Last week, Bofta Yimam, a reporter for the United States’ Fox 13 News, caught some attention in the Ethiopian media. She is an American journalist of Ethiopian origin and winner of the Regional Emmy Award for excellent reporting, for 2013.
Of course, she is not the first Ethiopian journalist to be given an award by a Western organisation. It is customary to read such news at the end and beginning of each Gregorian year. But, such awards come with little surprise, if any, because the prospective awardees are known long before the award committee convenes.
Almost as a rule, the journalists nominated for such awards are those in prison or in self-exile, whereas Bofta is awarded for reports that helped the adoption of a new legislation in Tennessee State, United States, regarding convicted rapists.
The major flaw with the practice of focusing on opposition journalists is that it is unrepresentative of the profession as a whole. If we follow the same logic when awarding medical doctors, the awardees will always be doctors who administer unauthorized medical services. No matter how much we may support those services, not all such doctors have noble motives. More importantly, the medical profession has broader objectives and utilities.
Westerners know this very well. In fact, some of them are sincere enough to disclose that their main intention is to help journalists in trouble and give them publicity, as well as to encourage others.
This could be taken as a legitimate objective if it was clearly communicated, either in the form of "help wanted" ads or labeling the awards "opposition journalist of the year". It should also be accompanied by a comprehensive and accurate account of the awardees, including; bio-notes, previous works, civic and political engagements, and particular cases of dispute with the government.
As it turns out, however, the organisations do not have such information in the first place. That is what one would infer when Human Rights Watch conspicuously omitted the name of Asqual newspaper, owned and managed by Eskinder Nega, in its latest awards press release. The move was not accidental, rather a tactic employed by a number of western activist organisations since October 2012, when copies of Eskinder’s newspaper surfaced in the Ethiopian blogosphere.
Gathering comprehensive and accurate information in advance would have saved them from such embarrassment. But, it would also have helped them to pick the best journalists from among the imprisoned and exiled.
The task could be onerous. After all, most organisations rely on one or two experts sitting in Nairobi, Kenya, covering about a dozen countries. Despite the scale of their statements on Ethiopia, they do not even have a desk for Ethiopia.
They rather rely on telephone information from "trusted" journalists and opposition politicians in Addis Abeba. Finances, however, could be a problem. And language is also a barrier, especially given the practice of using, both in the state and private media, different tones and expressions when writing in Amharic and English.
However, there is little reason to suggest that resource constraint is the primary factor. In fact, at times it seems that they are in some sort of power contest with Addis Abeba.
Their reluctance to issue corrections, let alone an apology, is telling. Even in such highly rare instances, such as the Reporters without Borders (RSF) retraction of its statement alleging a ban on Skype, a software application that enables free worldwide calls, it was crafted with the obvious intent of mending its relationship with the government, whilst trying not to be seen as bowing down to it, by adding further far-fetched allegations. The lesson for the local media was that misreporting is acceptable as long as it helps the anti-regime lobby.
Indeed, the intent to promote such partisan journalism is conducted in more explicit ways, through endorsement of such works and providing financial assistance. Unsurprisingly, these acts are taken as canons by other Western agencies with little direct knowledge of the profession or the reality on the ground.
At this point, one may ask, what is the merit of criticising what some foreign organisations do with their own money? In an ideal world, it would have not been relevant, as long as their financiers and taxpayers were okay with it.
But we cannot dismiss it, as such, in the case of Ethiopia.
To begin with, the Ethiopian private press had a skewed growth. It is badly shaped by the types of publications at its initial phase, namely the tendency to sensationalise, even fabricate, stories, which was deemed necessary, both to surpass the lack of a reading culture and to advance the political agenda of its publishers. This trend is still prevalent in the media. Despite signs of improvements in the first of the two factors, the highly prohibitive printing costs and meager access to information forces the press to scramble for a market share by all means.
On the other hand, the ruling party appears content with its strategy of containment – the deployment of administrative and legal tools to ensure that the press doesn’t become a driver of regime-change. If it has a bigger and clearer vision for the private press, it is probably collecting dust on shelves somewhere.
Although this is not an approach befitting of a "dominant party", that eyes leading the nation for decades to come, such uneasiness with the press is common among governments. Despite whatever impressive quotes of Western statesmen we read in history books, the actual progress obtained in these countries was a result of bottom-up developments, not the other way round.
Unfortunately, there is little social capital or organised effort by local journalists to nurture the profession. Let alone setting minimum standards and consistently standing by them, many of them are busy labeling one another, both publicly and in private.
That couples with a work ethic dominated by the mentality of shortcuts, rather than persistence and dedication. Misconducts, ranging from plagiarism to defamation, from misleading reports to blatant falsifications, are acceptable as long as it gets the intended result at the end of the day.
After all, what is at stake is earning positive ratings from one’s side.
The ruling party hardly rebukes friendly media for such misconduct, claiming it is up to the aggrieved to lodge complaints with the law enforcement agencies. Knowing that the aggrieved opposition politicians deem lodging complaints as recognising the regime, and thus they hesitate from doing so.
The Westerners, on the other hand, have their own extraneous reasons. They probably perceive this as an acceptable standard for the profession in a "backward’ country. Unseating the ruling party is also deemed a good idea given its ideological stance, which displeases them, and given their lofty notion that a revolution is always for the better. There is also an element of patronage, as is com
mon among institutions with little transparency and accountability. Putting their weight behind individuals and outlets that have a cosy relationship with them is a way of proving their power.
Amidst this, however, journalists who follow the path of Bofta Yimam will remain a rare specie in the local media.
* A version of this article was published on Daniel Berhane’s weekly column "Capital Insight" on Addis-Fortune on Feb. 10, 2013, originally titled "To Losers Go the Awards".