the political opposition in prisons.’
Mind you it doesn’t say EHRC failed to investigate allegation, rather ‘failed to report.’ Last I checked, EHRC receives supports to enhance its capacity to investigate allegations.
This might sound odd to some organizations which attract donors by reporting all sorts of allegations without a meaningful effort to verify. Perhaps, TBIJ, which is founded by 2 million USD donations from an NGO that also funds Human Rights Watch, is one of them.