If you search for the name of Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, on Twitter these days, you'll see a flurry of incongruent postings: Meles is hospitalized in critical condition; he's fine and returning to work; he died two weeks ago; he's on holiday. Journalists for international news outlets have tried to sort out fact from rumor, but they've gotten no help from Ethiopian government officials who offered only vague assurances that the country's longtime leader was ill but recovering. In Ethiopia, where the government has imposed increasingly repressive measures on the domestic press corps, news coverage has been minimal and contradictory.
International news outlets, such as Reuters, The Associated Press, and the BBC, reported last week that Meles was hospitalized for an undisclosed condition. Reuters, citing diplomatic sources, said he was being treated in Brussels, although even that scant nugget of information was not officially confirmed.
Back home, generally pro-government papers such as Addis Fortune told readers on Tuesday that Meles had returned to Addis Ababa and would be back to work soon. The paper reported that the government provided little other information on his condition. A day later, though, the weekly The Reporter claimed that Meles was merely abroad on holiday.
The government censored the one domestic outlet that tried to report more detailed information. This weekend, the government ordered the state-run printing company not to produce the latest edition of the weekly Feteh, which was to have carried front-page coverage of Meles' condition. The weekly, which has faced government harassment in the past over its critical coverage, had prepared stories citing information from international news outlets and an exiled Ethiopian group.
"No one has a clear idea," said Benno Muechler, a German freelance reporter based in the capital. Muechler said he tried to get answers from the government communications office--only to be asked by officials there if he had any leads he could share. "There is an information blackout in Ethiopia," said exiled journalist Abebe Gellaw, who works for the critical exiled broadcaster Ethiopian Satellite Television. Gellaw noted that most Ethiopians get their information from the national broadcaster, which has vaguely reported that Meles is fine and would be back at his desk soon.
But then, where is Meles, and why can't he say this himself? "There is no trust in the media, with so many rumors. Whatever news that comes out here, nobody seems to believe it," Muechler said.
While the Ethiopian public may be skeptical, they are definitely seeking answers. Google Trends reports that searches for Meles have spiked this month, climbing far higher than at any point since the tracking's earliest date, in 2004. Public speculation about Meles began spreading in mid-July after the premier was conspicuously absent from the African Union Summit held in Addis Ababa. He also missed the ratification of the national budget and the official closing of parliament, according to local reports.
Journalists' hopes that a government press conference held after the AU summit would clear up the confusion were quickly dashed. "The only thing new that came out of the press conference [...] was the official breaking of government silence that has hovered over the issue for three weeks," Tamerat Waldyes wrote in Addis Fortune. Government spokesman Bereket Simon revealed only that the prime minister was recovering from an illness, was "exhausted" from his workload despite his "Herculean ability," and would be back at work soon, according to local reports.
When reporters asked about all the secrecy, Bereket's response was telling. He said the government did not want to "make a public relations piece out of it" and that the circumspection "is the culture of our party," according to The Reporter.
Ethiopia's ruling party has never been open to the public. Despite Bereket's promises in the past to hold press conferences every two weeks with Meles meeting the press every two months, the government has held only two press conferences in the last eight months and it has been more a year since the prime minister met with the press, according to local reports. "There is a power vacuum at the moment, and so the information is hidden," said one local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal for offering critical comments. "The media has always been controlled by the state so the media has never developed investigative journalism in Ethiopia, and we are lost for answers,"
This information vacuum can have a detrimental effect on both the public and the government. Rumors, rather than facts, inform public opinion, and public confidence in the government is eroded. "Whenever you deliberately spread misinformation, you lose people's trust," Abebe told me. "The impact for the government is that it loses credibility." The silence over Meles is the "old school way of doing things," writes the Kenya-based Nation columnist Mwenda wa Micheni. "Presidents never went down with a cold, even in the cold months; jesters were regular features and public accounting totally absent, something that locked the continent's potential for decades," Micheni writes. "But even as the continent strives to get unchained, a few leaders are stuck in the mud."
(Reporting from Nairobi)