Written on 12 April, 2023
This…is going to be a very different sort of blog.
I’m writing this from a small hotel on a side street in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. You’ve probably never heard of this city (unless you’ve bothered to look at my author bio; if so, thanks for caring and I’m available to hire after June 2024) and if you’ve heard anything about the country it’s probably in connection with famine, the recent Tigray war and/or the damming of the Nile which has caused relations with Egypt and Sudan to sour.
I teach in the university’s journalism department (despite not being a journalist) and my PhD students ask repeatedly why Western coverage has tended to focus on negative events in the region (cf Bastian, Makhortykh and Dobber 2019 on the need of and methods for improving diversification of conflict reporting), often using colonialist tropes or frameworks (cf Myers, Klack and Koehl 1996 on differences in framing of the Rwandan and Bosnian civil wars). That’s a very good, very complicated question and actually something I had hoped to research (mostly by asking local audiences about what Western news media they consumed and what they thought about its representations of Ethiopia) when coming here as part of the Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholars Programme, run by IIE (the Fulbright people), the US Embassy and various partner universities. Well, the programme hasn’t run as I’d hoped for many reasons, but the one I want to talk about today also ties in with my students’ question.
Starting on 8 April and continuing to escalate as I sit here and type on 12 April, major unrest has rocked the Amhara region, where Bahir Dar is the capital. The short version of what has happened is that the national government has ordered regional military and paramilitary forces to disarm. The reasons why are unclear; the national and regional government has said it’s part of a reorganisation into a centralised force (Holland and Obulutsa, 2023), though some I’ve spoken to connect it to the arrest of journalists, media owners and other commentators with ties to Amhara and believe it may be somehow politically motivated. Ethiopia does not have a free press (Moges 2017, RSF 2022) so official media is always suspect, the government frequently blocks the mobile and regular internet (as is the case right now) and infrastructure in general is very poor so it is difficult to convey any information even under normal circumstances much less enough to verify to any meaningful journalistic standard (Desalegn and Solomon 2022, Huang and Goodfellow 2022).
This Al Jazeera report from 13 April 2023 mentions ‘violent protests’ but displays any damage as caused by the last war.
Keeping all that in mind, you may be entirely unsurprised to know that there has barely been any international coverage of this at all, particularly with regard to televised news. What little Reuters, BBC and AP have reported tends to be a once-a-day despatch with a summary. When the power is on (it isn’t always) I have the BBC International feed on. Focus on Africa had an expert from Kettering University on a couple of days ago but nothing in-depth after that as of the time of writing. Meanwhile, protestors were dispersed with gunfire, and I have heard intermittent gunfire outside for the past two days. We have been told by the university, my colleagues and students (many of whom are or have been working journalists) and the Embassy to shelter in place but because the protestors– at least some of whom are members of the Amhara regional military and paramilitary forces, remember– have blockaded the roads in the region the supply chain disruption is already beginning to bite. There is a feeling of being ignored by the outside world, which exacerbates pre-existing beliefs here that the US/West supported Tigray over the national government during that conflict. How these beliefs connect to the various ethnic conflicts and factions as well as how the country is represented in general would be yet another important thing to study in the local audience, if I or my local colleagues are ever able to do so.
The feeling of being simultaneously cloistered and ignored also reminds me of the final episode of the second series of food/travel series No Reservations (Travel Channel 2005-2012) in which presenter Anthony Bourdain and his documentary crew were trapped in Beirut during the Israeli bombardment in 2006 (NR 2.12). While we are both outsiders unexpectedly in the middle of conflict, our situations are different– Bourdain et al were witnessing aerial bombardments by a foreign power whereas I am hearing gunfire associated with a civil conflict; because of the combatants involved, there was more international coverage of the Israeli bombardment than there has been of the unrest here. That said Bourdain’s comment on some of the international coverage is very apt to the current situation here.
Every time we’d turn on the news, the news is worse. The only thing we saw of any official American reaction was that little clip they kept showing over and over of our president eating a buttered roll while Tony Blair tried to get his attention. I cannot tell you how shattering that was. When you had a hotel full of people who had been waiting for news, you know, some kind of statement, something saying something, you know, not just ‘we’re coming to get you’ but we take this situation seriously.
To be clear, I am in contact with my Embassy and have more options that Bourdain and his crew did at this time. But the description of the lack of any meaningful public statements or news coverage with regard to the current civil unrest in Ethiopia– a major ally and partner of many countries, including the US and China (Huang and Goodfellow 2022)– as ‘shattering’ seems appropriate. This is, no doubt, a casualty of foreign policy goals on the macroscale (i.e., the need to maintain good relationships with a national government) but on the meso- and microscales this almost certainly increases the sense that the West/Global North is ignoring the situation which likely leads to further audience distrust of Western/Global-Northern media and governments more generally.
Though I would love to research my above speculation with the help of my local colleagues, as I type this, I have no idea what will happen next. Things seem calmer in the city today than yesterday, but things can flare up easily. The roads into and out of the city are still blockaded, cities nearby in the region are still having protests up to and including running gun battles and artillery fire, and the hard-line, bellicose rhetoric, though a standard mode of communication in these circumstances from all sides, still seems to be unqualified by any concessions. An Embassy security update should arrive this week and, depending on what it says, I may request (or be told) to be extracted to the capital Addis Abeba (also spelt Ababa; it’s basically a schwa sound) which is relatively stable. I may stay in Bahir Dar or I may be sent back to Bahir Dar after some period of time if I do go to Addis. I may also be sent back to the US at some point (and I need to leave by 2 June anyway for the next job). It’s all very unsettled and quite fluid.
I’m not sure how to end the blog this time. As Bourdain says in his piece to camera from NR 2.12 ‘There’s just no neat sum-up to this story’ and then goes on to describe the team’s cloistering in a luxury hotel for their own safety as a metaphor for Western inaction. I suspect something similar may occur here, depending on how things play out. The national government could reassess its plans for a centralised force, the regional militias and other paramilitary groups could quieten down and things could go back to normal. Things could also get much, much worse depending on who is or becomes involved and what their agendas might be. I won’t be at this window for much longer, regardless of what happens, but the war or unrest or whatever designation this conflict is ultimately given will likely continue long after I’ve left. As I’ve said, I’m not a journalist but I hope that someone who is takes note of what’s going here in Amhara and Ethiopia and is able to negotiate the many bulwarks both natural and anthropogenic to inform the wider world.
Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Communication (Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholars Programme Fellow) at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and will be joining the American University of Phnom Penh in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor of English/Humanities. She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan and Armenia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Associated Press (2023) Ethiopia: Aid group says 2 workers killed amid violence. AP News. (10 April) [online] https://apnews.com/article/ethiopia-aid-workers-killed-amhara-violence-72aa0ba014e9d97a7798ec7da25ad846 (Accessed 12 April 2023).
Bastian M Makhortykh M and Dobber, T (2019) News personalization for peace: how algorithmic recommendations can impact conflict coverage. International Journal of Conflict Management, 30(3): 309-328.
Desalegn, A., Solomon, N. (2022)The interrelationship among institutional capacity, infrastructure governance and equity, and nation-building process in Ethiopia. Public Organization Review 22: 627–647.
Holland H and Obulutsa G (2023) Violent clashes in Ethiopia’s Amhara as unrest deepens. Reuters (11 April). [online] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/least-two-killed-by-explosion-ethiopias-amhara-amid-protests-2023-04-11/ . (Accessed 12/4/23).
Huang Z and Goodfellow T (2022) Centralizing Infrastructure in a Fragmenting Polity: China and Ethiopia’s ‘Infrastructure State’. In Schindler S and DiCarlo J (eds) The Rise of the Infrastructure State: How Us–China Rivalry Shapes Politics and Place Worldwide. Bristol: Bristol University Press, pp. 122-136.
Moges M A (2017) Ethiopian journalism from self-censoring to silence: a case of reporting on internal conflict. ESSACHESS – Journal for Communication Studies. 10(1): 111-128. https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/52948
Myers G Klack T and Koehl T (1996) The inscription of difference: news coverage of the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia. Political Geography. 15(1): 21-46.
Reporters sans Frontières (2022). Ethiopia. Press Freedom Index. [online] https://rsf.org/en/country/ethiopia . (Accessed 12/4/23).
 Ethiopia is a federal state and its constitution gives each region the right to have its own regional military/paramilitary force. As with many federal states, increasingly centralised authority is viewed with suspicion. Think state rights arguments in the US or devolution in the UK.
 For their safety I’m being vague.
 Most online print journalism is paywalled and while I understand their need to make money I can’t afford subscriptions.
 An eyewitness report from a trusted source.
 I also heard an explosion which Holland and Obulutsa (2023) reported on for Reuters but it’s unclear if that was intentional or accidental (i.e., a gas leak).
 I have seen no independent or scholarly analyses which either confirm or deny this. Some dearth of coverage may be due to pressure from the Ethiopian government or self-censoring as Ethiopia is a key regional ally of many countries but I have no way to confirm that beyond the circumstantial evidence of information being difficult to find in a Google search. I had to go directly to the ‘Africa News’ pages of Reuters, BBC and AP for information in English. A French translation of the initial Reuters article on a Turkish state-run outlet’s website was available using French search terms.
 Because of my position I also have more regular contact with the US Embassy than Bourdain and his crew did. They and our university programme liaisons have taken the best care of us that they can.
 AP (2023) reports that ‘Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to push ahead with the policy despite popular opposition in Amhara. “Appropriate law enforcement measures will be taken against those who deliberately play a destructive role,”…’