The city of Hawassa was festive two weeks ago. Grown-up men with cowboy hats and long sticks rode their motorcycles around town decorated in traditional Sothern clothes. The energy ofFichee-Chembelala, a New Year celebration of one of Ethiopia’s various lingo-cultural groups, was electric.
The celebration was somewhat tense, with locals telling visitors to beware, given recurrent alcohol-induced violence at this time of the year. I did not leave my residence in Hawasssa, but I was able to hear speeches and a few songs.
In the days that followed, Hawassa was said to have been consumed with riots and violent outbreaks. As some factories inside the industrial park closed shop, it felt like something was indeed brewing. The streets were silent, and we heard story after story of violence around town. But we were not able to see anything in the neighbourhood we were residing in beyond hearing daily gunshots here and there.
What was worrisome was that the news networks were just as tight-lipped about the incident. The information we were getting while being advised to stay home was that the city remained unsafe, nothing more. As we complied, we pondered if our fear was substantiated with real danger. We simply had no idea.
On one of the days, we gathered at a friend’s house and discussed how we could escape if something was to happen in our neighbourhood. We laughed at one another’s fearful reactions, but there was a hint of tension just underneath.
I have worked at a local magazine, and even though we never wrote hard-hitting news, we usually debated what should be said and when.
Journalistic standards have more often than not eluded us in Ethiopia. There are risks, of course. It is something to talk about it, quite another to attempt it.
There are few current news outlets that are reliable, or relevant, which is why people often turn to social media sites such as Facebook to stay in the loop. This is highly dangerous though. With the prevalence of fake news, social media is not where citizens should be turning to during critical times.
Accurate or not though, the information coming out of Hawassa persuaded many that there indeed is trouble. Friends phoned first, and when the news broke out, family members followed suit.
In the days we were segregated in our small neighbourhood, I and my friends visited hotels to be among others and see how the whole ordeal was playing out beyond the gates of our home. People in our part of town were drinking beer, watching football games and occasionally answering phone calls reaffirming to their loved ones that they are alright. The nights passed more tensely though as we continued to hear shots being fired.
The whole thing felt like hearsay – nothing was made official. We were lulled into a false sense of security.
In a country like Ethiopia, with a complicated past and a diverse group of people living together, the narrative is everything. Watching some “news” on YouTube, I felt a clear sense of some divide intentionally being created – opportunists advancing their personal agenda. Yet, others tried to keep a balanced take on the situation, even without officials shedding light on the overall situation.
When will the government realise that keeping such incidents from the general public in the dark exasperates the situation?
Balanced news is essential in building trust and safety with the community. A few years ago, midway on a trip to Afar for a research project with a team, we were informed that there was a violent outbreak.
They let us know that conflicts were at times common. And as the details were given to us by a trusted local, we decided to advance at our own risk. We waited and then decided to make our way.
When I asked an elderly woman if this was indeed common to the area, she responded, “Yes, it happens more often than people realise.”
She added that news coverage was rare, even when lives are lost.
There are indeed instances when irresponsible reporting has made sensitive issues worse. But the solution is not to stop the spread of information. The safety of citizens, the health of the economy and the future of our county depend on the picture we paint.
As irresponsible media outlets run wild in the narration of our present situation, the truth might get buried and stay there. The authorities ought to ensure that light is shed on such incidents as the future of the nation trumps any political or personal gain. They must support all those that strive to tell it as it is.
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