Time for some fact-checking at the New York Times?

(Feb. 03, 2012 – A Week in the Horn of Africa)

In the New York Times (January 28th) Nicholas Kristoff, in a column entitled “What’s he got to hide?”, claims he had been pursuing Ethiopia’s Prime Minister for several days at  the World Economic Forum at Davos to try and ask him about “a worsening pattern of brutality in Ethiopia.” He said that Meles refused to see him. I doubt if Prime Minister Meles (who was only in Davos for a day in any case) was bothered either way by a columnist of the NYT, but he surely wouldn’t want to see a journalist who made no effort to get his facts right, didn’t do any research on the subject, and was content to merely repeat allegations from Human Rights Watch which have been comprehensively rubbished by NGOs, international agencies, donors and others.

HRW’s last report on Gambella was based on a handful of interviews, most done outside the region as the footnotes admit, and got both facts and figures wrong. With its usual flawed methodology, it also refused to question the credentials of its interviewees and other sources or query their political affiliation. Kristoff also quotes from an earlier HRW report to claim that the government “uses foreign food to punish critics”. Well, actually it doesn’t, as other reports investigating this allegation conclusively demonstrated. None of the NGOs and international agencies, nor the donor’s Development Assistance Group (DAG), nor any of the embassy personnel from a dozen or more countries who have travelled in these areas and investigated these claims, have managed to come up with anything to support them. On investigation, HRW’s allegations simply don’t hold water, nor does its defence of criticisms which has been limited to the rather feeble and simplistic – “This finding is inconsistent with Human Rights Watch’s field research.”

Yes, certainly, it is possible to find some individuals who feel hard done by in the massive Productive Safety Net Program, which provided aid for 6.3 million people last year, or the Protection of Basic Services programs. Equally, in a program organizing the voluntary movement of 20,000 households in the last few months, one or two were, not surprisingly, dissatisfied with what they found on arrival in their new homes. In one or two cases there were also problems with water supplies and delays in the provision of facilities. No one denies it but to jump from this to sweeping allegations about large scale denial of food aid to people who may have voted for the opposition, the deliberate use of food aid for political purposes or massive forced resettlement, for none of which anyone can provide evidence, is lazy and poor journalism.

Kristoff’s failure to check his facts is not confined to HRW’s allegations. He quotes the editor of a paper who left (not fled) Ethiopia for the US in 2009. The paper wasn’t closed down by the government. It was shut down by its three editors after they had all left the country, and it was only once outside that they alleged they had been forced to flee the country. All have now been granted asylum in the US or the UK. Kristoff refers to another journalist facing charges, claiming his true crime was to call on the government to allow free speech and end torture. No it wasn’t. Eskinder’s ‘crime’ was to call for the overthrow of the government and for support to opposition organizations involved in terrorist activities in Ethiopia. And Ethiopia has been an-all-too-often target for terrorist activity. It was only last month that five tourists were deliberately murdered by an Eritrean-backed organization from across the border in Eritrea, and others kidnapped.

Kristoff starts off his piece with typical journalistic exaggeration about the apparent sufferings of the two Swedish journalists in prison in Ethiopia and now serving what are certainly very tough sentences after admitting illegally crossing into the Ogaden area of the Somali Regional State. Not surprisingly, Kristoff harks back to the case of his colleague, Jeffery Gettleman, who went into the same area in 2007 and claimed to have found a pattern of torture and rape by Ethiopian security forces before being expelled after a few days. Gettleman’s “evidence” for his claims was exclusively provided by the Eritrean-backed opposition group he was travelling with. It was a group which, inter alia, slaughtered 74 men, women and children working at an oil exploration camp, together with 9 Chinese workers, many died in their beds, indiscriminately killed in the attack in April 2007. Over the years, this group has been responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians who opposed them, as well as government officials and police; they have blown up civilian buses and other vehicles, planted land mines on pastoralist routes and burnt villages. These are the people Martin Schibbye and John Persson went into the region with, and despite Kristoff’s claims, they weren’t ‘bravely’ trying to investigate human rights abuses, they were sneaking in illegally (as they admitted) to try and dig up some dirt on a Swedish oil company. This wasn’t a display of courage; it was, at the very least, quite frankly stupid. Defending them certainly suggests double standards are at work.

The sentences might seem harsh, but Kristoff might have considered the whole issue of terrorism, and the response to it, in states which have suffered extensively from terrorism over a number of years as Ethiopia has, facing several terrorist groups armed and funded by a neighboring state. The atrocities seldom reach the international press, possibly because foreigners are seldom involved. No one reports on the dozens regularly killed or kidnapped along the Ethiopian Eritrean border by Eritrean-backed and organized opposition movements or the many hundreds killed and maimed by the ONLF in the Ogaden.

In his blog, Kristoff does wonder whether it is “parochial when we journalists focus on other journalists in trouble”. His answer is to claim that journalists are essentially the only way to provide accountability in a country like Ethiopia which he claims has no reliable institutions to look after human rights and create checks and balances, hasn’t a free election system, independent courts and so on. Actually it does have an Office of the Ombudsman and a Human Rights Commission, it does have an independent judiciary and it has held successful multi-party elections in 2005, 2008, and 2010. The failure to note any of this certainly begs a few questions about the behaviour of journalists even those writing for the New York Times (though its record of accuracy has been called into question in the past occasionally, hasn’t it?). It also and most importantly reinforces the necessity for getting the facts right and checking the allegations, claims and the political affiliations of one’s sources.

Kristoff claims he doesn’t want to see foreign aid cut off, because it is saving lives. Well and good, but in that case he shouldn’t be producing ill-informed, inaccurate articles which will be used by the people who supplied the information to try and induce exactly that aim. Almost all the comments on Kristoff’s blog were opposition supporters disinterested in the accuracy of his reporting and only interested in mindlessly insulting his targets. To allow oneself to be used in this way is lazy and incompetent: it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in these incoherent and fallacious musings.


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