Birtukan Ali, a woman living in a rural district in Ethiopia, became a sensation following BBC's report about the ongoing drought and famine. The report, which aired on November 10 2015, sparked a new kind of debate on the government's intention in trying to cover up the famine - a story that remains untold.
Journalist Clive Myrie featured the story of Birtukan Ali who is from a small village called "Kobo" which is located in the North East of Ethiopia. It is a place where the drought is widespread and the effect of it is highly visible. Birtukan told the reporter that her son recently died due to severe malnutrition as a result of the drought in the area. The reporter said that at least two children die in similar cases daily.
The drought, brought on by the El Niño, a weather phenomenon described as a periodic warming of the sea surface, has severely affected the country. Ethiopia is mainly an agrarian economy and the agriculture is fully dependant on rain fall. Ultimately this means that no rain results in no crops, and therefore no food. This year the rainfall was inadequate to cultivate crops for two consecutive seasons. The United Nations estimated that 8.2 million people in Ethiopia's drought affected areas need relief assistance. UNICEF said that the drought is expected to be the worst in 30 years and that 350,000 children are expected to require treatment for extreme malnutrition.
Ethiopian Government Denies Famine
In a press release by the World Food Program, it is stated that "a dramatic increase in the number of people in need of relief assistance, from 2.5 million at the beginning of the year to 8.2 million in October, led to a serious funding gap". The Ethiopian government says that it has allocated $192 million USD for emergency food and other assistance.
However, the government and humanitarian agencies have said that Ethiopia needs nearly $600 million USD in international humanitarian assistance. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has called for international assistance by appealing for food aid to help feed the 8.2 million people that are affected by the drought.
Nevertheless, at the same time, his government denies that there is a famine at all. Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonen, commented on the BBC report in an interview with a local journalist:
- It is obvious that the foreign media works with different bodies of special interest. There is no such thing as famine in Ethiopia these days, Demeke said.
Similarly, the Ethiopian embassy in the United Kingdom has condemned the BBC report as being "sensational". The embassy denied reports of approximately two children dying from malnutrition in the area on a daily basis.
Five days after the airing of the BBC' program, government owned Amhara Mass Media Agency, which is based in Bahar-Dar, the capital of the regional state Amhara, presented a televised program that ridiculed BBC's report. The program includes Birtukan's interview with the regional media. This time, however, Birtukan claims that her son died of unspecified "sudden illnesses" and not because of the malnutrition as she had told the BBC reporter.
Felanemunemunim, a local journalist and social media activist who is mentioned by his nickname, followed the news on Ethiopian television. He says that regional governors report as if the agriculture is good enough to produce plenty of food.
- They were talking about it on television for more than four months, but the truth is as BBC reported, even if there was exaggeration.
Government Accused of Diminishing the Extent of the Famine
The statements made by the Ethiopian government have sparked a debate among Ethiopian human rights activists. According to them, the government is trying to cover up the severe effects of the drought.
Argaw Ashine, an exiled journalist based in USA and founder of the web based Amharic internet radio Wazema, which is getting a wide acceptance in the Ethiopian online community for its credible information, commented on the drought. According to him, it is obvious that the Ethiopian government continues to hide the drought from the media, and he believes that they will continue to do so despite the United Nations and others predicting that the worst is yet to come. Admitting that there is a famine would create a problem for the Ethiopian government.
- It costs them politically. The success story they fed to Ethiopians and the international community falls severely short after an exposition of the hunger.
Wazema radio reports that the federal government passes strict instructions to regional governments and Ethiopian embassies all over the world to not give any kind of information to any media regarding the ongoing drought and famine. The instructions include denying access for all journalists to drought affected areas and to take necessary measures for nongovernmental organizations to not leak information regarding the crises to the media.
According to Argaw, media restriction is common during humanitarian crises, and specifically the local media is blocked from reporting the situation.
- They may allow some big international media organizations in to specific locations for only a couple of days. International media reporting is part of convincing the international community to send aid, yet the government does not want an in-depth report on the cause of the problem.
- Authoritarian governments are good at controlling the information flow, and the role of media during crises in Ethiopia is kept at a minimum. Media should be at the forefront to end hunger. Development and better life is impossible without vibrant media in Ethiopia, Argaw said.
A Call to Take Responsibility
Exiled Ethiopian human rights advocate Yared Hailemariam, who is based in Brussels, speculates on why the government denies that the drought has turned into a famine. It is his opinion that the denial is due to a lack of competent governance, democracy, social justice and political will of the last three regime's. He also says that the EPRDF (The Government of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) is highly corrupt, and that the development is not what it seems to be.
- The so called development is not humanitarian based - rather it is based on numbers and the economic aspect, but there is still lots of confusion regarding the double digit growth that has been reported to us over the last few years.
Yared says that the first thing the government should do is to rescue those in need. The level of the ongoing and upcoming disaster that would take many lives, needs to be reduced. It is also important to take lessons from the past.
- The challenge that is now before us is how we can go about ensuring that such things will not happen again. That is the problem we could not find a solution to since the 1958 famine. It takes political, economic, social and cultural reforms and changes to tackle such problems once and for all.
Exiled journalist and social media activist Zerihun Tesfaye, who is based in the USA, says that everyone has a responsibility to create awareness of the problem. His opinion is that an effective use of social media is a necessary tool for addressing the issue.
- We have challenges regarding the acquisition of accurate information from rural areas, a low internet penetration rate, and fear amongst people to share stories. However, I still believe that a well-coordinated social media campaign will surely bring something good to our people, and save lives.
The question should not only be why the government is covering up the drought. The most important question is how widespread the drought is - and how many are suffering as a result. For the Ethiopian governmental officials who have been bragging for almost a decade about the country's approximate 11% economic growth, it seems to be very hard for them to swallow their pride and face the fact that more than 8.2 million people are starving due to the ongoing widespread drought.
Whether covered up or not, a very big number of people are affected by the drought, and some of them are dying. Emergency assistance, and a real awareness of the situation, is a must to help out these people.
Their stories need to be told.
Fasil Girma is an Ethiopian media professional and press freedom advocate. Fasil has more than six years of work experience on both public and private media in Ethiopia. He is currently living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya while freelancing for different media outlets, and advocating for press freedom and the release of imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia.