All Things Considered, NPR Owes Ethiopians an Apology

Here is what happened, NPR used a freelance reporter named Gregory Warner on its “All Things Considered” episode on June 5, 2016. The story alleged that “Kenenisa Bekele, world record holder athlete, has said he was not included in Ethiopia’s Olympic team as he was discriminated because of his ethnicity”. Based on that single line, the episode expounded on ethnic discrimination by providing an interview with an Ethiopian refugee in Kenya who supposedly claimed to face same ethnic discrimination in its running career.

It was a seemingly solid story that fit the usual stereotype of an African state. The problem? None of its accounts are factual.

The story started to unravel after hours of scrutiny by perplexed Ethiopian netizens. The statement attributed to Kenenisa Bekele was nowhere to be found. Kenenisa’s interview to pro-government radio in Ethiopia is only about “bias” and not “discrimination”. The reporter must have provided the host, Michel Martin, a contrived quote to corroborate his pitch for the quote to end up this way. Allegations of corruption and favoritism based on kinship are an annual drama in Ethiopia’s athletics Federation and wouldn’t be a juicy story for the reporter and the station.

When asked about it, Kenenisa said it was a bizarre twist of what he meant. “Athletes are selected for Rio Olympics at dinner parties in homes of some leaders of Athletes’ union”, Kenenisa later clarified.

In what looks like an apparent attempt to corroborate their weak story, the NPR duo found a refugee who, according to the translator, claimed he suffered similar ethnic discrimination. That interview was supposed to be a clincher for the story. What went wrong? It turned out the translator has made up the words about ethnic discrimination as it was absent in the speech of the refugee.

Logo - National Public Radio (NPR)
Logo – National Public Radio (NPR)

The reporter, Gregory Warner, tried to pile on the translator’s “mistake” with his unprofessional assertions about his imagined conflict between being an Oromo and supporting Ethiopia’s All-Oromo marathon team. It turns out, Gregory was more disappointed than the refugee Kamal with the fact that it is Ethiopia’s flag that will be flown in Rio. All things considered, It was an embarrassing (not to mention infuriating) show.

Kamal, the refugee Gregory interviewed, has claimed “runners that don’t agree with government policies are discriminated”. At the last paragraphs of the interview, he also claimed he was told “to be a pacemaker to another runner”. That seems to have been the type of bias he was describing. However, the translator NPR hired inserted the word “Tigrayans” in Kamal’s account changing Kamal’s statement into an ethnic discrimination one. Gregory jumped on the mistranslation and told us how it’s hard for an Oromo to fully support Ethiopian athletics team at the Olympics. That is an insult to Ethiopian Oromos who feel Ethiopian as much as other Ethiopians. I believe NPR has to learn from what Kenenisa has told AP correspondent in Ethiopia, that politics and ethnicity shouldn’t be an inserted in sports.

What makes this “ethnic discrimination” story bizarre is that Ethiopia’s marathon team is an all Oromo team, the ethnic group from which both Kenenisa and Kemal belong to. That fact alone would have been enough for any reporter or anchor worth his salt to doubt the story. But that requires journalistic diligence, which as was revealed by this debacle, is absent at the station.

For a country that came out of civil war a mere two decades ago, Ethiopia’s near total domination of long distance running has been a great source of pride. Ethiopian athletes are overwhelmingly ethnic Oromo and Bekoji, a district in Oromia, is considered the epicenter. The sector is probably one of the few sectors where only merit and not diversity is part of the governing principle. Hence, to allege ethnic discrimination of Oromos in a sector where almost all of the coaching stuff and the runners are Oromo can hardly be a mistake. It’s safe to assume a there is either a deliberate political ploy or it is the result of Gregory’s unsavory Ethiopian handlers. Which one is the case, is something NPR should answer.

When westerners take a dive into an issue and people they have no clue about, you would expect them to have the humility to admit their ignorance and be a bit more cautious on their reporting. Alas, that usually is not the case. They usually act like academic experts on the area, especially on issues in Africa. In this story, the reporter was a part-time reporter who was desperate for a sensational story. Fortunately for him, his station has had little interest to cross-check a story on Ethiopia, even though that story is of sensitive nature, one which could spoil Ethiopia’s political discourse as well as harm the Olympic team spirit.

The “ethics book” NPR claims to follow has this to say on accuracy. “Our purpose is to pursue the truth. Diligent verification is critical. We take great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context. In our reporting, we rigorously challenge both the claims we encounter and the assumptions we bring. We devote our resources and our skills to presenting the fullest version of the truth we can deliver, placing the highest value on information we have gathered and verified ourselves.” It is only appropriate for NPR to apologies for its disregard of the principles of journalism and its own ethics code.

The story had two testimonies and both were revealed to be non-factual in a matter of 24 hours. NPR has put a “correction” admitting that they made a “mistake” on the non-factual quote they attributed to Kenenisa. That was not a simple mistake but one that the entire story stood on as well as it is a highly sensitive allegation and it required more than a mere correction. Moreover, they are yet to put a “correction” on the last remaining “testimony” of the story that featured a mistranslated content, not to mention the identity and the alleged running career of the refugee is unverified and unverifiable).

When a media presents a two-testimony story only two find out both are inaccurate, it’s fair to expect the media to apologies for its listeners and Ethiopians for the dangerous smear it launched. Unless, of course, NPR stands for No Personal Responsibility.

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Fetsum Berhane

Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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