Updated: Meles Zenawi’s health: Rationales for Secrecy [remarks on VOA]

A few hours ago, I had a brief debate with government critic Jawar Siraj, on a radio show hosted by journalist Henock Semaegzere at Voice of America (VOA) Radio Amharic service.

After general exchanges on the impact of social media on information flow, the discussion turned into a debate on the government’s unwillingness to disclose the details of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s health.

Here are some of the main points of my remarks:VOA

1. Lack of info vs. rumor

The cause of the relentless rumor and speculations regarding the Premier’s health is not solely an outcome of the information blackout .

Even if the government reveals basic info(for e.g., type of illness), rumors and speculations would continue on other yet undisclosed aspects of the matter(for e.g., type of medicine, identity of the doctors, etc). This is curiosity and is natural.

Rumors could also be fueled by morbid excitement, regardless the provision of information. For example; the other week, immediately after a news claiming the Premier’s death was discredited, several people shared an image of Meles captioned “please die”. That indicates what made some of the rumors appealing is not only the lack of information but our tendency to spread claims that confirm our wishes.

2.Late disclosure of the Premier’s condition

I t is annoying that we, Ethiopians, learnt the Premier’s illness from a foreigner, the Senegalese President, while the government kept  it secret. (this is an issue repeatedly raised in this blog).

3. Access to Meles’s health records

Though it would be good if Meles Zenawi himself had disclosed the conditions of his health during election or after that, I don’t think now the Prime Minister’s office can disclose Meles Zenawi’s health records.

As the Premier is a civil servant (government employee) his sick leave papers would be available on his file, however, in my opinion, data on a civil servant’s heath status is exempted by the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information legislation of 2008.

4. National security considerations

Request for the details of Prime Minister Meles’s health status and whereabouts could be denied based on national security conditions, according to the legislation cited above.

The information could be used to promote destabilization, as some sections are already telling the public Meles’s illness is God’s punishment. Given, the level of social-conscience of the public and its superstitious view of disease or illness. It may also be argued that the denial of information threatens security [as it pave way for exaggerated rumor and misinformation].

However, if it is concluded that the danger from the disclosure of the info is more weighty, the information could be withheld.

5. Additional points (that I wished to add)

* Disclosing the specific location of the Premier could have unwelcome outcomes. If it is in Ethiopia, the Premier would be flooded by endless visitors – friends, relatives and foreigners. If it is abroad, the place could be targeted by the diaspora opposition and others – as hinted by Human Rights watch’s writing the other week.

* Though it is uplifting that the government managed to function smoothly in the absence of the Premier, let’s not get carried away. This is a country of hundreds years of conflict for power and personality politics. Thus, disclosing that the Premier won’t be around for a given time could amount to saying that there is no government. Given the long-held tendency to equate individuals with the system.


Relevant parts of the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information legislation

16. Information Relating to Third Party

1) Any public relation officer must reject a request for access to a record of the public body if its disclosure would involve the unreasonable disclosure of personal information about a third party, including a deceased individual who has passed away before 20 years.

2) A request referred to in sub-article(1) of this Article may not be refused if the record consists of information:-

d) about an individual’s physical or mental health, or well- being, who is under the care of the requestor or under the age of 18 years or incapable of understanding the nature of the request, and giving access would be in the individual’s best interests;

e) about an individual who is deceased and the requester is the individual’s next of kin or the requester has secured the written consent of the individual’s next of kin; or

f) about an individual who is or was an employee of a public body and which relates to the position of functions of the individual, including; the position or status of the individual, the title, work address, office phone number and other similar addresses of the individual, the classification, salary scale, remuneration and responsibilities of the position held or services performed by the individual and the name of the individual on a record prepared by the individual in the course of employment.

23. Defense, Security and International Relation

1) The public relation officer may refuse a request to access information or a request to conform the existence or non existence of an information, if the disclosure or confirmation of the requested information would be likely to cause prejudice to t
he security, defense and international relations of the country.


Update: (at 1 pm) [Response to repeated questions by friends and readers]

During the program, VOA gratuitously referred to me as a ‘blogger known for supporter of  government position’. While the accuracy of this phrase is debatable in more than one ways, I didn’t want to waste my air time by correcting them. For one, almost all listeners know very well there is hardly a neutral Ethiopian political commentator. Second, the fact that VOA bothered to air a challenging perspective was commendable, thus why offend them pointing that the radio (the Amharic service) is an opposition platform.

More importantly, I take no offence with being called ‘government supporter’, as I explicitly do so whenever its positions are worthy. Similarly, I am against calls for regime change and politically motivated misinformation against the Ethiopian state. After all, as the majority of my readers have some college education, I believe, they can decide on the appropriate label for me by reading my articles if they wish to.

Update 2: (at 1 pm)

* Please note that the arguments suggested above as grounds for secrecy are mere speculations not government’s position. In fact, I doubt if they bothered to articulate a legal argument, though surely they dealt with the political and security dimensions of the matter.


Update (August 8): VOA’s editing of the debate

On Monday mid-night(Ethiopian time), VOA uploaded the program on its website. Thus, I was able to listen to it.
Many criticized that VOA aired about 1:20 minute of my debate and 4:05 minute Jawar’s. But I deem that less important.

What I found it vexing is that the editing seems to have targeted the most important part of the discussion.

Unlike what was being claimed monotonously for the past month on VOA:

* I explained that the government can not open Meles’s file and give us(or read for us) the sick-leave papers basing my opinion on Ethiopia’s Access to Information legislation and
* I also reminded them that asking Meles to disclose his health condition is different from asking the gov’t (other officials) to disclose Meles’s records.
* Moreover, I noted that *a request for info about Meles is different from request for evidence(like, video, etc). The gov’t is not obligated to do the latter.

My assumption is that as neither the journalist nor Jawar couldn’t refute these points, they chose to cut it out. Of course, they might raise issues some other time on the radio after they prepared counter-arguments. But that would be simply dishonest.

By the way, time constraint could not be an excuse as additional 30-40 seconds air time would have sufficed.


Listen to the debate, in Amharic language, here – – aired on Aug. 3, – 9:15 pm Ethiopian time)

Check the Meles Zenawi archive for related posts.

Daniel Berhane

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