Why is Tigray forgotten? A call for a journalism that cares

Why is Tigray forgotten? A call for a journalism that cares

It is undeniable that the war on Tigray has been grossly underreported in global media and received less international attention than other conflicts and disasters. Since the start of the genocide in November 2020, Tigray has had to fight not only for the humanitarian aid it desperately needs but for the recognition of the brutal atrocities that have caused the need for the aid. 

Valuable energy from humanitarian international organizations has to be dedicated to spreading awareness about the genocidal war that has killed as many as 500,000 civilians and led millions more to be at risk of starvation. According to Amnesty International, sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls has been “a defining element of the conflict”, and “shocking in its scale and level of brutality”. Even throughout periods of purported “peace” over the past 22 months, the Ethiopian government has implemented a siege against the Tigrayan people, leaving millions without food, electricity, medicine, and external aid. While such crimes are being committed, a dearth of attention is paid to Tigray; this article will explore some of the possible explanations and propose a solution.

The first and most apparent reason is racism. World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhadom Ghebreyesus suggested recently that the reason Tigray is not getting the attention it desperately needs is due to the skin color of the people, following up on his comments from April 2022 questioning whether ‘black and white lives’ are given equal attention in emergencies worldwide. The war in Ukraine has been widely reported since its start, highlighting how much attention can be paid to other war-ravaged countries. The United Kingdom (UK), usually strict on immigration, proudly launched a refugee scheme with UK citizens being encouraged to welcome Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Early on in the reporting around Ukraine, many journalists and politicians being interviewed inadvertently exposed astonishingly racist attitudes. There is no doubt in Dr. Tedros’ claims, therefore.

Racist attitudes alone, however, cannot explain the deafening silence. Strikingly, perhaps the greatest global awareness at one time of one country’s plight was of famine in Ethiopia itself, particularly in Tigray. In 1985, approximately 1.9 billion viewers in 150 countries – nearly 40 percent of the world’s population – tuned in to watch a Live Aid concert in support of those suffering, after Michael Buerk’s 1984 BBC documentary had shocked the United Kingdom and inspired Bob Geldof. Today, in contrast, the average UK citizen is completely unaware of the situation in Tigray, though were such a documentary made now, it would be as horrifying or worse. It is not being made, however, so those who would care remain unaware.

But why is the world so unaware? Most significantly, there is an enforced blackout. Along with cutting off electricity, the Ethiopian government has shut down the internet and other telecommunication services in Tigray. Many in the Tigrayan diaspora have not heard from family members in months and have no way of knowing whether they are still alive. Direct action has also been taken against news outlets and journalists. In June 2022, 18 journalists were arrested in 10 days for disseminating ‘propaganda,’ with two facing potential death sentences; others have been expelled from the country or even killed. The Ethiopian Media Authority has also written letters to CNN, the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press, accusing them of “sowing seeds of animosity”, and threatening to revoke their licenses to operate in Ethiopia. 

The communication blackout means that it is difficult to verify and corroborate footage and information that does somehow make it out of the region. In an era of fake news, it is possible that news outlets are wary of being guilty of propagating false information, and rather than using disclaimers, choose not to publish the information at all. Recent footage of a kindergarten hit by an airstrike largely speaks for itself, and was widely reported as a result; in response, Ethiopian federal government officials claimed that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s elected regional party, was “dumping fake body bags in civilian areas in order to claim that the Air Force attacked civilians”.

Information emerging from Tigray will always be patchy due to the communication blackout and the siege on Tigray, but with such obvious atrocities as airstrikes on kindergartens and residential areas across the region, it is time to rethink neutrality in reporting on the conflict. Cautious language when not necessary affects the reader and adds a layer of separation. Here, a BBC ‘reality check’ feature cites the main reason for aid blockage as fighting on the roads, and quotes the Ethiopian government and the TPLF each denying responsibility. So, is Amnesty International misinformed in its campaign pleading with Abiy Ahmed to allow full humanitarian access into Tigray? A statement from the Tigray government in response to the kindergarten airstrike accused “some members of the international community” of “coddl[ing] this sadistic regime” in its ‘both sides’ approach. Arguably, certain news organizations are guilty of the same.

So what is the alternative? Journalist Martin Bell proposed a ‘journalism of attachment’, in contrast to impartial ‘bystander journalism’, which is inadequate in some scenarios: “I was not willing to be neutral between the armed and the unarmed, between the aggressor and the victim, so I devised what I call the ‘journalism of attachment’, which is not a partisan journalism, it’s not making arguments, it’s a journalism that cares as well as knows.” Such an approach is not immune to criticism, but a journalism that cares, even if it doesn’t know everything, is very much needed in this particular case. 

For example, journalists can recognise the atrocities conducted against the Tigrayan people as war crimes, and possibly genocide, without needing to argue in favour of the TPLF. It is a focus on the civilians first that is at the center of a journalism of attachment, and without press on the ground, more effort should be made in attempting to identify footage emerging from the region. As for the perpetrators, the point of war crimes is that they are never justified: if Abiy Ahmed endorses atrocities, such as starvation as a weapon, no context is required in order to condemn such actions. Undeniably, extreme technology blackouts, media suppression, and racist attitudes in Western governments and the international press have left Tigray in literal and metaphorical darkness. A new ‘journalism that cares’ needs to be practiced that prioritizes the Tigrayan people over abstract discussions. On top of this, Dr. Tedros’ words must not be forgotten, and Western media must recognise the worth of every life and express this in their reporting. If it can do this, it has the power to inspire citizens globally to care, and to put pressure on their governments to act.

Octavia Sheepshanks – Omna Tigray External Contributor, September 2022