As hundreds of thousands of tons of food and relief supplies flood into Marxist Ethiopia, the government-controlled press has displayed more than a little politics in what aid it decides is news.
Last week, for example, it was front-page news in the Ethiopian Herald that Finland had donated 2,000 blankets. The 5,000 blankets donated the same day by the United States were not mentioned in the paper.
The Herald announced Tuesday on its front page that Abie Nathan, "who is noted for his humanitarian concern," arrived in Addis Ababa last Sunday in a cargo plane with the makings of a complete refugee camp for 8,000 famine victims. The paper did not mention that Nathan is an Israeli, that his $300,000 gift came from Israel or that it was paid for by contributions from Jews around the world.
The Herald waited 19 days in November before mentioning a U.S. pledge of 50,000 tons of food -- the largest single donation by any government. The food finally was mentioned in the fourth paragraph of a story headlined: "More Pledges of Support Obtained."
The reluctance of the Ethiopian government to credit the United States, along with other selected western donors, for relief aid points to an increasingly curious and factually strained propaganda war being waged here in a country where 7.75 million people are said to be threatened by famine.
The Marxist military government here, the Soviet Union's closest African ally and a government that in the past 10 years has festooned the countryside with communist iconography, is in the uncomfortable position of being bailed out of a famine not by its socialist ally and military patron but by the capitalist West, particularly the United States.
The government's own "review of the current drought situation in Ethiopia," presented last week to donors here, gave the particulars on the food aid disparity.
The report said Soviet food aid this year has totaled 10,000 tons. This is less than one-third the amount pledged by the European Community, one-fourth the pledge of the western-dominated U.N. World Food Program, one-tenth the pledge of Canada and one-twentieth the pledge of the United States.
The report did not mention that the Soviets donated rice, which Ethiopian peasants are not accustomed to eating and do not like.
The government's response in the state-owned press to this predicament has been to play down or ignore western donations, especially those of the United States, while emphasizing Ethiopia's "time-tested friendship for mutual advantage" with the Soviet Union.
A long article in Wednesday's Ethiopian Herald, under that headline, noted that the Soviets had helped Ethiopia repulse "the reactionary ruling clique in Somalia" in the 1977 war between Ethiopia and its longtime enemy here on the Horn of Africa. Since then, the Soviet-Ethiopian military connection has mushroomed to the point where western diplomats here say Ethiopia owes the Soviets more than $3 billion for military hardware.
The article thanked the Soviets for "aid and assistance both in peaceful days and at hard time." It went on to explain that in the current famine the Soviet Union has done all that it can for socialist Ethiopia.
"As Soviet planes loaded with food, medicines and other necessities started to arrive in Ethiopia in response to an appeal by the revolutionary leadership," the paper said, "it became evident that the U.S.S.R., without making any pledge, delivered whatever it could and in time."
The propaganda here, however, is not being waged by Ethiopia alone. The United States, through the Voice of America, repeatedly has lauded U.S. and other western food donations. The VOA also has given considerable play to the Ethiopian government's continuing inability to reach famine victims in the north, where two rebel groups control much of Tigray and Eritrea provinces.
In addition, U.S. diplomats in Addis Ababa make no secret of the fact that U.S. aid -- moving into northern Ethiopia through the "back door" by way of Sudan -- is helping famine victims that the Ethiopian government cannot reach.
Although the United States officially maintains that its aid comes with "no political strings attached," a senior western diplomat said here, "I will not tell you that we do not hope this aid will have a political effect on the people of Ethiopia."
Another western diplomatic source noted, however, that the government-controlled press is making it increasingly difficult for the Americans to blow their own horn.
"Earlier this year, when U.S. aid was considerably less, there were front-page stories about it in the Herald," the source said. "But as soon as AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] moved in in a big way, there was a news blackout. I think the number got too big for the regime."
Even as Ethiopia and the United States step up their propaganda, however, there is an apparent desire here by both countries not to let it interfere with famine relief.
This week, a senior Ethiopian official expressed regret that his government's criticism of donors on Dec. 11 was taken so seriously by the United States. Speaking to donors here, high-level Ethiopian relief officials, in a highly publicized meeting, had accused the West of causing the famine by taking too long to offer help. From Washington the next day, AID Director M. Peter McPherson angrily shot back that Ethiopians were biting the hand that feeds them.
Despite the recriminatory rhetoric, western diplomats here say U.S.-Ethiopian relations are improving -- mostly because of the size of the American food pledge, which totals 215,000 tons worth $112 million. In a meeting last month with members of the U.S. Congress, Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam refrained from his usual vituperative attacks on the U.S. government. According to diplomatic sources, Mengistu recently told visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe that he respects both the American people and President Reagan.
Cultural links with the government here, severed in 1977, when Ethiopia joined the Soviet camp and expelled American educators, resumed this fall with a gift of 3,000 books by the U.S. Information Agency to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library at Addis Ababa University.
This week, the government has gone to considerable lengths to accommodate the visit of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is here with his son Edward Jr. and daughter Kara for a four-day tour of famine relief camps. The government's top relief official, Dawit Wolde Giorgis, who last week scolded western donors for not helping Ethiopia fast enough, is scheduled to spend four days with the Kennedy party.
A government relief official here said he was counting on this hospitality paying off when Kennedy returns home "as our advocate in the United States."
Ethiopia's worsening famine appears to have forced the government to move in two directions at once. It is privately thanking U.S. officials while -- with an eye toward Moscow -- refusing publicly to acknowledge the growing importance of U.S. help.
The government's awkward predicament is symbolized neatly at Addis Ababa University. There, outside the handsome white facade of the U.S.-built Kennedy library that opened in 1970, when the United States was still Ethiopia's major benefactor, stands a bust of the late president. In the library's lobby there is an inscription of his famous words: "Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ."
Dominating the view, however, from the far wall of the library, is a large color portrait of Lenin.