The Economist magazine and reporting on Ethiopia - a comment on the Gardner case (Prof. Jon Abbink)

The Economist magazine and reporting on Ethiopia

– a comment on the Gardner case

⇐ Prof. Jon Abbink

[Originally at: https://medium.com/@JonAbbink/the-economist-magazine-and-reporting-on-ethiopia-a-comment-on-the-gardner-case-d4e4f39d8ad1]

  1. The Economist is a reputable, quality news magazine which many people read with great interest. The magazine owes it to its readers to maintain the highest standards. But its reputation is tarnished by the recent affair around their correspondent for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, Tom Gardner, who accused Canadian researcher Ann Fitz-Gerald, in a letter of 1 May 2022 straight to her publisher, the McDonald Laurier Institute, of being ‘unethical’ in her research, having contact with ‘a lobby firm’, and using wrong references (see his leaked letter).
  2. Prof. Fitz-Gerald recently published a unique, and indeed path-breaking empirical study on victims of the Ethiopia conflict, this time Tigrayans who escaped from Tigray Region as IDPs or combatants (children among them) forcibly conscripted by the insurgent ‘Tigray Peoples Liberation Front’ (TPLF), and others in great humanitarian need. There are many thousands of them, accepted and taken care of as much as possible in relief camps in northern Ethiopia, outside their region of origin, Tigray. Fitz-Gerald’s paper gives voice to such ordinary Tigrayans, about whom much is asserted by others but who are hardly if ever interviewed freely or asked to speak their minds. Not by Tom Gardner either, although for the past year-and-a-half of this conflict he has been sitting in Addis Ababa. He hardly ever tried to go the real ‘field’.[1]

Gardner accused Prof. Fitz-Gerald on specious grounds. She has impeccable academic credentials. His complaining to the publishing institution is unacceptable and it was not focused on the contents of her article. He simply has no serious case against her.

  1. That Prof. Fitz-Gerald may have contacts with a PR firm, in this case ‘Actum’, is nothing unusual; this does not dictate what she does or writes, and it does not pay her. They probably help her in communicating with/to media and press outlets. That is sometimes necessary because the global press is much dominated by faulty stories and semi-informed journalists who are predominantly favouring the highly questionable narrative of pro-TPLF circles, that actively solicit and approach these global media all the time (like the hopeless CNN). Not to speak of the TPLF employing a real US ‘lobby’ firm, Von Batten-Montagu-York, to work with all means possible on US State Department people and Members of Congress. But the narrative of the TPLF, the violent insurgent movement that started this war in the night of 3–4 November 2020, with a mass slaughter on sleeping federal non-Tigrayan army personnel in bases in Tigray, cannot last. Their unreliable stories, and often outright fabrications, are not durable.
  2. Tom Gardner is one of the journalists often buying in to these facile pro-TPLF story-lines, highly influenced by the digital ‘mafia’ seemingly run by and operating in favour of the TPLF, and by their dubious media outlets like ‘Tigray Media House’ (it’s the equivalent of ‘Russia Today’).

From his reaction to Fitz-Gerald’s excellent paper it seems that Gardner might be kind of jealous that she came out with such an eye-opening story which reveals more valuable information than he has produced in the past year.

  1. Once more, Gardner’s complaint against Prof. Fitz-Gerald holds no water and is deeply embarrassing for The Economist. The fact that Gardner — indeed presenting himself in his complaint letter as an Economist journalist — lodges such a direct complaint to the publishing institution is simply unheard-of and unacceptable. But it is not so surprising, seeing the negative and tendentious reports he already published in The Economist on the Ethiopia conflict. Many people were always surprised how The Economist, as a ‘balanced’ and critical magazine, could publish such biased and opinionated stories about this conflict and keep that terrorist TPLF movement (designated so by the Ethiopian Parliament in May 2021) out of the limelight, shielding it from criticism. There are no reasons for this. Certainly, we are not going to defend the Ethiopian federal government in all that it has done or does, but that TPLF movement is a terrible outfit, much much worse. There are of course great humanitarian problems in Tigray, but mostly responsible for them is the TPLF itself. More and more information on the misery and bizarre narratives produced by this movement and its supporters is now coming out (see below), and it is time that The Economist follows suit in covering this. It is unlikely that Tom Gardner can play a role here.

The facts and analysis in Prof. Fitz-Gerald’s paper are increasingly confirmed from other sources — once again, her paper is based on fieldwork and actually interviewing and observing Tigrayan victims of war, instead of only speculating about them in Addis Ababa or talk only the TPLF cadres, like so many journalists seem to do. But many reporters refuse to take in the new facts that break the tired narrative of the TPLF. Much of this information was already available also in Amharic-language media and online news channels in Ethiopia — which Tom Gardner apparently does not follow (one example: Araya Tesfamariam, an Addis Ababa journalist of Tigrayan background, interviewing a Tigrayan doctor from Meqele).

A very substantial number of Tigrayans in Ethiopia (we don’t know how many in Tigray, because TPLF allows no independent researchers and no dissenting opinions there) do not support the agenda and the behaviour of TPLF elite and army, and begin to speak out if they can. I refer to a few of such sources, specifically on the topic of Prof. Fitz-Gerald’s paper:

– An interview with Tigrayan women on forced conscription and services to TPLF combatants

– A statement from the opposition Tigray Democratic Party (TDP), opposed to the TPLF

– And for those who read Amharic, a report on TPLF forced conscriptions and arrests of Tigrayan parents not ‘cooperating’.

To ultimately solve Ethiopia’s violent conflict and the societal mayhem in the North and West, there is a need to connect to such broader constituencies of people who appear to be oppressed by elites who have appointed themselves as their ‘leaders’ and may seriously differ with them. We have to get back to reasonable discourse on Ethiopia’s political future and to recognition of the painful facts, from whatever side.

To say the least, it is disappointing to see the unethical, sanctimonious complaint behaviour by Tom Gardner — as an The Economist journalist. As a so far pretty loyal reader of this magazine, it has sunk in my esteem. At issue here is honest reporting, keeping research standards, and tolerating different views and good arguments, not stifling them. With people like Gardner, who seems not very well-versed in the history and cultures of Ethiopia and is apparently too biased to do fair reporting jobs and who undermines other people with no good reason, it will be hard to stay loyal to the The Economist. If Gardner would relocate, to report from, say, Myanmar, then I would gladly return as a reader.


[1] Except for his article with an interesting case study on a man in Debarek, northern Ethiopia. But again, Gardner does his best here to doubt the TPLF massacre of civilians in Ch’enna, to doubt all federal government information, and to picture the local man (Solomon), impacted by the TPLF-imposed war and his experience of their abuse, as a kind of extremist. Incorrect and unfair. Also Gardner’s use of the term ‘civil war’ in Ethiopia is wrong: the conflict is not a civil war, but an armed insurgency of a violent elite group that wanted to take over federal power.

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