Mohamed Adow’s Public-relations Spin for Abdi Iley – Nuradin Jilani
The well-known Aljazeera journalist Mohamed Adow has recently been touring parts of the conflict-ridden Ogaden region of Ethiopia and reporting about the region’s economic development and infrastructural boom.
In his first report from the Ogaden region for a long time (‘Restive Region Seeks More Aid’), Adow dazzled us with the now too familiar scenes of green and lush fields, surrounded by fertile landscape with plenty of water and happy farmers; a giant hospital (recently named after the late dictator, Meles Zenawi Referral Hospital) which is under construction and almost complete; and a beautiful highway that connects Jigjiga, the capital city, to the other cities; and a university in Jigjiga, which we are told holds 15,000 students and consists of 30 faculties.
In another report (‘New Fighting Force in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Region’) Adow takes a tour with a group of the notorious Liyuu Police around the hills of Jigjiga and claims (incorrectly) the Liyuu Police “form the backbone of the region’s security apparatus” that are battling the ONLF. To sound fair, he adds a little qualifier and says the Liyuu Police are accused of committing widespread human rights abuses and interviews Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to balance the picture. At the end of the report, Mohamed Adow admits the limits of confirming HRW’s accusations and the Ethiopian government’s denials by saying: “With tight controls imposed on access to the Ogaden region for independent journalist and aid workers, it is difficult to confirm the claims and counter claims.” And this is the crux of the matter.
The media blockade of Ogaden and the journalists’ options
Although Mohamed Adow avoids accusing his hosts for imposing the tight controls in the region for obvious reasons, there is no ambiguity about who is behind the almost hermetic siege imposed on the Ogaden region since 2007. The reason the Ethiopian regime closed off the region is to conceal the human rights abuses its army and allied militias are committing there, which has been described as amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity by respectable rights organizations, and to get away with it by dismissing the accusations of abuses as baseless propaganda which cannot be independently verified on the ground. In this way the regime is able to become the judge, jury and executioner of its victims while at the same time escaping censure and accountability for the crimes. Faced with this dilemma, rights organizations rely heavily on evidences collected from victims outside the country and satellite imagery showing burned villages. (The latest massacre took place two weeks ago in the village of Miir-danbas, near Qoriile in Wardheer zone, when Ethiopian troops and the Liyuu Police militias rounded up civilians and shot them, killing 19 people including children and elders.)
The only way to get access to this closed region is to either follow the government line and report about the few development stories in the sea of underdevelopment and human rights abuses (like Mohamed Adow’s latest reportage) or through the ONLF and get access to the Terra incognita, in the process risk being killed or face arrest and harsh sentencing for assisting ‘terrorists’ (like the two Swedish journalists, Martin Shibbye and Johan Persson, who have recently been pardoned after spending 14 months in prison for ‘illegally’ entering Ogaden) and interview the average men and women who bore the brunt of this conflict. In a press conference they held in Stockholm soon after their release, the Swedish journalists Martin Shibbye and Johan Persson said there are two ways to reach the Ogaden: “One is through a promotional trip with Oil Company [organized by the Ethiopian government]; the other is with ONLF guerillas.” “We chose”, they said, “the weaker party.” The oil company they’re referring to is the Swedish oil and gas exploration company, Lundin Petroleum, which has been awarded ‘a production-sharing contract covering two blocks in Ethiopia Ogaden basin’ in 2006. Martin and Johan said their mission to Ogaden was to investigate oil exploration related human rights abuses taking place in the region. http://www.ogadennet.com/?p=15978
Aljazeera Arabic’s Jamac Nur took the risky route in 2008 and almost got caught for his daring act (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mvou7v8hiIM). Nur’s hard-hitting reports led to diplomatic spat between Ethiopia and Qatar and strained their relations. New York Times journalist, Gefrey Gentleman, did the same thing in May 2007, but he was not lucky enough as he was detained, beaten, his equipment confiscated and thrown out of the country and declared persona non grata.
The battle of images
Lately leaders of totalitarian regimes have been ‘in charm offensive’ to polish their images. The best known among the club of dictators who have turned to hiring Western Public-relations firms to burnish their image are the leaders of Bahrain, Syria before the uprising, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, etc. It is claimed the Bahraini authorities spent more than $32 million on this project since the start of the protests in that country (Bahrainwatch.org). Few months before the start of the Syrian uprising, there appeared a glowing article in Vogue Magazine (February 2011), portraying the Syrian First lady, Asma al-Assad, as “glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” I remember reading a long promotional article of Tunisia – paid for by the government of that country – in the influential pan-African magazine, The NewAfrican, a week before the revolution of that country erupted. The next month issue of the magazine was totally different. A disappointed commenter wrote back in its feedback section, “How could you have missed the seething anger and frustration inside Tunisia”? The Ethiopian regime has been running promotional cover articles on the same magazine for the last two months, portraying the late Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi as pragmatic and visionary leader.
In following the Ethiopian government’s line, Mohamed Adow has not only compromised his credibility as a journalist but also that of the Aljazeera Network which is known for impartiality, integrity, and for relentlessly siding with the victims of power. Whatever prompted him to do it, Adow has now fallen from the lofty pedestal he had in the past stood on.
Mohamed Adow says in his report that “the Ethiopian government has in the past few years embarked on a charm offensive to woo the people of Ogaden,” but seems to have fallen into the trap himself. The fact the he didn’t go beyond Jigjiga to meet and interview the battered people in the hinterlands in Ogaden can only be interpreted as a work of embedded journalism and one-sided promotional propaganda on behalf of the regional president Abdi Mohamud Omer (Abdi Iley), which was cleverly timed to coincide with the release of the Swedish journalists and project an image of a region open to the media.
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