May 9, 2007
My friend Anthony Mitchell was one of 114 people who died when Kenya Airways flight KQ507 crashed in southern Cameroon early on Saturday May 5.
I'm writing this so late in the day because we were away out of mobile contact when it happened and only heard the news on the road. Now that we're back, it is hard to find anything coherent to say.
Ethiopia's bloggers have already been piling in the tributes. Seminawork was right to say that Anthony was the best foreign correspondent that Ethiopia has had for years, certainly since we first arrived in the country.
Les Neuhaus, who replaced Anthony as AP's correspondent here after Anthony was thrown out by the government, wrote "Anthony Mitchell made me a better reporter" in a comment after Seminawork's post. I can say the same.
The Ethiopian Foreign Correspondents Association last night finalised a letter to his family which said "Anthony led our press corps with integrity, fearlessness and a raucous spirit".
Here is the full statement from his family that sums him up perfectly:
From Catherine Fitzgibbon, Anthony's wife, his sister Jackie Jotischky and parents John and Jackie Mitchell:
'We are all devastated, Anthony was a fantastic father, husband and son. He was the life and soul of every party with a wonderful dry wit and a great sense of humour. He lived life to the full and died doing the job he loved.
'He was a brilliant, intrepid journalist, who was committed to Africa. He developed a real passion for Ethiopia, where he worked for several years, before his persistent exposures of the government's abuse of human rights resulted in him being expelled by the government and we moved to Kenya. But where ever he has worked in the world he has made new friends and earned respect for acts of personal kindness and his professional integrity.
'Anthony also had a very gentle, caring side; he was devoted to his family and our two gorgeous children Tom, three, and Rose, one.'
There are so many images and memories that are crowding in at the moment.
Perhaps the most vivid is taking shelter from torrential rain in a guard's hut outside Addis City Hall on the morning of June 8 2005, the worst day of the first burst of post-election violence. We took turns wearing a big laminated 'press' badge from the Great Ethiopian Run to venture outside to see what was going on. A group of around 50 street boys charged up the road chanting, smiling, waving stones. A truck load of heavily-armed red-beret-wearing special forces sped past the other way into the Mercato. There was a long burst of heavy gunfire in the distance. About 20 minutes later, the soldiers sped back again in their truck, their job done.
It was the first time I had covered anything so big or so violent. But Anthony knew exactly what he was doing, getting close enough to report on what was happening without risking our own necks. He showed huge concern for the reporters around him and knew when to back off when it looked like our presence, with visible cameras and notebooks, was creating its own reaction from the crowd.
Later that morning, he got everyone to pile into a car and head to the Black Lion hospital to try to talk to survivors. On the way, he made a phone call to get the first estimate of the death-count – then less than 20. We all got in past the guards and spent about an hour watching the doctors doing their best to save the wounded in the wards and seeing the bodies pile up in the morgue.
His coverage of the rest of the election unrest followed a similar pattern. Official spokespeople were offering up their official, rather modest estimates of the numbers of dead and injured. Anthony spent hours touring hospitals, interviewing doctors and visiting morgues to get as close as possible to an accurate casualty list, confirmed by eye-witnesses.
It is arguable that without the credible figures and eye-witness accounts that Anthony collected, the overall coverage of the violence would have been much more muted. The international condemnation would have been much quieter – a knee-jerk reaction to one more bout of unrest in one more distant African country. There would have been significantly less pressure on international donors to change the terms of their support to the government of Ethiopia. There would have been significantly less pressure on the Ethiopian government to launch an independent inquiry into the violence. It was no surprise when that inquiry finally issued its report in October last year, it was Anthony who got the scoop on the findings, a whole day ahead of everyone else, even though he had to do his reporting from faraway Nairobi.
There are loads of other stories about his generous and kind and raucous sides, as well as his integrity as a journalist.
I remember sitting up late on the roof of the Africa Hotel in Axum with my wife Amber, Anthony, AP photographer Boris Heger and AFP reporter Lea-Lisa Westerhoff, as we waited for Italy to return its obelisk. Then there were the loud, drink-fueled arguments during the Friday night sessions at Addis Ababa's Old Milk House.
There was the last major story I covered with him before he was thrown out of Ethiopia - the drought that hit the Somali region late 2005, early 2006. It is often difficult to get foreign news editors interested in stories about yet another Ethiopian humanitarian disaster. Even local papers rarely put them anywhere near the front page. But Anthony managed to cut through all that cynicism and compassion fatigue with a story about two twins – one of them suffering from severe acute malnutrition – in the therapeutic feeding centre in Gode hospital.
As I said at the time, it was ironic that one day he was busy highlighting the plight of starving children in Ethiopia, the next he was being kicked out of the country for writing stories that were "hostile" to Ethiopia.
According to the Ethiopian News Agency, he was guilty of "tarnishing the image of the nation", "repeatedly contravening journalism ethics", "disseminating information far from the truth about Ethiopia" and, once again for luck, "[disseminating] information bent on tarnishing the image of the country". The truth was that he was simply too good at asking questions of people in authority. In the end they got so tired of his impertinent, targeted questions that they used the first possible opportunity to get rid of him, giving him 24 hours to leave the country – thereby accidentally giving him the greatest tribute a journalist could hope for.
The evening before he left, I phoned him to see if he wanted me to get people together for one last drink. He said no – that he would prefer to spend the time with his family. I didn't see him again although Amber had dinner with them in Nairobi a few months back and we planned to visit them quite soon.
It is difficult to think of a note to end on. Anthony would have found any attempt at sentimentality or grand-sounding sentiment ridiculous. The best I can say it that he was a very good man and a very good journalist. And to state the obvious - that everyone who knew him in Addis Ababa is absolutely devastated today.
Posted by aheavens at May 9, 2007 6:15 AM