An Open Letter to The Economist

Addis Ababa Correspondent Tom Gardner has crossed an ethical line no reporter should. It’s high time he was given the boot home and fired.

The following is the text of an open letter I’ve submitted to the editors of The Economist in Britain. The email referred to was sent by Tom Gardner to an official at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on Sunday, May 1, at 11:00:49 EST. He mentions his position as correspondent in the very first paragraph and signs the email as “Tom Gardner Addis Ababa Correspondent, The Economist” — making it an official communication in his capacity as a reporter.

I can’t be sure The Economist will print or act on my protest letter, so I am reproducing it here because this is such despicable behavior that it needs to be called out. Hopefully, the full text of Gardner’s email will be disclosed in time. I’ve read it, but at the moment, I don’t have the necessary permission from the Institute to pass it along here. That being said, I believe I’m well within my rights and it’s the ethical thing to do to publicize this incident.

To the Editors,

This is an open letter regarding what I consider an unforgivable and appalling breach of journalistic ethics on the part of your correspondent in Africa, Tom Gardner. Mr. Gardner emailed a director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, for which I invite you to get in touch with them to confirm the content.

In his email, Mr. Gardner made a veiled accusation of a conflict of interest because he was sent a standard news release by the Actum lobby group about Professor Fitz-Gerald’s article, “The frontline voices: Tigrayans speak on the realities of life under an insurgency regime,” published online by the institute. Instead of taking this up with the professor directly or apparently even Actum itself, he chose to approach a third party. And as anyone who has worked in journalism for about two minutes knows, news releases are a staple of the communications field and hardly suspicious in themselves. And if this one is, I would be interested to know if Mr. Gardner intends to write CNN over their chief international investigative correspondent Nima Elbagir’s open dealings on social media with Van Batten-Montagu-York, the lobby firm which works on behalf of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Washington, D.C. I think a debate on ethics should begin there.

Mr. Gardner then went on to accuse the professor’s research of being methodologically flawed and unethical because she interviewed Tigrayan IDPs about their experience during the conflict, their current treatment and humanitarian support, and their views on prospects for peace and stability in Tigray in the future. It was a paper which was supported by a robust methodological framework. He then claimed her citations were “far below acceptable academic standards.”

Is it now the professional habit of your correspondents to send private emails invoking their journalistic credentials to police the work of academics who happen to write about their patch? Professor Fitz-Gerald is the director of a well-respected foreign affairs institute in Canada and a source and on-air guest for various news outlets. Is it necessary to point out how this conduct is not only inappropriate and shows bias, but smacks of an intimidation tactic to silence an analyst who does not agree with the narrative he has provided?

And more importantly, if he has an issue with her conclusions, why is he not conducting his own investigative reportage and refuting them in his work? I would submit it is because he simply can’t or won’t.

Professor Fitz-Gerald did field work. So have researchers for the University of Gondar, who recently unearthed disturbing findings in terms of mass graves in the Welkait area, along with survivor testimonials from victims of the TPLF. The respected photojournalist for Getty Images, Jemal Countess, visited the site of an infamous massacre at Mai Kadra, and I accompanied him to an IDP camp in Afar. I also personally went to interview survivors of Mai Kadra with a team of Ethiopian journalists, and I visited another IDP camp in the Wollo region.

All of these findings contradict the narrative put forward by a chorus of reporters for Western media outlets. But all of us make our cases with our work. Mr. Gardner, instead, chose to send a private email that comes perilously close to defamation.

He will no doubt defend himself by claiming that some of us who support or hold more sympathetic views of the Ethiopian position have animus towards him. I can only speak for myself, but I respond, Guilty as charged. Mr. Gardner messaged me over Twitter uninvited in September of 2020, asking that I keep the communication private just before he chose to deliver a condescending lecture over my positions (I would be happy to share with you these exchanges). This is unprofessional and unwelcome behavior, and he chose to do it a second time in March of 2021.

Moreover, he has several times publicly promoted the work of the analyst William Davison, who in a similar habit, has sent so many harassing emails and texts to female analysts that they have contacted Crisis Group’s human resources department. Many of us also find it strange that your correspondent should follow some of us on Twitter yet keep his own tweets in “protected” status, which does not allow for equal monitoring or reply. It is a move he opted for after it was discovered that he made supportive replies to online advocates for the TPLF (again I would be happy to share examples with you).

But the charges I make against Mr. Gardner, I do as a private citizen. Please note the difference, as this is the heart of the issue.

Any complaint I make carries no more weight than if I shouted it from Speaker’s Corner. I am not currently affiliated with any news operation, though I have worked as a managing editor and writer for magazines and broadcast operations in Canada, the UK, and Ethiopia. But Mr. Gardner holds a position of obvious influence and represents you. So, for him to approach a think tank, invoke his media credentials and then heavily criticize the work of an individual he knows fully well acts as a source for other outlets is unconscionable.

While standards for behavior in journalism have changed since I began my own career thirty-five years ago, there was a time when if you pulled a stunt like this, you would get sacked and deservedly so.

At each stage during this war, voices that contradict a common narrative have been portrayed as “conspiracy theorists” or as individuals who are not sufficiently informed or who lack the proper credentials — a strange thing to suggest about a collection of academics across North America and Europe who, added up, bring decades of experience to African affairs.

So, one might also ask, If the views of these critics are so ignorant and so unimportant, why does the reporter who, again, represents you, go out of his way to criticize a tenured professor’s article? And again, not through his reportage, but in a private email.

I submit to you that his partisanship has made keeping him in his job an embarrassment to your publication.

I will welcome your choice to publish this letter, which, while I appreciate your space constraints, I hope you will do in full. But of greater importance, I believe it is essential that you replace your correspondent in Addis Ababa with an individual who does not so shamelessly take sides in a bitter conflict.

Best regards,

Jeff Pearce

UPDATE, May 4: Tom Gardner’s letter to Macdonald-Laurier has been leaked, with the name of the official and his own contact details redacted (see below). I neglected in my open letter to The Economist to mention a key detail of how Gardner misrepresented Ann Fitz-Gerald’s work. Notice that he refers to “Tigrayan POWs/Detainees” but Professor Fitz-Gerald didn’t talk to POWs — she interviewed forced conscripts who had fled to the protection of the camps. In trying to push another label on the interview subjects, Gardner presumably wanted to open the possibility that these Tigrayans were coerced when, in fact, they spoke willingly about being brutalized by the TPLF.

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Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

6.1K Followers

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.