Who Makes the News?

Who Makes the News?

By YPFDJ – California

Already with the first half of the year 2012 having passed, we have seen widespread media coverage over the death of Trayvon Martin, the conclusion of several killings in France by a Frenchman of Algerian origin, an unprovoked attack on Eritrean territory by the Ethiopian millitary and false rumors about the Eritrean president having died. What do all of these stories that have elicited such media fanfare have in common? Although they may not individually be directly related, one may notice that all of these incidents reflect certain paradigms and norms that are reflected in the globalized media matrix. For example, the legal consequences after the murder of Trayvon Martin reinforce the perception of the devaluation of black life in the American legal system while the coverage surrounding the French gunman of Algerian origin has reminded us that immigrants will be blamed for violent crime especially during times of national economic crises. For Eritreans, the silence of the world community after the Ethiopian provocation was a reminder that regional hegemons can attack sovereign nations without consequence while the rumors about Eritrea’s president can be seen as a reminder that with enough media capital, “coffee-shop fiction” can become a media-fact. Silence concerning issues in the Horn of Africa, especially when it comes to Eritrea is not what I find most peculiar about the media discourse in our region, but rather it is this pattern of how misinformation repeated within this discourse community eventually becomes the default framework through which “experts” on the Horn of Africa operate. Even when a “fact,” “figure,” or “incident” is found to be untrue, there seems to never be any redress, correction or inquiry upon those who reported it. Before its invasion of Somalia for example, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of having over 2,000 soldiers aiding “Somali Islamists.” This accusation was widely regarded as a reality, even by the same experts who continue to accuse Eritrea of sending assistance to Somalia until the invasion actually took place and not a single Eritrean soldier was found in Somalia.

At any rate, we found this article written in 2010 by an Eritrean university student at the University of California, Irvine which touched on several interesting points gathered from Hilary Clinton’s visit to East Africa in 2009. The author compiled different news articles covering her visit and dissected the articles to show the logical framework that the writers had created for their readership. He also raises some interesting questions and critiques about media coverage in the Horn of Africa.

Have a look!


Contextualizing Somali Instability and the Establishment of Eritrean Links with “Destabilizing” Somali forces in International Media Rhetoric following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009 visit to East Africa.

Media coverage of political, economic and social issues in the Horn of Africa region is often limited to images of famine, piracy, desperation and terrorism. The images generated about the region to audiences in the “Western world” are often informed by humanitarian organizations and foreign journalists who arrive once problems become crises. This phenomenon often influences the framing of the crises and the context in which these issues are presented. From the 1984 famine in Ethiopia to the more recent issue of Somali piracy, western media has been criticized for often ignoring the political and historical causes of these conflicts and solely focusing on producing images of desperation and militancy. Because there is no apparent political or historical context to frame these crises, this creates an imagination of the people in the Horn of Africa region as pathologically backward, violent and desperate. During the 1984 famine for example, little was said about the Ethiopian Derg regime having the largest army in Sub-Saharan Africa and the diversion of Ethiopian government resources toward acts of genocide to subdue Eritrean aspirations for independence. In addition to media coverage on Somali piracy incidents, Hillary Clinton’s most recent visit to the Horn of Africa region calling for support to issue sanctions on Eritrea for supporting what she claimed to be al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab anti-government forces and her offering of military aid to the desperately weak interim Somali government has been eliciting wide controversy. What it seems most articles circulating the world’s media matrix do not address is the American supported, Ethiopian led invasion of Somalia that installed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) . This was in response to an emergent, stable, Somali state which was governed by the Islamic Courts Union prior to the Ethiopian invasion; It had transitioned Somalia from clan conflict to stable governance. This dynamic is further complicated as Eritrea who won a war of independence from Ethiopia leaving it landlocked has been engaged in an unfinished conflict with Ethiopia since 1998. Ethiopia who has historically been the United States’ ally thus supporting the TFG, has often accused Eritrea of supporting “terrorist” elements across the region that voice opposition over Ethiopian hegemony. After the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia resulted an Iraqi-like resistance toward Ethiopian forces, African Union peacekeepers and the TFG itself. The media’s coverage on this issue of instability in Somalia is also quite curious as journalists often limit the scope of which the problem is contextualized. Foreign journalists reduce the context of Somali instability to Eritrean involvement and an al-Shebab insurgency. This is done so often by linking al-Shebab with al-Qaeda which has arisen after the September 11th attacks as a symbol of global terrorism. This association in turn implicates al-Shebab with pathological militancy, violence and instability. By proxy therefore, Eritrea’s alleged support of al-Shebab by Hillary Clinton implicates it with supporting destabilizing elements. Historiography takes into account the way in which information is presented, obtained and the methodology of which “facts” are interpreted. In order to understand the historiographical nature of the media coverage surrounding Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Horn of Africa in August of 2009, the accounts of four newspaper articles taken from the Houston Chronicle (Texas, United States), the Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon), the Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya) and The Reporter (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) respectively, will be analyzed in their portrayal of the various alleged parties in the conflict, sequence of providing information, historical accuracy, and the political and historical context in which the problem of instability in Somalia is framed.

The first line in the Texas based newspaper opens by creating a binary between the American support for a Somali government and Eritrean support for “extremist” forces in Somalia. The article reads, “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday pledged to expand American support for Somalia’s weak interim government and threatened sanctions against neighboring Eritrea for aiding an extremist group she says is trying to launch worldwide terrorist attacks from Somalia.” (Houston Chronicle) This binary that is created by the author of this article is interesting because it implies not only that the United States administration’s interest in maintaining stability in Somalia is in direct opposition to the interests of the Eritrean government, but also implies that the United States supports legitimate “government” forces in Somalia while Eritrea supports illegitimate “extremist” and “terrorist” forces. Delegitimizing the anti-government opposition of Somalia as extremists is crucial to justify both claims that the Eritrean government is fueling instability in the region by arming illegitimate forces as well as to justify American military support for what it chooses to name as legitimate actors in the conflict. At no point in this article is a description of the origin of the Somali interim government nor is there any information of American involvement in the Horn of Africa region prior to Hillary Clinton’s visit. The article continues by quoting American State Department officials about their frustration over the Eritrean support for “extremist” al-Shebab forces in Somalia. The author further expands the focus on al-Shebab as not only causing instability in Somalia, but also having the objective to export their destabilizing capacity internationally. The Somali President is quoted by saying that, “[T]heir [al-Shebab] aim is to make Somalia a ground to destabilize the whole world…we cannot suffer any longer. The people of Somalia have a right to peace.” (Houston Chronicle) By making these claims that al-Shebab is seeking to cause instability worldwide, perhaps the Somali President would like to frame the plight of his government as something with implications for the rest of the world in order to garner support. Furthermore, the President co-opts the voice of the Somali people when he makes an emotional appeal to the world community and the United States in particular to assist his government in retaining control as a means through which he claims will contribute to peace. This is used by the author of this article perhaps to more easily transition to a description of the military aid that the United States will offer the Somali government. Making this kind of transition almost justifies the provision of arms to the interim Somali government as it is mentioned immediately after the president describes the “concerns” of the Somali people. At the end of the article, the author again quotes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that both her and President Barack Obama would like to “extend and expand” their support for the interim government. This is interesting considering that Barack Obama had not been mentioned until this point in the article. Perhaps the author would like to add the President’s approval of such measures because readers may assume that himself being half Kenyan would give him credibility to approve such a move in the eyes of Texans.

The Lebanese article titled “Washington grasps at ways to block Eritrea’s support for Somali Militants” elicits a partial reaction by characterizing the Somali government opposition as pathologically militant. The opening sentence of this article begins by establishing a link with the anti-government forces as “al-Qaeda linked Islamist militia” and having their support from “the tiny Red Sea state of Eritrea”(Daily Star). The article further continues by describing Eritrea as an “enigmatic and authoritarian nation [that] has emerged as a principle player in the conflict in Somalia, where the enfeebled government is struggling for survival against the extremist Al-Shabaab faction, US, UN and other investigators say the Eritrean government is funneling money, weapons and other supplies to Al-Shabaab, which Western intelligence agencies regard as growing regional and international threat.” (Daily Star) Linking the al-Shebab forces with familiar al-Qaeda elements further legitimizes naming al-Shebab as a destabilizing element. By proxy therefore, Eritrea in the context of this article supports terrorist elements. The author furthermore characterizes Eritrea as “tiny,” “enigmatic” and “authoritarian” perhaps in order to support the notion that Eritrea is supporting “illegitimate” forces. By naming Eritrea as a “principal player,” the author qualitatively implicates Eritrea as the source of unrest in Somalia. At this point, the author has made no mention as to how the government in Somalia has reached this point of instability nor have they mentioned the context in which the Somali government was appointed. Immediately after creating this imagination of Eritrea, the author continues to describe all of the institutions including the United States, United Nations and African Union which support sanctions against Eritrea perhaps to add credibility to the accusations. Similar to the selected quotations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the previous article, the writer of this piece choses particular statements in which the United States takes a stern approach against Eritrea. They quote the Secretary of State as saying “[I]t is long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support for Al-Shabaab…their actions are unacceptable. We intend to take action if they do not cease.” The author then goes on to describe attempts by American administrations to designate Eritrea as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Grouping the ideas of an American stern approach and Eritrea being associated with terrorism makes Eritrea appear like a regional rogue state that would not be far from creating instability in neighboring countries. Once al-Shebab is established as a destabilizing element in Somalia, the author continues by saying that Eritrea is harboring an al-Qaeda linked Somali Islamic Party leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys. Interestingly, the author points that Aweys is attempting to unite al-Shebab and the Islamic Party. The author gives no supporting evidence for any leaders of al-Shebab that Eritrea is harboring. It is also interesting how the author characterizes Aweys being in Eritrea as “self-imposed exile.” This is interesting because the leader fled Somalia after the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union (UIC) in 2006. The journalist continues to bring evidence of al-Shebab linked individuals plotting a terrorist attack in Australia and Eritrea’s skepticism toward the accusation. Similar to the previous implication, the writer could be including this information in order to reach the interest of a wider audience. At the end of the article, the journalist attempts to mention some of important prevailing conflicts in the region which may have contributed to the current unrest in Somalia. The author mentions that some have alleged Ethiopian support of the Somali government and “Eritrea’s support of al-Shebab” as a proxy war between the two states that have had conflict for almost half of a century. The author says “Ethiopia invaded Eritrea in 2005 to dislodge Al-Shabaab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, from power.” (Daily Star) This “fact” is incorrect as Ethiopia had invaded Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union and not Eritrea in 2006 (not 2005). Whether this factual inaccuracy was intentional or unintentional cannot be said for certain. Lebanese involvement in the conflict within Somalia is unclear and not much can be said in regards to the political orientation toward the Somali issue or the Horn of Africa by Lebanese media as these issues are only selectively covered.

Unlike the previous pieces, the article from the Daily Nation in Kenya begins with statements skeptical of military support to the interim Somali government from “Africa specialist,” Peter Pham who had testified in front of the American Senate on Somali issues. Peter Pham interestingly has been a critic of the Eritrean government in the past and supported measures to designate Eritrea as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” Pham’s claim criticizing a move to send arms to the Somali government is out of concern that the military aid will end up in the hands of al-Shebab due to inconsistencies in the Somali government’s practices. At this point, the author only characterizes al-Shebab as an “Islamist militia.” After establishing the friendly relationship between the Kenyan government and the United States, the author continues to describe how the United States has funded many of the “African Union peacekeepers” in Somalia, training to Somali interim government forces in addition to the speculation that the American government has already been arming the interim Somali government. Unlike the previous reports mentioned, this article provides at least a narrow context in which the United States government has expressed interest in the internal Somali conflict. Perhaps by describing the friendly relationship between the Kenyan government and American administrations, the author hopes to imply that support of the interim Somali government is in the interest of the Kenyan government. Kenyan interests are also furthermore discussed as instability in the region has negatively impacted the tourism industry due to American travel warnings. The tone of the article however shifts to offering more notions of criticism against direct American support to the Somali government as there are questions of stigmatization of the interim Somali government as a regional actor of American interests. Peter Pham enters the article yet again as he states growing resentment of al-Shebab by circles in Somalia and almost complete resentment of government forces as being illegitimate. Eritrean involvement and the threat of sanctions against Eritrea is only mentioned almost as a side note. The author almost abruptly transitions to praising the Secretary of State for her interest in Kenya. The source writes, “Prior to the meeting with President Ahmed, Mrs. Clinton had publicly threatened sanctions against Eritrea if the latter continued to support Al Shabab. The Sunday Nation found in interviews with government officials that what struck Kenya’s top officials on meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was her total lack of condescension and her genuine interest to know more about Kenya. This could partly be because of the country’s connection to President Barack Obama but also because of her husband’s involvement with charitable projects in Kenya, especially on anti-HIV projects, through the Clinton Foundation.” (Daily Nation) This is interesting because this abrupt transition almost legitimizes the Secretary of State and perhaps gives more value to her statement in the eyes of the readers. Another interesting pattern in this article is the frequent association and representation of the Secretary of State with the “Obama Administration.” Perhaps the constant representation in this article of the Secretary of State with the “Obama Administration” is to further legitimize the position of Hillary Clinton in the eyes of Kenyans as American President Barrack Obama’s bloodline is partially Kenyan in origin.

The article taken from The Reporter, an Ethiopian source, opens by stressing Hillary Clinton’s threat to “take action” against Eritrea for supporting al-Shebab forces and saying that Eritrea’s “actions are unacceptable, their interference with the rights of the Somali people are at the height of misplaced efforts and funding and we intend to take action if they do not cease their activities.” (The Reporter) Perhaps this notion of penalizing Eritrea is popular to Ethiopian readers and grasps their attention as Eritrea and Ethiopia have had recurring conflicts for the past half-century. The author of the article furthermore characterizes the Somali resistance as an “Islamic insurgency.” Similar to the article taken from the Houston Chronicle, the author selects quotations from the Secretary of State’s statement that creates binaries of legitimate and illegitimate actors in the conflict. Interestingly, this article provides more information about Eritrea’s response when the Minister of Information is quoted criticizing the measure because of the assertion that one “can’t solve the Somali issue by sending weapons…40 tonnes of weapons will produce only hatred.” The journalist additionally includes the Eritrean Information Minister’s contention that American involvement undermines the Somali people’s right to self-determination. This is interesting considering that the author presents two statements from opposing parties that denounce the other by claiming the interest of the Somali people. After including yet again more statements from State Department spokesmen, the author then crystallizes the assertion of al-Shebab being linked with al-Qaeda. Immediately following Clinton’s statement linking al-Shebab with al-Qaeda, the journalist includes statements of American plans to supply military aid to the interim government as a means to establish stability in the country. Perhaps these statements are ordered in these sequences to legitimize the notion of al-Shebab being a destabilizing element and thus justifying the arming of the implicit stabilizing element, the interim Somali government. Moreover, the article continues with supporting the idea of a pathologically terrorist organization when describing alleged suicide bombings carried out by al-Shebab in addition to entertaining the idea that al-Shebab would like to export terrorism abroad. By describing al-Shebab in this manner, it generates familiar associations with groups and tactics that are ubiquitous in Western media for being associated with “terrorism” and “Islamic militancy.” This again creates a binary opposition relationship between the government and anti-government forces as legitimate and illegitimate respectively. When making an attempt to contextualize the problem of instability in Somalia, the author mentions American reluctance to engage militarily in Somalia because of the events in 1993 in which 18 American soldiers were killed and that the insurgency began in 2007. Perhaps because the case had been made that it was common sense that due to al-Shebab’s links with al-Qaeda and its engagement in suicide bombings that the resistance carried out by al-Shebab’s forces is simply due to their pathologically terrorist tendencies. There is yet again no mention of the Ethiopian led invasion in 2006 in which the Ethiopian government ousted the Islamic Courts Union who maintained stability and governance in Somalia prior to the installment of the interim government in early 2007. Perhaps this information is not included because it would provide more legitimacy toward al-Shebab’s resistance against the government forces. Because the information is not present in the article, the author’s intention for leaving out this information remains unknown.
What is most obvious in all of the presented articles is that fact that none of them had even mentioned Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006. While this may be obvious to people who have been covering the Somali issue for sometime, the issue of stability in Somalia largely surfaced in popular media discourse during Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the region. Readers who are at this point in time only becoming familiar with the issue of instability in Somalia because of Hillary Clinton’s visit are not provided with information that may be important in framing the reasons as to why there is such instability in Somalia. Expanded historical information could perhaps in turn alter the readers’ conclusions as to what actions might be taken to bring stability to the failed state. Many of the readers of these media, especially those in the United States, are likely to have little prior knowledge of America’s historically unfriendly relationship with Eritrea and American ties with Ethiopian regimes which may have moreover influenced the opinions expressed by the Secretary of State. This information additionally may have perhaps altered the opinions of those who read these articles and have historically been exposed to un-contextualized images of desperation in the Horn of Africa. A historiographical analysis of the rhetoric of foreign media regarding an issue that appears to be as straight forward as Hillary Clinton’s East African visit is thus necessary in order to understand the implications of her statements and the way in which they are presented and contextualized that may in turn inform public opinion worldwide.

-Temesgen Woldezion

August 7, 2009
Clinton vows new U.S. support for Somalia Extremist group threatens shaky government
Houston Chronicle(Texas)

August 8, 2009
Hillary Clinton warns Eritrea against meddling in Somalia
The Reporter (Ethiopian)

August 8, 2009
U.S. Approach Wrong, Say Analysts.
Daily Nation (Nairobi, Kenya).

August 11, 2009
Washington grasps at ways to block Eritrea’s support for Somali militants.
The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

September 7, 2007
Somali Islamist leader appears at Eritrea talks.
Sudan Tribune

December 2006
Ethiopian tanks roll in Somali battle’s fourth day.

September 18, 2007
Strategic interests: Somalia still Sinking as Eritrea Entertains Enemies
World Defense Review.

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