On Monday, July 30, evening the opposition media, ESAT, claimed that the Ethiopian Premier is dead.

The brief news stated nothing but that ESAT’s sources from the International Crisis Group (ICG) and diplomatic community confirmed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death, according to several outlets which relayed the story.

The news immediately went viral on social networking sites as well as Ethiopian-diaspora opposition outlets.

However, at about the same time, the official twitter account of the International Crisis Group (ICG) was in a frantic effort to distance the organization from the news.

Just 2 hours after ESAT aired the news, around mid-night, ICG tweeted: “Crisis Group is not in a position to speculate about the fate of PM Meles Zenawi, nor have we commented on it to date.”

As Ethiopians at home woke up, on Tuesday morning, social networking sites were flooded with ESAT’s news as well as ICG’s statement.

Some argued that since ESAT didn’t get the info officially, ICG’s denial is to expected. However, ICG’s reaction appeared far more intense than a standard denial customary in similar cases.

The statement, quoted above, went as far as saying that “[ICG] is not in a position to speculate about the fate of PM Meles Zenawi”.

In fact, ICG tweeted that same text at least 18 times, from Monday midnight to Monday noon, whenever somebody mentions ICG’s name alongside ESAT’s news. They only stooped after this blogger wittily pointed the number of tweets and suggested a press conference. Few hours later, however, they issued a statement on their official website saying:

International Crisis Group has no direct knowledge about the state of health of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Crisis Group has never commented on Mr Zenawi’s health or his fate, and is not in a position to speculate about it. Crisis Group categorically denies any media claims to the contrary.

ESAT’s claim was not credible regardless of ICG’s statement, however.

For one, ESAT is known for exaggerating, at times even making up, stories, including massaging video footages.

Second, ESAT is a media with explicit political agenda. Though some western organizations extol ESAT and its journalists as ‘independent’ and ‘critical’, the US State Dep. Human Rights report described it, last year, as:

Ethiopian Satellite Television, based in Amsterdam and supported by the Ginbot 7 group, which espouses violent overthrow of the government, reported periodic jamming of its service in Ethiopia, beginning in May, at the start of broadcasting.

Worse, the State Department ignored ESAT in its report this year, though the alleged jamming continued. 

Third, it was doubtful that he could die so suddenly, as the Premier’s condition was widely reported as stable or recovering and given the types of illness suggested thus far.

Well, the last point was based on the assumption that ESAT was talking about a recent development, as the news didn’t indicate the date of the alleged death.

The hoax became evident by Tuesday evening, however.

Hoping to tackle doubts raised in the social media as well as by ICG’s statement, ESAT’s editor, Abebe Belew, wrote on his website:

ESAT’s decision to report that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is dead, according to reliable sources, has never been easy. It was two weeks ago that we received the news from highly credible sources in Brussels. Our sources that want to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak to the media on this sensitive matter told us that the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that Mr. Zenawi was deceased. Headquartered in Brussels, with offices around the world, ICG is the leading independent think tank on conflict prevention and resolution around the world. It was hard to ignore information from such a highly reputable international organization.

As a responsible media outlet, ESAT tried to investigate and verify the tip meticulously before it decided to broadcast the news. To be fair to the facts, we have alsoscrutinized the conflicting and contradictory information coming out from the ruling TPLF clique. We have examined not only the statements and stories put out for public consumption by the TPLF, but also their conducts that tell their own stories.

What the editor ended up doing was confirming the suspicion that the news is based on hunches and conjectures.

The most important point revealed by the editor was that the news is nothing but a repeat of the two-weeks old claim that the Premier is dead. As reported in this blog at the time, the claim was made on July 15 by the Ethiopian National Transitional Council (ENTC), an opposition party formed weeks earlier.

One of the major problem with ESAT’s news is that European media, including AFP, The Telegraph and BBC, reported the Premier as ill but alive as recent as July 19, citing diplomats in Brussels. Obviously, the man couldn’t have been both alive and dead at the same time.

Not to forget that, in the last week of July, ESAT and affiliated news outlets have been claiming to have spotted the Premier’s colleagues and family members in Saint Luc University Hospital, Brussels – where the PM is said to be under medical treatment.

Some observers claim that ESAT’s short-lived story must have been prepared and aired in rash, as it damages whatever credibility it has left.

Indeed, that is not unlikely. After all, such blunders would either be forgotten soon or justified as a political tactic by the extreme section of the Ethiopian diaspora, which often raises funds for ESAT as well as for other political groupings, regardless of reports of embezzlement and non-performance.

Other observers, however,
argue that ESAT’s decision to air the claim was based on institutional considerations. Given that, off all the dates ESAT could have picked up, it chose to confirm the date claimed by the Ethiopian National Transitional Council (ENTC).

As ESAT’s financial backer Ginbot 7 is suffering from a terminal infighting as well as loss of confidence as it failed to deliver a regime-change as fast as it pledged, the newly-formed ENTC appears to be the major recipient of donations from the diaspora. Thus, ESAT might have felt the need to submit to the new land lord in town.

While that is something to be seen in the future, the fact that no mainstream media picked up ESAT’s news was a major blow.


Related: Meles Zenawi: Ethiopian leader ‘getting better (BBC – Aug. 1, 2012)

Check the Meles Zenawi archive for previous and forthcoming posts.

Daniel Berhane

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