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Twin Cities Daily Planet: Why I write about Ethiopia


ROCHESTER, Minn. —”Why the hell are you messing with my country’s political affairs?” goes a typical e-mail from the dozens I’ve received this summer from readers living in Ethiopia, from immigrants living in Minnesota, and from throughout the Ethiopian diaspora.

And this was among the milder messages to ping my inbox.

To a degree I’ve never before experienced as a journalist, articles I’m publishing about human rights abuses in Ethiopia—based on interviews with Ethiopian immigrants living here in Minnesota—have triggered profusely grateful e-mails, and yet also a torrent of messages scorching me with bitter denunciations, extremely pungent abuse and amorphous threats.

“You are only spreading hate,” an Ethiopian reader snapped after reading an article about the Ethiopian army wiping out entire villages in the country’s Ogaden region. On Ethiopian web sites around the Internet, my articles are bashed as often as they’re lauded.

To admirers, my writings make me a “hero,” a “journalist of integrity” and “a voice for the voiceless.” But to others I’m a “very sad,” “naïve” and “mediocre” journalist who is “fed by propaganda” churned out by bitter Ethiopian refugees. To detractors my pieces are “nonsense,” “rubbish” and “eye-gouging lies.”

To my detractors my pieces are “nonsense,” “rubbish” and “eye-gouging lies.”

Sometimes, it’s scary to scan my inbox.

“I was shocked when I read your article,” one e-mailer wrote. “You will be held accountable for your lies.” And I’ve read Web site comments in which readers from various Ethiopian ethnic groups, responding to my articles, attack each other using language so violent that I won’t repeat it here.

How to respond to all this? On the one hand, I completely reject the notes that use language simply to slash, bash or stab another person as if with machetes, clubs and spears. These aren’t conversations, but armed assaults.

On the other hand, behind the frustrated tone in many of the notes, I discern eminently sensible and fair questions. These come from people who’ve grown cynical after decades of manipulation by their governments and by both the U.S. and Ethiopian media, and they deserve sincere answers.

Answers to questions such as: All right, why the hell do I mess with Ethiopia’s domestic affairs, anyway?

After all, I am not Ethiopian. I don’t speak any of Ethiopia’s six or seven major languages, or its several dozen smaller ones. I’m fascinated by the country’s complex history, politics and culture, but I’ve only traveled there once, in 2004, on a reporting trip, and stayed for less than a week.

Plus, as my aggrieved readers take pains to tell me, my own country is hardly a shining paragon when it comes to human rights.

So what gives me—a citizen of the nation that brought us the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other atrocities—the slightest right to parade Ethiopia’s human rights crimes before the world?

To those who’ve written to me in the spirit of a mutually respectful conversation, as opposed to a broken-bottle brawl, I’ll try to explain.

Basically, I believe that writing about human rights in Ethiopia, even while I remain living in Minnesota, is potentially useful and journalistically defensible for three main reasons.

First, Minnesota and Ethiopia are intricately linked by our cultures, histories, economics and politics. I don’t accept that they are distant or unrelated in any significant way. For example, take the simple fact that for the past several decades, Ethiopians have been immigrating to Minnesota to escape persecution by their own government. What is that if not a profound relationship?

Some 20,000 Ethiopian immigrants now live in the state, which has one of the largest and most politically active Ethiopian diasporas in the world.

So my articles, in a sense, simply report on what I see and hear right here in my home state of Minnesota. I talk to Ethiopian immigrants about what they are hearing from their friends and loved ones back home. Honestly, I not only hear stories about human rights abuses in Ethiopia in these interviews, but I feel the deep trauma that has followed immigrants all the way to Minnesota, as they rebuild their lives.

As for accounts of Ethiopian government oppression that I gather, I try to verify them through multiple interviews, through global e-mails and telephone calls, Internet research, and so on.

At the national level, too, America and Ethiopia are profoundly linked. For example, many of the same emailers who lecture me to “mind my own country’s business,” also take pains to remind me, correctly, that America is a major foreign aid donor to Ethiopia—including military aid to help build, support and train an army that enforces violent policies against Ethiopian citizens. This implicates every American citizen, I would argue, very directly in Ethiopian government policies that increase suffering.

Our two countries are also closely connected economically. Many U.S. corporations—including Mobil, Starbucks, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Hilton Hotels, Eveready Batteries, and Ernst & Young—do business in Ethiopia. Ethiopian tourism benefits from American visitors, and the country’s main export, coffee, rests largely on sales to the gigantic U.S. coffee market.

With our two countries interdependent in so many ways, how could anyone sustain the argument for journalistic quarantine to my home state?

Second, I am a human rights journalist. By this I simply mean that I subscribe to the idea of human rights, that all human beings have the right to live free from abuse, cruelty and oppression. I try to create journalism that contributes to the support and expansion of global human rights.

I believe the development of human rights is one of the rare bright spots in recent human history. It offers precious evidence of mankind’s moral progress, against a great deal of evidence supporting the opposite view.

One way that journalists can help sustain human rights progress, I believe, is by morally engaging with people who live in countries at great distances from their own. Theoretically, this should be more possible than ever today, with so many new technological means to communicate across borders.

To a large degree, I view my journalism about Ethiopia as an effort to define, develop and refine the skills of global moral engagement.

But all that sounds very abstract.

The most important reason that I write stories about human rights abuses in Ethiopia isn’t about theories of interdependence or human rights.

As a journalist, I just feel it’s my job.

Douglas McGill has reported for the New York Times and Bloomberg News—and now the Daily Planet.

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