Guest Post by Samuel Mahaffy., PhD. Story robbers are worse than grave robbers. Grave robbers disrespect the remains of those who have passed. Story robbers desecrate the living narrative of a people.
Every person, every tribe, every nation has its own story. Eritrea is no exception. The ancient story of Eritrea encompasses legendary chapters such as the account of the Aksumite Civilization. The modern story of Eritrea is written in the lives of those who struggle today to create prosperity, opportunity and education for a people, instead of wealth for a ruling class. The recent story of Eritrea is written in the blood of the martyrs who sacrificed everything so their country could be free and independent.
So who are those faceless few who seek to corrupt the narrative of Eritrea? I wonder how narratives that misrepresent Eritrea can gain so much traction in the Western media. How are the organic and lived narratives of a people deliberately misconstrued and misrepresented? The question intrigues me as one who cares about Eritrea and the right of every people to have their story respected, honored and accurately recounted.
My background as a social scientist with experience in narrative and linguistic analysis, leads me to this investigation. What structural differences will I find when I compare misrepresentative narratives about Eritrea or other peoples and cultures with accurate ones?
For my investigation I compare the language and structure of two narratives. One is Andre Vltchek’s account of his visit to Eritrea (http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/12/african-ideological-ebola-for-imperialists/). The other is what is represented to be a “news” story about Eritrea published in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/13/un-fears-eu-secret-eritrea-deals-close-border.) Even a brief contrast of the two articles shows very different slants. Andre Vltchek is a respected international writer who has visited Eritrea and writes about that experience reflectively and passionately. The Guardian article reflects an equal passion for Eritrea bashing.
I study the Guardian narrative to understand the constructs of a deliberately inaccurate and disruptive narrative. I contrast this article with Vltchek’s account of Eritrea. The Guardian article uses inflammatory and unaccredited references to Eritrea that reveal clear bias. The Guardian headlines Eritrea as “Africa’s North Korea.” The ignorance of the comparison is clear to anyone with even an elemental knowledge of the history, politics and cultures of the two countries. The reference is not attributed. Clearly, it originated from a deliberate misinformation campaign against Eritrea perpetrated by outside interests. It sets the tone that the Guardian reporting will be clearly of the nature of propaganda, rather than seeking of accurate information.
The Guardian narrative relies on a UN report, with the suggestion that it is credible, but the caution that “it had been written without access to the country.” Disruptive and inaccurate narratives, like those of the Guardian, always speak from outside the lived narrative of the Eritrean people. The account of Vltchek stands in sharp contrast. Vltchek’s is a story from on the ground in Eritrea. His account of Eritrea grows from long days and nights spent talking to the Eritrean people. Vltchek notes that his interaction with the people of Eritrea is “totally interactive…nothing is staged, everything spontaneous.”
The Guardian’s narrative on Eritrea confines itself to a very limited time sequence. The Guardian report rips the narrative of Eritrea outside of its historical context. It covers the narrow time frame of recent immigration from Eritrea and the EU’s response to that exodus. There is no reference to the fuller chapters of the Eritrean narrative or the larger context that would lend understanding to the complex causes and circumstances that lead people to leave Eritrea for the European Union (EU).
The Vltchek article stands in sharp contrast. It includes descriptions of pre and post-liberation Eritrea. It references the larger context of China’s involvement in Africa and the western agenda of development on the African continent. It refers to what is happening in “other governments in Africa.” It notes Eritrea’s progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. All together, Vltchek’s writing gives us a rich context for understanding what is happening in Eritrea today. It shares a picture of Eritrea from the lives of the Eritrean people. The Guardian writing on Eritrea provides no historical context. In fact, the Guardian must radically decontextualize the story of Eritrea to promote their bias in describing Eritrea.
Analysis of the Guardian ‘journalism’ on Eritrea is informative for understanding how the living and organic story of a people can be deliberately misrepresented. What are the tools of these story robbers? How are deliberately misleading stories constructed? How can we as readers, recognize the signs of a narrative that is being deliberately distorted?
First, story robbers must de-contextualize the narrative. Secondly, their ‘reporting’ is from an outside perspective rather than the rich narrative of those who are actually living the story. Thirdly, story robbers use unsubstantiated, unattributed and inflammatory descriptors.
The Guardian writing on Eritrea exemplifies each of these tactics. Their reporting on Eritrea is de-contextualized. It does not contrast pre-independence and post-independence Eritrea. Nor does it find meaning in comparing what is happening in Eritrea with events in neighboring countries. The descriptors of Eritrea as “Africa’s North Korea” are unattributed and unexplained. Similarly inflammatory, is their description of the Eritrean government as the “repressive and murderous regime of President Isaias Afwerki.”
The reference to Eritrea as “Africa’s North Korea” is particularly inflammatory and outside the province of anything that would look like responsible journalism. One might well accuse the Guardian of “North Korea-like journalism” in its reporting on Eritrea. Just as North Korea carefully scripts and controls accounts of events in its own country for its political purposes, the Guardian carefully scripts its reporting on Eritrea to promote its own biased lens.
The writing of the Guardian about Eritrea is better characterized as propaganda rather than news. Even a cursory reading of Guardian reporting on Eritrea, suggests that their accounts of Eritrea can simply not be trusted. Intelligent readers of distorted stories, such as those published in the Guardian, will ask these sort of questions:
• What is the larger social and economic context of people leaving Eritrea for the EU? How does the situation of Eritrean’s leaving their country differ from the situation of those leaving neighboring countries?
• What have been the impacts of sanctions against Eritrea? Have sanctions created hardships that have aggravated the situation of Eritreans leaving their country for better economic opportunities? Where does the inflammatory language that compares Eritrea to North Korea come from? In what ways–if any– is Eritrea similar to North Korea? In what ways is Eritrea different from North Korea?
• Has the reporter on Eritrea ever visited the country? Have they had real conversations that extend ‘long into the night’ with the people of Eritrea?
• What is the perspective of the Eritrean people on conditions within their own country?
• How trustworthy are reports on Eritrea that have been “written without access to the country”? Was access denied or did the reporters simply choose not to gain first-hand perspective?
Reporting on Eritrea that is deliberately misleading and inflammatory relies on the ignorance of readers about the country and the region. The Guardian, in their ‘reporting’ on Eritrea, underestimate the intelligence of its readers and their ability to ask critical questions. It is incumbent on those who represent themselves to be journalists to maintain some semblance of accuracy in their reporting.
It is also incumbent on us as readers to discern the difference between accurate reporting and deliberately misrepresenting accounts. When we step into the lived story of a people with integrity, the outcome will always be a multi-voiced and richly textured narrative. Accurate narratives present different perspectives based on interrogation of the present situation and the historical context. Such narratives are often full of paradoxes and complexities that are not easily explained. Our true narratives are as complex as the lives we live. Deliberately distorted narratives simply seek to sweep aside such complexity in the interest of supporting an agenda.
The Guardian steps into the story of Eritrea with a clear bias toward an unstated agenda. The Guardian reporting lacks the eyes, ears, heart and integrity to listen to the rich stories of the Eritrean people. The loss is theirs and ours. The Guardians simplistic and inaccurate reporting on Eritrea diminishes the complexities of the lives of both Eritreans living in the country and those who have left.
The deliberate distorting of the story of a people–such as the people of Eritrea–is unconscionable. The robbers of the story of a people are indeed worse than grave robbers.
The story of a people should never be co-opted. The story of Eritrea will be written by the Eritrean people and not outsiders with a subversive agenda. The story of Eritrea is an enduring and rich story. It is a story still being written. It will surely be a story full of
achievements and setbacks and both joys and hardships. The effort to rob the living story of Eritrea of its complexity, dynamism, and historical context, must never be allowed to succeed.
This guest post is by Samuel Mahaffy, PhD who serves as a Senior Advisor to Salaam Urban Village Association (SUVA). The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SUVA. Follow Samuel Mahaffy on Twitter @samuelmahaffy or visit his website at www.samuelmahaffy.com.