War of the MENA outlets: coverage of the Tigrayan-Ethiopian conflict

"Community Water Pump, Tigray" by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By | Rachel Brooks

November 29, 2020 

Political Commentary

Image credits “Community Water Pump, Tigray” by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Continued information warfare continues to afflict the Middle East and Africa, and its relationship with the western world. The information warfare is fueled by media outlets who seek to be the voice of the “true Islam” or true Muslim culture in these regions with a dense Muslim historical culture and population.

 Facing off are two English-language voices of the Muslim world with radically different viewpoints on what constitutes Islam and Middle East-to-Western relations. One is the voice of the Qatari-government, Al Jazeera, a media outlet owned by the Qatari emirate and heavily influenced by the voices of Al Qaeda and, on occasion, ISIL. The other is Al Arabiya, an outlet headquartered out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Al Arabiya competes for the same news audience as Al Jazeera does, despite having a markedly different approach. Unlike Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya is privately-owned, and its editorial does not seek to influence foreign policies of other states. 

Gulf foreign diplomacy media contest 

An issue of interest to the MENA-Gulf Crisis is a growing competition for influence in Ethiopia and Egypt. The Gulf region competes for stronger ties in the region. In Ethiopia, the federal government struggles with the former ruling political party of the ethnic Tigray for dominant influence. Interests of Qatar are reflected in Al Jazeera’s coverage of this conflict, which, as of the last 24 hours saw the Ethiopian federal government seize Mekelle, the capital of the Tigrayan territory and matrix of its operation.

Al Jazeera’s language in coverage of this issue infers a bias of the Qatari emirate controlled outlet. This implication can be found in this article, posted on November 28, which states that the TPLF “promises to keep fighting” as well as language that positively depicts the TPLF’s fight with the government, despite the facts that the TPLF organization is a hostile movement, and is largely responsible for the internal displacement of both Tigrayan and non-Tigrayan refugees. 

Western disinformation regarding Al Arabiya 

The Western world engages both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya differently. Al Jazeera receives equal treatment to the other major news outlets of the United States and Europe, being made famous by its coverage of terrorism during the early 2000s era War on Terror. 

However, Al Arabiya receives a mixed reception, which includes an ambiguous definition of its media affiliations. 

Ownership of Al Jazeera 

Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera’s English language editions are under the almost complete financial management and control by the Qatari emirate and members of the Qatari government. 

FARA’s role protects U.S. from foreign propaganda interference

Al Jazeera’s, AJ+, the English language arm of the news entity, has been under recent FARA investigation. 

Ownership of Al Arabiya 

Al Arabiya News is headquartered in Dubai. It is owned by the Middle East Broadcasting Center. The Middle East Broadcasting Center was founded in 1991. Middle East Broadcasting Center is the largest and leading private media company in the Middle East and North Africa. MBC1 was initially launched in London, England, but states that it moved its headquarters to Dubai in 2002. MBC1 was the first free-to-air private satellite media company of its kind for Pan-Arab viewership. 

Mixed reception 

The western world has held Al Arabiya under a critical lens. Al Arabiya and MBC1 have been accused of being owned by the Saudi Arabian government. Public wikis such as Wikipedia state that the MBC1 headquarters was chosen in London to “appear to be detached from the Saudi government.” Al Arabiya is considered the direct rival of Al Jazeera. 

Britannica lists its version of the details of the media ownership of Al Arabiya. The channel was established in Dubai in 2003. The company was founded by the brother-in-law of the then Saudi-king Fahd. It received additional investment from Lebanon’s Hariri Group, as well as investments from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and various Gulf countries.

The Britannica page also states that, before Al Jazeera’s establishment in 1996, “almost all media outlets were Saudi owned, ensuring that Saudi leaders received favorable coverage.” The article also states that the first director-general of Al Arabiya was former Jordanian information minister Salah Qallab. Qallab was also a columnist for the Saudi-funded newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. The Britannica page regarding Al Arabiya stated that this was a way for the Arab regimes to control the narrative and ensure that the station “would not challenge Arab regimes the way that Al Jazeera did.” 

The Britannica page was authored by Orayb Aref Najjar, who was identified by Britannica as a SAGE publications contributor. Najjar was born in Jerusalem in 1947. She attended school in the West Bank. She is listed as a member of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. She previously worked for the Jordan media in Amman and served as a consultant for UNICEF. She has an active presence in the United States academic community as a professor of media and journalism and has served on U.S. press boards including the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association in 1991. She is the recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship Award for her research of the West Bank and is known for her portraits of the West Bank and Palestinian rights. 

The West Bank and Qatar have a decidedly unfavorable viewpoint of Saudi and positive Islamic bloc relations. For this reason, Najjar’s Britannica resource for Al Arabiya could contain biases. 

Unfavorable portrait of Islamic extremism by Al Arabiya

The differences between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya trickle down to their portrayal of extremist groups. Al Arabiya, through its coverage via programs such as Special Mission, has consistently published narratives that are decidedly anti-extremist or , ,at the least, are neutral to regional organizations. For example, the Special Mission program conducted a review of the commonalities between the Syrian regime and ISIS in 2014. This featured in its primarily Arabic language broadcast, though it was published under an English-language title. It’s portrayal of radical extremism in its narratives stands in stark contrast to Al Jazeera Arabic, which frequently reports narratives that paint extremist leaders in a more favorable light.

Why is it relevant to the Tigray conflict? 

The mixed reception that Al Arabiya receives and the positive reception of Al Jazeera are relevant in the Tigray conflict because the favorability of either outlet closes an informational loop in the vest. An alternative narrative is required to fully understand the humanitarian risks of the conflict. Biases are dangerous because the greater the gap in information regarding the foreign politicization of the Tigray conflict, the greater the compounded issue in the region.

It is important to expose the background and potential agendas of media research and outlets of the surrounding region so that the outside world may have multiple angles of the story. Conclusions must be drawn with all the facts, and not from narratives tailor-made to draw upon the sympathetic response rather than the practical response. A practical response to the facts would be in the best interest of reducing the impact of the conflict and would, in turn, lessen the severity of the circumstances refugees of the conflict must now live under.

The Tigray conflict serves as an illustration of the information wars that afflict multiple human rights issues of the MENA region.

Stark differences in Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya narrative on Tigray People’s Liberation Front 

Likewise, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcasts are in considerable contrast to one another. 

Both outlets have covered issues of Muslim interest. For example, the events in the Tigray opposition zone in Ethiopia. 

Al Arabiya broadcast the statement from the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wherein he stated that Ethiopian defense forces were attacked from behind by militants of the Tigray region. The Prime Minister stated that attacks occurred in Mekelle and various other places of the Tigray region. Al Arabiya tends to keep its approach to reporting this conflict strictly focused on the facts of moves and countermoves of the conflict. Al Arabiya’s coverage of the Tigray offensive has been neutral, publishing a story regarding the U.S. condemnation of Tigray attacks on Eritrea.  

Al Jazeera chose a different approach, choosing to focus the broadcast on the injuries of women and children of the region, who were caught in the crossfire of the fighting. The Al Jazeera report talked about how the Tigray Liberation Front attacked the military and the military responded in an offensive that forced the civilians to flee to neighboring Sudan. Other western news outlets have likewise focused on the refugees of the region, but have not reported with much detail on the Tigray Liberation Front.

 Al Jazeera has run frequent reports that focus on the struggle of people and power in the region and question whether Ethiopia is on the verge of a civil war. Al Jazeera appeared sympathetic to the Tigray Liberation. They published a review of the situation called ” How far will Abiy Ahmed go with his operation in Tigray region?”  

Irina Tsukerman, a human rights lawyer and analyst adds:

“It’s important to note the historical context here, which Al Jazeera, in its attempt to portray the insurgency as sympathetic to the Western and Arab readerships unfamiliar with these internal issues, has failed to explain. Tigray is but one of over 80 ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front started as a radical and violent student group with strong Marxist-Leninist leanings; this is significant in light of Ethiopia’s past haunted by the imposition of an authoritarian Stalinist rule that had throttled the country for decades.

This is not a liberal grassroots movement, nor is it peaceful, and whatever discrimination it claims by the authorities, the outcome of a messy civil war will result in human rights abuses for others. In the past, clashes with the TPLF have resulted in spillover to neighboring countries; tribal conflicts often are not contained within national borders. So why is Qatar’s government-backed agency appears to be pushing for chaos in Ethiopia? First, it creates an additional security problem for neighboring Egypt. Second, Qatar had previously lent support to the Ethiopian government over the GERD (Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) issue and made its humanitarian aid to the impoverished country contingent on a rigid political line against Cairo. However, most recently the United States and other countries have started putting pressure on Addis Ababa to follow through with its commitment to negotiations and to return to the table, threatening sanctions. Doha may be concerned that under the pressure of deteriorating relations with Washington, the Ethiopian government may yield, which would undermine Qatar’s foreign policy agenda in the region – undermining Cairo by any means possible. Therefore, Qatar is playing both sides, capitalizing on the different possible outcomes, and looking to see whether the resulting conflict is sufficient to create another security problem near Egyptian borders.

That does not mean that Qatar has ceased the financial backing of Addis Ababa, however. On the contrary, Qatar does not wish to limit itself, and will likely continue to press the GERD issue, including through sympathetic media coverage. The support for the government on that issue, while criticizing it on the TPLF issue, may seem inconsistent and hypocritical to some, but that is very much in line with how Al Jazeera typically operates.”

Coverage by Egyptian counterpart Sada El Balad

Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Tigray conflict side-steps the facts of the Tigray Liberation Front as it is held under the scrutiny of potential terrorist organization designation. 

 See News has described the organization’s crimes against the civilians of the region. On November 24, the organization’s youths were reported to have seized 600 civilians, stabbing, suffocating, and beating them. See News is the English-language version of Sada El Balad channel English, a channel owned by Cleopatra Media. Sada El Balad is a private, free satellite channel in English and Arabic that publishes Egyptian, Arabic, and International news. The Media Ownership Monitor of Reporters Without Borders records additional facts about the Sada El Balad ownership. The Cleopatra Group was founded in 1986. The news channel states that it reflects the values of the Arabic culture and world, and identifies as an Egyptian channel. 

When confronted with the same event as the See News outlet covered, Al Jazeera wrote the following: 

“Since then, information has been hard to obtain and verify, with communications cut and access to Tigray tightly controlled. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, with thousands of people believed to have been killed so far and tens of thousands displaced,” in an article published on November 24.  

This article then points out that the attacks described by See News were carried out by a local youth group called Samri, and added “with the support of other Tigrayan civilians, police, and militia.” The report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that the attacks were carried out by the “informal group” Samri, aided and abetted by the local administration and security establishment of Maikadra. Maikadra was under the political control of TPLF, and local Ethiopian news sources stated that the TPLF may have also been planning a similar informal-group linked attack in Merkelle, see Borkena news. Borkena cited Tigray TV in this report. Later, the Ethiopian defense ministry released a fact-check of this statement organized by the TPLF. It proceeded as follows: 

24 November 2020)

• the TPLF junta has been undertaking various preparations to repeat the massacre it committed in Mai-Kadra in the State’s capital, Mekelle city.

• the group is carrying out a special operation by some of its fighters disguised as members of the Eritrean military. This was made possible with millions of Eritrean military uniforms produced at the Almeda Textile factory in the city.

• The TPLF group rather shamelessly announced a few days ago that they have annihilated the 21st Division of the Raya Front and that their troops seized Adwa by mowing down the Ethiopian army, which marched there. However, I have visited all those places with other military officials where residents of these areas have expressed their displeasure at the junta.

• The TPLF’s plot to misinform the international community and the people of Tigray was foiled. Desperate, the TPLF is left with the only tactic it knew so well-that of the massacre. The junta was preparing to repeat the massacre of innocent people it committed in Mai-kadra and that they had set up special assassins to carry out the attack.

• Deliberate distortion is another tactic being employed to make it look like the group has captured certain areas, with some agents doing TV stand-ups in those areas.

• the group’s leaders are trying to make the law enforcement campaign look like a civil war against the people of Tigray. However, the people of Tigray testify that the campaign only targets the extremist group. They have demonstrated their support for the army in areas under its control and are expressing their displeasure at the junta.

• The extremist group was relying on the massacre to gain the support of the international community by pretending that the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces had massacred innocent people. This group has no compassion for the people outside of power.

The war between Addis Ababa, the national government capital, and Tigray’s self-defined government in the north has been called by the United Nations a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.” The Tigray and Ethiopia conflict has been reported by mainstream news as one in which both sides have, for decades, considered each other illegitimate governors of the region. Colletta Wanjohi, corresponding with PBS Newshour, stated that the federal offensive against the Tigray forces has continued since November 4. The internet in the region is down and there is “a lot that we do not know” quoting Wanjohi. The only thing that Wanjohi stated was certain was the influx of refugees into Sudan. 

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, is considered a terrorist organization. The Hill reported that Ethiopia’s military regained full control over Tigray on November 28. This was citing an official statement by the Ethiopian Prime Minister. 

The United States State Department, in its archives, gives some background into the political formation of the Tigray liberation front. 

“The Derg’s collapse was hastened by droughts and famine, as well as by insurrections, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. Mengistu fled the country for asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides.

In July 1991, the EPRDF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and others established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) which was comprised of an 87-member Council of Representatives and guided by a national charter that functioned as a transitional constitution. In June 1992 the OLF withdrew from the government; in March 1993, members of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Coalition left the government.

In May 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), led by Isaias Afwerki, assumed control of Eritrea and established a provisional government. This provisional government independently administered Eritrea until April 23-25, 1993, when Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence in an UN-monitored free and fair referendum. Eritrea was with Ethiopia’s consent declared independent on April 27, and the United States recognized its independence on April 28, 1993.” 

Quartz Africa stated that Abiy Ahmed challenged the political background of Ethiopia when he came on the scene. He called for peace, unity, and economic prosperity and freed “tens of thousands” of political prisoners. Then, he disbanded the ruling coalition of Ethiopia and replaced it with the Prosperity Party. This took away the political power of the TPLF, which was the dominant force of the coalition of those days. 

Qatari motives in the Tigrayan conflict 

Al Jazeera’s implied biases toward the Tigrayan side of the conflict within Ethiopia are not so cut and dry as they appear.  The language used appears benign though slanted, and refugees are a major news item of the incident. Yet, Qatar has been known to play both sides of the conflict in efforts to advance its African interests. 

There is at the core of the federal Ethiopian political status the question of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or GERD. The Africa Report commented on the GERD development plans, and how Ethiopia and Egypt have fought over them. Egypt’s position had a strong ally in the United States under the Donald Trump administration. Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is currently locked in a vicious and protracted battle within the U.S. Supreme Courts system. 

If Trump’s legal battle is unsuccessful, and he cedes power to the Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, then Egypt will likely lose the support of the United States over the GERD dam. Joe Biden would not be expected to back the same policies that Trump backed, should he take office on January 20. Trump was vocal in his support of Egypt and his denial of the Ethiopian position over the GERD, as was also commented on by The Africa Report. Africa saw the behavior of Donald Trump as a “reckless” move when promoting the U.S. negotiation power in the GERD struggle. The United States’ position is coveted in the dispute. The Africa Report noted that Trump had alienated Ethiopia with his statements regarding the GERD project, which pushed Washington farther away from the negotiating table as a result. 

In the meantime, The Africa Report also described newcomers to the table of Horn of Africa’s critical diplomatic relationships. Of these, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey come into play. Qatar’s rivalry with the UAE will add to the issues of its interests in the Horn of Africa and with the GERD issue, not wishing its rival to get ahead of Qatar. 


Qatari interventionism in GERD issue 

In addition to any reactions Qatar would take to an Emirati presence in the GERD issue, Qatari interventionism has also been documented in spreading anti-Israel propaganda over the issue. Qatar’s promotion of its information warfare tactics spreads information warfare and conspiracy theories about Israel’s alleged role in the Egypt-Sudan-Ethiopia crisis over the GERD. This is citing an article published by the Besa Center, that was written by Irina Tsukerman. The Besa Center piece noted, as of its report in August, that Israel can play an important role in this crisis if it collaborates alongside the United States. 

Qatari propaganda has played both sides to limit the success of its rivals. In the case of Al Jazeera, Qatar paints a narrative of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front that somewhat downplays its role as a regional aggressor. This effort to portray TPLF more favorably, or to divert attention to the victims of the Tigrayan conflict, the refugees, reflects unfavorably upon the United States, which has been swift to condemn the TPLF. 

The conflict had recently broken out over the dam. In August, Besa Center stated that Ethiopia and Sudan had directly clashed over the issues of GERD. It was reported by Al-Monitor that Egypt sought to exploit this conflict. Ethiopia has formerly threatened Egypt with the mobilization of its federal forces if Egypt attempted to retaliate over the dam project. Egypt has a strong ally in this cause through the United States, but as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign’s confidence teeters in the legal battle, and western media staunchly portrays him as having already lost his claim to a second presidency, this alliance may shift.

Should Ethiopia be inclined to go against the previously-established western interests in the region, emboldened by the lack of confidence in the U.S. that could emerge from the potential of a Biden presidency, Qatari propaganda is liable to promote the federal Ethiopian response narrative. It is for this reason that, while Al Jazeera has been more lenient in its portrayal of the TPLF than other regional outlets, it has not vehemently condemned the federal Ethiopian agenda either. 

Qatari propaganda and the fragility of regional alliances 

Qatar has seized upon the 2020 status of the conflict by using propaganda to imply that the GERD is funded by Israel and that Israel has installed its own air defense system in the region to protect GERD. Israel denied these claims, citing the Besa Center. Qatari propaganda supported this narrative back in 2016 when it aired clips of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu allegedly verbally expressing support for the dam project. Al Jazeera is generally mistrusted in Egypt as a mouthpiece of Doha’s agenda. 

Nevertheless, the Egyptian public came to believe this narrative, according to Besa Center, because of its initial confusion over Israeli ties. Egyptians have come to believe that Israel has allied itself with Ethiopia against Egypt in this conflict because of this narrative.

Besa Center states that Israel seems to be unaware of the issues of the Gulf Crisis, and just how important it is to Middle Eastern citizens. Israel appeared, as of August, to be oblivious to the way that Qatari-propaganda has painted it as a “partner and stooge” in conflicts of interests. This propaganda has placed Israel in a hard place. Israel had increasingly positive relations with Ethiopia, with which it is allied against Sunni Muslim threats in Eritrea. Israel also has increasingly warmer relations with Egypt.


The diminished role of U.S. mediation in GERD conflict  

Egypt has multiple issues that are of mutual interest to Israel. GERD is but one of them. Egypt also has to deal with Sinai militants along with ISIS presence, and a Turkey-backed Muslim brotherhood affiliate, al-Qaeda supported the Government of National Accord, or GNA, in Libya. Egypt is allied with the Libyan National Army against Turkey and Syrian-militant-backed GNA efforts. Likewise, Egypt was also posed with the threat of Ankara’s illegal East Medittereanean gas drilling, which nearly led to conflict with Greece over the summer of 2020. 

Because the United States played a lukewarm role in conflict mediation in this era, a compounded problem emerged. The Besa Center commentary argued that the U.S. and Israel would need to play it smart to regain the trust and return the upper hand in their joint diplomatic influence over the regional water dispute. However, with the uncertainty of forward-seeking politics in the United States, the potential for the two nations to take the lead in this region is somewhat diminished. 


Middle East Crisis “extended arc”

In a separate article by Besa Center written on November 29, Dr. James M. Dorsey noted that the Ethiopia conflict has the power to extend the arc of the Middle East crisis. Dorsey stated that, with the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia is sliding perpetually closer to a civil war. Consequences of prolonged hostilities, he states, could ripple across the region. The conflict between the Ethiopian prime minister and the Tigrayan rebellion, according to Dorsey, could ripple as far as the regional conflict between the Azerbaijani and Armenian republics, the civil wars in Syria and Libya, and the mounting tensions of the MENA region. 

Dorsey gave background regarding the conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan region. Ahmed had diverted the funds meant to combat the biblically proportioned locust plague to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds for the locust plague were anticipated to fight off the greater threat of famine. 

Dorsey states that the intricate politics of the region have escalated to the point where the Eritrean leadership may become engaged. Eritrean-leader Isaias Afwerki has “no love loss” for the Tigray. Escalation of the conflict in Tigray, a region which is now under Ethiopian federal control, could lead to persuading Afwerki to exploit the dispute and strengthen his regional ambitions. This, Dorsey argues, would draw in the proxy regional interests of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, all of whom are competing for influence in the Horn. 

The Qatari propaganda arm can be seen pushing narratives that could influence the Eritrean leadership, by continuing to focus upon the narratives of refugee influx and exacerbations. Qatar would be pushed to play its cards carefully to continue to use its propaganda influence to fence the western and Israeli influence out of the region and invite the kind of proxy dispute between the Gulf Crisis players. 

The article written by Dorsey was published initially by Georgetown University’s Qatar Center for Regional Studies. Any associated biases of the article being written for a Qatar regional study center reflect the position of the Qatari interest in the region. Dorsey called the events of the Eritrean immigration influx in Europe as well as an increased interest of Turkey in the Ethiopian conflicts a “Balkanization” of Ethiopia. 

Moving forward 

It would be unwise to assume that the claim of Merkelle by the Ethiopian federal government signifies the end of the conflict. The conflict between Ethiopia and Tigray is a war for the heart and mind of Ethiopia. Ethiopia stands on the world stage with this issue looming over its validity, and with the future of the GERD’s many problematic issues hanging in the balance. Moving forward, should the international community come to understand the many layers of information warfare that influence this region at the mass media scale, the international community will make more informed contributions to the diplomatic process. At this stage of world events, media motives are as important as the motives of political and operative groups.

The information age has empowered the weaponization of information to an extreme degree. Scrutiny and a different attitude toward understanding the tactics of the news as well as the pattern of events becomes more relevant. In the MENA, these news wars come down to the major outlets of the Gulf-Arabic world, forever entangled in a clash over the blockade and the contest for dominant influence over western and average opinion.

Transparency note: Republic Underground News is an independent alternative media outlet privately owned by Timberwolf-Phoenix LLC, headquartered out of the United States of America with officers in three regional locations. RU News and its publications provide media research commentary, as well as alternative news coverage of conflict zones with low representation in western media.