At a time when the earthquake of ethnic violence was shaking Ethiopia’s political physiognomy in 2016, ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Radio and Television) aired a call for genocide against ethnic Tigrayans as a panacea to the Ethiopian malady.
An urgent call to the people of Ethiopia!” our struggle is not like the typical struggle between a so-called oppressive government and oppressed people as occurs across the world. It is a struggle between one ethnic group (Tigrayans) that wants to rule and remain superior by exterminating others and the people of Ethiopia who are in endless agony.
According to then ESAT journalist Mesay Mekonnen, “this destructive plan is designed by a population of five million (the people of Tigray) against a population of ninety-five million people (of the rest of Ethiopia).”
ESAT Media concluded with a resounding call to action:
So, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for them to finish us off one by one? From now on, it is foolish and naive to expect any solutions through dialogue.
Whether we like it or not, there is only one option: pay them back in their own coin and use force to restore our freedom. One way of getting rid of rotten fish is to drain the sea.
The ‘rotten fish’ metaphorically depicted by ESAT is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party that was at the core of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition governing Ethiopia at the time. TPLF was also at the forefront in the seventeen-year-long armed struggle to overthrow the military Derg regime in 1991. The ‘sea’ which must be ‘drained’ according to ESAT represents the people of Tigray, the social base of the TPLF.
While ESAT represents a prime example, it is far from being the only hate media in Ethiopia that has overtly or tacitly made similar calls to genocide against Tigrayans, over the years.
against the backdrop of the ongoing war on Tigray, it seems necessary to look more closely at the role of Ethiopia’s hate media in enabling the ongoing genocidal war on Tigray by reviewing some examples.
Anti-Tigrayan Hate Media: Genesis, Metamorphosis
The TPLF, no doubt, has had an influential role in shaping post-1991 politics in Ethiopia.
It, inter alia, promulgated the 1992 Press Proclamation that heralded a transition from a unitarist, one party, and one press regime to a federalist, multiparty and multi-press era. As a result, private media mushroomed in the country. These media were, however, hatched from the politico-ideological shell of the previous military Derg regime, which was ousted by the TPLF-led EPRDF coalition.
Terje Skjerdal in his book titled, Competing Loyalties: Journalism culture in the Ethiopian state media, notes how the majority of newsrooms were staffed with persons who earlier held key positions in the Derg’s media edifice:
The popular weekly Tobiya (1992–2005) is but one example. Launched as a magazine in April 1992, the publication began with 15 reporters and editors, many of whom were central media officers of the previous regime. Founding editor Mulugeta Lule, for example, was former head of the official Press Department and served as editor for the Derg’s party publication Serto Ader. Another of Tobiya’s founding members, Goshu Mogus, had been in charge of the censorship office. A third well-known press personality who also worked for Tobiya is Kifle Mulat, whose past career included prominent positions in the government organ Addis Zemen.Terje Skjerdal, Competing Loyalties: Journalism culture in the Ethiopian state media
Other studies also reveal the ideological underpinnings of the emergent private media in 1990s Ethiopia. For example, Shimeles Bonsa, in his work titled, Survey of the private press in Ethiopia 1991-1999, argues that “like the first-born of the modern media began life as a rebel against the government, yet with a strong attachment to the opposition.” Similarly, Hallelujah Lulie, notes in an unpublished work, A Political History of the Private Press in Democratic Ethiopia 1997-2007, that “…. the private press began its mission as a sworn enemy of the government.”
The raison d’étre of these media practitioners, thus, became the defamation, labelling and vilification of the TPLF as the number one enemy of Ethiopia, pari passu, dehumanising its social base, the Tigrayan people, so as to legitimate the use of violence against them. As such Ethiopia’s hate media, ranging from Tobia to Askual to Menilik to Satenaw to Seife–Nebelbal to Tomar (some examples from periodicals published in the 1990s) to Feteh and ZeHabesha.com (post-2005 national election), just to name a few, harboured the germs of genocide against Tigrayans.
ESAT began its broadcast in Amharic in 2010, from its studios abroad in this same vein. It is interesting to note that it was founded after the Eritrean national TV had ceased regularly airing its Amharic program, Based on its subsequent record as a carbon copy of the Eri TV Amharic desk, both in substance and form, this does not seem like a mere coincidence.
Credible evidence also reveals that ESAT was established by, or at least, has strong links with the far-right Patriotic–Ginbot 7 (PG 7, now Ezema/ECSJ), founded by political personalities such as Andargachew Tsegie (currently, CEO of ESAT) and Berhanu Nega (now, Minister of Education in PM Abiy’s cabinet). This party infamously waged an unsuccessful armed struggle against Ethiopia based on Eritrean soil until 2018. A now-removed Facebook post by Abebe Gellaw (former Executive Director of ESAT) clearly demonstrates this strong affinity between ESAT and PG 7/Ezema.
The rhetoric of ethnic hatred that had, and has been, trumpeted for almost three decades by the private media, meanwhile, has been reinvigorated further with the coming to power of PM Abiy Ahmed: anti-Tigray hate propaganda has become official, state-sponsored, mainly spearheaded by such state and party-affiliated media corporations: the Ethiopian Broadcasting (EBC), Fana Broadcasting (FBC), Walta Information (WIC) and Amhara Media (AMC).
Following the declaration of war on Tigray, almost all far-right media outlets such as Abay, Ashara, Ethio 360, MerejaTv, Adebabay and Yeneta enthusiastically supported the war drive. Dire Tube, an online media with 3.1M followers, hitherto known for its edutainment contents, has also jumped on the bandwagon of hate-campaign.
It is difficult to contest that Ethiopia’s mainstream media has played a mammoth role in enabling the ongoing genocide against the Tigrayan ethnic minority. A review of some propaganda themes that have been exploited by these media shows that the Tigray genocide is a result of, among a confluence of other factors, the cumulative effect of systemic hate media rhetoric. But, how has it been narrated? I will look below at some of the anti-Tigrayan themes developed by hate media in Ethiopia.
Common Themes Deployed by Hate Media
Tigrayans Depicted as Anti-Ethiopian Unity
One cannot think of Ethiopian history without the history of Tigray, and Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity without the ultimate price Tigrayans had paid to preserve it. In a paradoxical flip worthy of Alice in the wonderland, however, Tigrayans have been portrayed as agents of anti-Ethiopian unity.
The late Prof. Mesfin Weldemariam, the ideological godfather of hate media, in one of his Amharic books titled Adafne, blatantly accuses Tigrayans as the originators of treason against the motherland. Ironically, Mesfin characterises Emperor Yohannes IV, who was killed fighting to protect the borders of Ethiopia, as a traitor.
TPLF/EPRDF rule was also depicted as an era of colonization. The call by ESAT discussed above provides a telling example: “To all members of the Ethiopian army: …. you joined the army not to keep the luxury of Tigrayan officials ….. nor to ensure Tigray’s colonization of Ethiopia.”
Yohannes Buayalew, an ex-high official in Abiy’s government, speaking to Amhara University Community, broadcasted on AMC, also said: “The enemy hates Ethiopia. Do not doubt this. It hates Ethiopia very much; it hates Ethiopia even more than what fascist Italy did.”
In the same tenor, the FDRE Constitution, federalism, and the EPRDF itself as a party, were portrayed as instruments of ‘divide and rule’ designed by the TPLF/Tigrayans.
First the Party, then the People
TPLF was, and has been, portrayed as the bogeyman for whatever wrong there was/is in Ethiopia, and the people of Tigray have been depicted as a ‘liability’ to Ethiopia.
Apropos of this deliberate media portrayal, ESAT is not the only media outlet that has, overtly or tacitly, called for genocide by alleging that the people of Tigray have a ‘spiritual’ affinity to TPLF that presumably needs to be violently exorcised.
Eskinder’s Askual newspaper asks:
what can we learn from history? What did we learn? The German people who took a decisive stand against the exploitative Jewish, under the resolute leadership of the Nazi, had continued showing their bravery in action. What does this tell us – real Ethiopians? What is the lesson for us?
The lesson according to Eskinder’s Askual newspaper is: “The German people’s experience proves the need for popular participation to eliminate a tribe or community in a country. Like it or not, ethnic cleansing is carried out with popular participation.”
The writer describes the TPLF/Tigrayans as ‘wolves’ and asks, “….. was it not possible to exterminate the wolves, who are currently ruling us, from the face of the earth? It was certainly doable.”
Blurring the Border between the People and the Party
Leaving no stone unturned in their hate propaganda against the people of Tigray, Ethiopia’s hate media purposely employ a method that obfuscates the border between the people of Tigray and TPLF. First, they defame TPLF as the problem child of Ethiopia, and then, they claim, all Tigrayans are TPLF. By blurring the border, they systematically campaign for the extermination of both.
A telling example of this strategy is ESAT’s inflammatory rhetoric:
..…. the people of Ethiopia have called upon, and also appealed, on different occasions, to the people of Tigray [for them] to at least show neutrality (desist itself from supporting the group), but to no avail. They (Tigrayans) never tried. Even worse, they wage psychological war on us, insisting, stubbornly, that they are the spiritual children of them (TPLF). They laugh at us. They mock us. What we have got in return is only humiliation and carnage……
Social advisor to the PM who is also involved in media oversight in Ethiopia, Deacon Daniel Kibret engages in similar conflation of the people of Tigray with what he claims are political opponents saying: “the criminals in Tigray are not more than one million.” Firstly, this claim contradicts the fact that even Abiy’s federal prosecutors have charged only 62 senior TPLF members. Secondly, he is endorsing the extermination of at least one million people. Having said this, he also says elsewhere that “….. they (Tigrayans/TPLF) must also remain the last of their kind (like Satan)… they should be wiped out and erased from historical records ….”
The Economic Oligarchs Rhetoric
At a time when the Oromo Protest was at its peak, Jawar Mohamed, then CEO of Oromia Media Network (OMN), wrote on his facebook page, in Amharic: the Hagos vis-à-vis Tola dichotomy.
Hagos, a typical Tigrayan name, was depicted as an exploiter of the wealth of Tola , a typical Oromo one. The truth, however, if there was and still is whatever exploitation, it was/is done by the Party that has ruled the region since 1991, the OPDO, now at the pinnacle of federal power.
Jawar’s is the epitome of the deliberate mischaracterization of Tigrayans’ place in the politico-economic sphere of the country.
Fana Broadcasting also aired a documentary meant to tarnish the politico-economic achievements of the TPLF/EPRDF, entitled Fitehin Flega, literally meaning, the Quest for Justice, wherein it was trumpeted, “only a certain group has been benefited from the economic growth in the last 27 years”.
Lidetu Ayalew, a prominent Amhara opposition politician, in a recent interview with Ethio 360 media also dispels this accusation against Tigrayans:
When the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa, there wasn’t a single, even one, millionaire in Ethiopia. It was not possible to accumulate wealth worth more than five hundred thousand Birr. So, all the millionaires created in the last 27 years, are they all Tigrayans? Are not there Silites, are not there Gurages? Is there no Amhara millionaire? Is not there Oromo millionaire?” “Let us speak the truth, what if we say ‘let us count the number of millionaires in Ethiopia,’ and which ethnic group has more millionaires? Who are the multi-millionaires who started business from scratch in the last 27 years, who are you going to name? Who are they? So, it is wrong (to say Tigrayans are the only beneficiaries from the system).
Tigrayan Elite as Corrupt
The hate media rhetoric portrays the Tigrayan elite as the fountainhead of all corruption in the country, be it in Oromia, in Amhara, or any other region in the federation.
In 2018, the state and party affiliated media corporations EBC, Walta and Fana aired a documentary on alleged grand corruption on the state-owned industrial conglomerate, the Metals and Engineering Corporation (MeTEC), targeting Tigrayan personnel as the sole perpetrators, while deliberately ignoring even to mention Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy PM, a non-Tigrayan, as the long-serving Chairman of the Board of Directors of MeTEC.
Some days after the release of this documentary, ESAT conduted an interview with Br. General Melaku Shiferaw, who started and ended the interview with an unwarranted accusation against Tigrayans for the alleged corruption in MeTEC.
He began by saying: “Metec was founded by a corrupt group who came from one region and ethnicity.” He then went to make a series of uncorraborated allegations:
- Metec entered a 10 million Euro Project contract with a Tigrayan who lives in Germany …
- The turbines of the GERD were not original; they were not bought from an original manufacturer … the brokers were Tigrayans … they received a commission of 10 to 15 per cent of the total price of 96 million USD….
- MeTEC floated a phony auction (forest clearing work of the GERD) and chose two individuals. One is a Tigryan, and the other a non Tigrayan. Now I will tell you the name of the man who won the auction …
- A Tigrayan, named X received 300 million birr for water pump and crane services, it is said that this person has a private airplane.
- MeTEC has bought private houses solely from Tigrayan owners.
Bearing the Blame of Human Rights Abuses on ‘Tigrigna Speakers’
No sooner had PM Abiy climbed to the highest political summit than all state and party affiliated media outlets started broadcasting extensive campaigns that transfered all of the blame of human rights violations, and whatever crime there was in the country, to ‘Tigrigna Speakers’.
On the 11th of December 2011, for instance, the EBC, Walta and Fana aired an inflammatory documentary entitled Yeftih Seqoka, literally meaning the Agony of Justice, which narrated human rights violations in Addis Ababa’s prisons as committed only by ‘Tigrigna Speakers,’ from among prison administrators who had different ethnic backgrounds.
Though Abiy was/is neither a reformer nor a peacemaker, mainstream media outlets, be it state owned or private sought to idealise him as a unique figure intent on transitioning Ethiopia to a new chapter. These same media, in a sharp contrast, however, were busy defaming the TPLF as anti-reform.
Hours after the bomb attack at a rally for Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, the PM appeared on the national Tv and was quick to point his fingers at a certain group, describing it as ‘anti-peace forces’ who attempted to destroy the unity of the country. He promised incidents like this will not deter the party from pursuing its reform agenda. This was a dogwhistle and the listening public was able to easily understand whom the PM was referring to when he said “anti-peace and anti-reform.”
Not surprisingly, no ethnic Tigrayan was officially arrested or charged. Later, the Federal Police announced that the mastermind behind the bomb attack was a woman, a member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who lives abroad.
Likewise, after the assassination of Haaccaaluu Hundeessaa, a prominent Oromo artist, Adanech Abebe, then Attorney General, now Mayor of Addis Ababa, briefing journalists on the matter said: “Haacaaluu’s assassination was meant to provoke the Oromo people to act against other ethnic groups. It was meant to destabilize the ongoing peace efforts.”
Though no ethnic Tigrayan was among the arrested nor among the Attorney General’s list of suspects, Adanech said, “…the criminals were heard speaking in Tigrigna.”
The TPLF and Tigrayans were deliberately portrayed as stumbling blocks to the so-called EPRDF’s reform initiative and process.
Legitimizing Ethiopia’s Genocidal War as National Defense
Ethiopia’s hate media have enabled, supported and legitimatized the Ethio-Eritrea-Amhara genocidal war on Tigray as a essential measure of national defense. Moreover, they, at first, denied, and then, rationalized, the involvement of Eritrean troops.
Following the unceremonious debacle of the joint Ethio-Eritrea armies in Tigray that forced them to leave from most of Tigray, the federal government moved on to a total siege on Tigray.
Defending this inhumane act, contrary to all international law, ESAT’s Gizaw Legesse underscored:
The Ethiopian government should be clear on its stance on the siege on Tigray: No basic services to the people of Tigray, full stop! If they want basic services such as banking, budget, electricity, clean water, telephone and internet, they should hand over some hundred or so criminals.
Also, as the fortunes of war tilted towards the Tigray defense forces and they started to advance towards the capital, the cog of the hate propaganda machine had been oiled even with such barbaric and brutal messages as: “you must not hesitate from resorting to the most barbaric of cruelties when you face them …be merciless, you must act beyond what our cultural values permit ..”. And so on and so forth.
My analysis here reveals the extent to which hate media in Ethiopia has served as a tool of genocide. There can be little doubt that PM Abiy Ahmed was enabled to wage a genocidal war on Tigray, identified as the deadliest war in the world today, with the unwavering support of a hate media that had developed and disseminated anti-Tigrayan hate rhetoric over decades.