The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in a thug of war with the Ethiopian government. The last time the two locked horns was around five years ago when an investigative reporting exposed how aid money was siphoned off to buy arms by the then rebels when the country suffered the worst drought in the mid 1980s.
Last week a BBC correspondent, Clive Myrie, had produced a four-minute piece about the drought currently affecting over eight million people. The TV broadcast included interviews with some locals who bore the brunt of the catastrophe and who said people have already died.
The report apparently irked the government. First to react was the Ethiopian embassy in London which always feel they are duty bound to respond to BBC because of their physical proximity to Bush House. They lashed out at the report calling it “sensational news broadcast.”
Then a string of others followed in quick succession. An official from the Prime Minister’s office told the local Sheger FM that BBC’s report was “intended to tarnish the image of the country.” He explained at length how El Nino was to blame for the calamity. The El Nino narrative seems to be the most agreed upon explanation by the officials for the current situation. When Ethiopian Foreign Minister Dr Teodros Adhanom was interviewed on the Voice of America, he never missed a chance to dwell on it. This same narrative was repeatedly told in all the news and other stories aired on the local media. To drive the point home, some politicians including Dr Teodros had no qualms comparing the situation with the drought in California.
Over the weekend the Bahir Dar based Amhara Television (ATV), which by and large is an extension of the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (formerly ETV), came up with a report accusing the BBC coverage of misconstruing the interviewees statements.
With the one-to-five country-wide controlling mechanism, it didn’t take long to the crew of ATV to locate the folks who gave interviews. They were made to retract the statements on the regional TV. What makes the case awkward for the locals is they don’t even know what the BBC had reported as it is inconceivable for them to have electricity, let alone TV, and even more so cable networks.
It is a common practice in the country to go after people who meet foreign media or rights groups. In 2011 a discussion with Amnesty International cost Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress four years in prison.
So BBC and Ethiopian officials may not see eye to eye for some time to come. Clive may not get his accreditation renewed, hardly the first foreign correspondent to walk that line. As to the villagers, if appearance is anything to go by, then they have nothing to lose except their misery.