For a change, a country that had suffered so much over the last six months, nearly out of sight of Western media, was being written about by great city papers and talked about by small town radio and TV stations. This Thanksgiving weekend, this ancient land of 77 million people was finally getting its share of publicity. All sorts of papers from Europe to North America and from Australia to South Africa, French and Spanish wire services, online specialty journals and trade publications carried reports on Ethiopia.
Like millions of Ethiopians that immigrated to the West over the last three decades, I find the lack of reliable news coverage of Ethiopia during times of crises to be disconcerting. I spend hours every day trying to find news on developments in my homeland where so many of my family still live. Often, I have to settle for press releases issued by one contender or the other – reading between the lines to finagle the small credible nuggets of truth from the pile of partisan spin. So, I was ecstatic when my news search engine returned several pages of listings of news items on Ethiopia on the morning of November 26, 2005. I poured a nice big cup of coffee and sat on my comfortable chair in front of my computer and anxiously clicked the first Item of note.
It was a report from eitb24 (http://www.eitb24.com/noticia_en.php?id=107926), a website which proclaims to be The Basque Information Channel. It carried a news curiosity about a pair of cheetah cubs discovered by U.S. troops scouring the Ogaden region of Ethiopia for the trails of Al Qaeda. It seems that a small town innkeeper in the tiny eastern town of Gode is raising two cheetah cubs for the amusement of his patrons. The GIs, candidates for PETA membership back home or just properly raised Midwestern boys, were upset by the sight of two hungry young cheetah cubs and sought to persuade the innkeeper to free the cubs only to be told that he had invested some $2000 to acquire them from a poacher and would not relinquish them without due compensation. That is the Somali equivalent of “Joe, let Uncle Sam rescue them for a measly $2000”. These poor souls patrolling the Ogaden were touched by the incredible cruelty of it all and reported the story to the wild life offices in Addis Ababa which in turn leaked the news to the AP scribe in the area.
The rest as they say is history. For the period beginning 12:00PM on November 25 and ending 6:50AM on the 27th (EST), my news search engine picked 182 separate html links about this story. No other news event pertaining to Ethiopia this weekend or, as best as I recall, during any other 43 hour period garnered even half of 182 English language reports on the internet.
The historic election of May 15, 2005 where more than 90% of Ethiopia’s registered electorate waited in line for up 24 hours to cast its vote did not merit reporting on 182 independent occasions. The suspension of the vote counting when it appeared that the ruling party of Meles Zenawi was loosing and loosing badly did not merit 182 independent English language reports. Not even when the EU election observer team rang the alarm bell on May 22nd that the government of Ethiopia was in the process of stealing the vote did 182 English language news outlets in the West find the event worthy of their web space or airtime. When 42 protesters were shot dead by the government’s security forces on June 8 following Mr. Meles’ decision to extend Marshall law for another month, western media did not find it interesting news – at least not as interesting as two cheetah cubs held for the entertainment of bar patrons in a far away border town known for illegal guns and other contraband. During the first week of November, when the government resumed its murderous ways killing to the tune of hundreds, when all of the leaders of the main opposition party were arrested, when elected parliamentarians were killed by police, when the elected mayor of the city of Addis was arrested, when boys as young as six and mothers trying to shield their husbands from beatings were killed by the security forces with the aim of intimidating the population, when tens of thousands of citizens were rounded up and barricaded in malaria infested open air concentration camps (in actuality holding pens reminiscent of cattle stockades except these are made of razor wire high fences) western media did not find any of it worthy of its efforts or of its readers time.
The media sure enough got word of these lovable cheetahs holed up in the remote eastern town of Gode and of the GI’s heroic act of rescue. As it so happens, only a week earlier more than 30 political prisoners were killed purportedly trying to break out of prison in the town of Kebridehar, some 100 miles away. When that story was not carried even by a single news outlet (recorded on the internet) save for a few Ethiopian websites, I thought that it was perhaps on account of the inaccessibility of the region. Now, of course, I know better.
I have lived most of my life in the West. Yet, I still don’t know what it is a nation must do to get a little attention. Over the years, I have heard comments made in jest (or so I believed) about Africa’s best hope. The best thing going for Africa, the comment goes, is the wild beast which lives there -- the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the great ape and of course the loveable cheetah, that sleek model of efficient locomotion. The people, they say, only get in the way of our enjoyment of those great creatures of the savanna and of the jungle. Perhaps that comment is not too far removed from mainstream opinion, at least as perceived by the media which must seek to select the news that is worthy of circulation in the mainstream.
Tied to a thicket fence, two baby cheetahs are forced to fight for a small crowd in Gode, eastern Ethiopia, 1,100 km from the capital Addis Ababa, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005. United States troops and Ethiopian officials are pressing a local businessman to give up two captive cheetah cubs that are forced to fight each other for the amusement of local, jeering children in this remote region. The plight of the 3-month old cheetahs first emerged about a month ago when U.S. troops carrying out humanitarian work in the eastern region saw them in a restaurant run by Mohamed Hudle. Mohamed bought the cubs from poachers who kicked the female cub in the face, blinding the animal. (AP Photo/Boris Heger)
Several hundred Ethiopian protesters march in downtown Crawford near the site of President Bush's ranch on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2005 in Crawford, Texas. The protesters are asking for the ouster of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and for a change in U.S. foreign policy toward Ethiopia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
An Ethiopian woman screams in grief outside the Black Lion Hospital in, Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, November 2, 2005. Across Addis Ababa, many shopkeepers are still struggling to repair windows and doors damaged in a spate of looting during the clashes sparked by calls for protests. (Stringer/Reuters)