After nearly 2 months, the German public television and news outlet ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) has withdrawn its report of the small protest in Asmara, Eritrea on October 31st, 2017 (available at: http://deutsch-eritreische-gesellschaft.de/2018/01/07/zdf-redaktion-heute-widerruft-falsche-meldung-ueber-28-tote-in-der-eritreischen-hauptstadt-asmara-erst-nach-7-wochen/).
Notably, the original report, which was retracted and not simply corrected (a significant difference), was strewn with innumerable fabrications and easily demonstrable falsehoods. Additionally, its broad dissemination poignantly encapsulates how general coverage of and journalistic practice toward Eritrea are so problematic. For example, the main source for the serious claims made in the report was not simply an “opposition” group, but an internationally-recognized terrorist group, financed and harbored by Ethiopia (which continues to militarily occupy large parts of Eritrea), which has previously made far-fetched allegations and claims that have later been proven to be completely false, greatly wide of the mark, or completely lacked context. Furthermore, it is incredulous that numerous assertions about the situation on the ground in Asmara – directly contradicting the allegations in ZDF’s report – made by diplomatic sources and international persons were completely ignored or largely overlooked in publishing the original report.
The basis of good journalistic practice is a citizen’s right to correct and essential information by which they can form a realistic picture of the world and society around them. Of course, errors are regretful and are often bound to occur. However, a fundamental part of good journalistic practice is that errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly, forthrightly, and prominently (and not grudgingly or cynically). Failure to do so reveals a lack of integrity, credibility, responsibility, due diligence, and basic ethics. While the recent retraction by ZDF is highly important and the correct step, it is rather inadequate and comes far too late. Instead, ZDF should provide its audience and readers an apology and greater transparency – which includes researching and publishing the extent of inaccuracies and disclosing the editorial practices that allowed them to occur. How, for example, did ZDF vet its sources and the claims presented? Did ZDF rigorously challenge both the allegations it encountered and the assumptions which have long clouded reports about Eritrea? Furthermore, the organization should clarify what frameworks and steps to ensure accountability are in place (or being implemented) to ensure that similar errors do not occur in the future.
In an age of fake news, where there is a growing and (often justified) public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of news, it is absolutely vital that individuals, journalists, and outlets recall that the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.