The ongoing war in the northern part of Ethiopia, between TPLF forces and the federal government, has been the center of attention since the beginning. For the past ten months, the situation on the ground has been changing rapidly. Given the fact that the war is undertaken in the dark where there is no possible access to information along with the disconnection of telecommunications, electricity, and transportation services intensified the information gap and disorder prevailing in the Ethiopian media landscape.
Social media platforms were filled with claims and counterclaims, controversies, allegations, unconfirmed rumors, and false information. In the following report, HaqCheck analyzes the disinformation trend in August with a recommendation that puts forward solutions that would be important in alleviating the effect of such information disorders.
One of the ways of disseminating disinformation is using false images. HaqCheck has debunked several false information supported with pictures.
In this regard, a Facebook post claimed TPLF forces, which were hiding in a secret camp at the Geregera School in the Amhara region, were completely destroyed by the national air force’s operation using false images to support its assertion.
HaqCheck investigated the image and confirmed that it doesn’t support the claim and rated it FALSE. The image was taken from a post on 14 January 2020 showing an explosion at a petrochemical plant in northeastern Spain, near Barcelona.
Another social media post refuted by HaqCheck reported that the road connecting Addis Ababa with Bahir Dar was blocked by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The images that were used to support the claim were actually taken from a landslide accident that occurred at the place that same day. Therefore, HaqCheck rated the post FALSE for using inaccurate images.
Another social media post HaqCheck looked into was a news article stating the death of nine people due to sudden flash floods in Addis Ababa. Despite the fact that the information is true, one of the two images used in the post is found to be falsely taken from another news report showing rescue workers in Haiti. The post was rated PARTLY FALSE.
In another instance, HaqCheck examined a claim that alleges Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to North Korea for a two-day working visit. The Facebook post that was made on August 25, 2021, shared two images in a bid to support the claim.
However, a reverse image search of the pictures by HaqCheck revealed that the images were first posted by the Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia, when PM Abiy Ahmed arrived in Seoul, South Korea, two years ago, on Aug 25, 2019. Moreover, there was no official announcement from the government regarding the Prime Minister’s travel to North Korea.
Another assertion that was fact-checked was a FALSE Twitter post asserting that a drone belonging to the Ethiopian National Defense Forces was shot down by TPLF forces during a recent engagement in the Amhara regional state.
However, the first image was shared on October 20, 2020, for the first time and shows a destroyed Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicle shot down by the defense army of Artsakh The picture was captured during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The second image on the other hand was first published on a website on July 16, 2020. The picture delineates a shot down Armenian drone by Azerbaijani forces amid clashes that took place across the countries’ northern border area.
Social media posts and allegations regarding the damage caused to one of the churches in Lalibela had also been spreading across social media. There was a picture of one of the churches, Biete Amanuel, displaying gunshot holes, in support of the claim that the TPLF forces had attacked the church.
On August 5, 2021, TPLF forces took control of the town of Lalibela in the North Wollo zone of the Amhara regional state. Following the news, the US asked the TPLF forces to respect the site’s heritage. It was reported that Getachew Reda, the spokesman for the TPLF, said “the concerns were misplaced. We know what it means to protect heritage sites.”
Mistakes that are made during reporting also exacerbate disinformation. One of such kinds of misinformation that was circulating on social media was a video HaqCheck looked into. The video clip emerged reporting that a recently proposed US resolution on Ethiopia, had been repudiated by the Ethiopian-born American former Congress candidate Ted Alemayehu.
However, HaqCheck rated it Misleading. The resolution was neither overturned nor permanently removed. Ted Alemayehu, also on his Facebook page, said the information in the video clip was not accurate. In another post, he further clarified the issue saying that the only thing he had said is the resolution would not be submitted that week but not that it was canceled.
The Facebook post by Al Jazeera English entitled ‘Erdogan offers to mediate an end to Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict’ was also part of the misinformation the past month.
HaqCheck looked into the post and confirmed the title and content of the article do not match. Therefore rated it as MISLEADING HEADLINE due to the false connection between the post on Facebook and the article on the website.
Another one was an article by Addis Standard, a local news outlet. The outlet published an article of an English translation to a Facebook post by Temesgen Tiruneh, head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) on August 25, 2021.
In the Facebook post, the intelligence chief criticized some foreign countries which consider themselves as “police of the world and teachers of democracy”, for supporting TPLF. However, The newspaper, Addis Standard, quoted Temesgen criticizing these countries for “providing arms”, which is not actually said in his Facebook post.
Later on, The Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA), released a disinformation alert saying “a very sensitive content that jeopardizes national security interest, was added”. Addis Standard then admitted the misquote and officially apologized for it.
The other disinformation trend that was prominent on social media was allegations on different organizations.
An allegation on a Facebook post holds that a huge amount of money had been found on people working for the International Committee of Red Cross Ethiopia (ICRC) at a checkpoint in the Afar region. The posts claim that the cash was intended to be provided to the TPLF forces. However, the International Committee of Red Cross Ethiopia issued a statement saying the allegation was false.
Ethiopian Airlines was also accused of transporting soldiers and firearms to Tigray. There were several viral tweets alleging the state flagship was used to transport military cargo. These claims were followed up with campaigns that called for the boycotting of the airline.
Ethiopian Airlines responded by denying the allegation on social media and said that all flights from and to Tigray had been suspended over a month ago. The national carrier said there had been no flights to the war-torn region since the end of June.
Despite the counterstatement by the airline, the allegations continued reiterating the statement that Ethiopian Airlines is transporting firearms cargo to the country. Social media posts claimed on August 12, 2021, that firearms were unloaded at Bole International Airport.
Unconfirmed, controversial issues
Ethiopian social media in August was crowded with claims and counterclaims here and there. Most of them were related to the conflict in Tigray.
The Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check, which looks at “addressing current issues in Ethiopia,” issued warnings on July 22 saying “TPLF’s plans to carry out an unprovoked massacre in Humera have been exposed” and “more than 300 dead bodies were dumped on trucks and moved to Mekelle by TPLF”. Again on August 2, it was stated that ‘TPLF propagandists’ were fabricating false images and graphic pictures to revive a ‘fake’ Humera massacre.
Meanwhile, images and reports flooded social media claiming that Amhara regional militias had committed massacres on Tigreans in Humera. The BBC, AlJazeera, CNN, New York Times, VOA, Reuters, and other news outlets reported that dead bodies were found floating in the Tekeze river, also known as Setit, around the Sudan border, referring to eyewitnesses.
In another case, a claim that went viral across social media reported that Afar regional Special Force deputy Commander, Mohammud Ibrahim, had joined the TPLF, being part of the trend. The person, is said to have joined the TPLFl forces, was interviewed by a TV station affiliated with TPLF.
Later on, the Afar Regional State Communication Office released a statement regarding the issue elaborating that Mohammud is the former deputy commander of the Afar Regional State Special Police Force. However, he was imprisoned for his involvement in an alleged contraband trade before the new leadership came to power back in 2018. The statement also added that he was later released from prison, with the government’s pardon and his actions can no longer represent the regional government.
In a similar framework, there were a series of posts on social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter, with an assertion that Ethiopia shut down its embassy in Washington DC. The claims also stated that Ethiopia had been evacuating its diplomatic staff from its embassies in Germany and in the United States, with diplomats stationed there, set to return back home.
The Ethiopian ambassador to the US, Fitsum Arega, responded by refuting the claims, explaining that the embassy is on its regular operation actively undertaking its services.
Social media platforms, largely Facebook and Twitter, were deluged with images and video clips regarding military equipment confiscation.
Both sides in the Tigray conflict claimed their side had seized military armaments. State-affiliated news outlets such as the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) and Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) shared the images claiming that heavy military hardware had been confiscated from the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) forces. It was also reported that the group suffered heavy human and material losses around Gashena, in Amhara regional state.
It was reported that an attack was mounted on the TPLF forces making the group retreat to North Wollo Zone areas – Estayish, Ahuntegegn, Gashena, Gergera, and Filakit towns. According to the reports, the group was transporting the items, looted from governmental, non-governmental organizations, and from the public in that area.
It was also claimed that Amhara Special Forces and militias, in collaboration with farmers, had attacked TPLF-forces, which obliged TPLF forces to abandon the property they looted and retreat to the nearby town called Ase.
On the other hand, other posts were also circulating at the same time with an assertion that the vehicles in the image were captured from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and aligned forces in Gashena.
A day after the news first broke, allegations arose from TPLF activists saying EBC and FBC were circulating disinformation. As a counterclaim, a video clip was released by TPLF activists and media, which seemed to be recorded by TPLF troops, showing the exact view similar to the images used in the social media posts.
In another issue, viral claims emerged alleging that high-ranking federal and regional government officials including diplomats and Prosperity Party-affiliated persons had fled the country. The posts and tweets claimed that the former Amhara Regional State president and current National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) director Temesgen Tiruneh fled the country to Germany on the morning of 18 August 2021.
However, other images posted on the same day, the original claims were published, show Temesgen Tiruneh alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) during a one-day working visit to Ankara, Turkey. According to the images, the NISS director went to Turkey with the PM and other government officials on August 18, 2021.
The visit of Samantha Power to Ethiopia
Another disinformation trend this month was the visit of USAID chief Samantha Power to Ethiopia. She came to Ethiopia on August 5, 2021, and met Muferiat Kamil, Minister of Peace, and Lia Tadesse, Minister of Health.
She didn’t meet Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) who was said to be out of the capital. Amid the diplomatic stand-off, claims emerged that Power had been told she couldn’t meet with the Prime Minister and instead would attend meetings with lower-ranking government officials. The claim added that Power was notified Abiy could only meet with state leaders with equal positions.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said Power was told that the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs could not be available due to tight schedules.
There were also controversial reports about her visit to Addis Ababa, framing what she said from one angle. Some local news outlets said that she denounced the attacks by the TPLF. Others reported that she criticized Prime Minister Abiy for using adverse rhetoric and terms against communities.
‘Genocidal rhetoric’ by Daniel Kibret
In the last week of the month, a tweet posted on 25 August 2021 asserts that a recent speech by Daniel Kibret has a metaphorical message of genocidal intentions against the people of Tigray. It refers to a phrase in his statement that says “malignant tumor”. Daniel Kibret is an advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This tweet went viral and has been retweeted in the hundreds.
The cited phrase by Daniel Kibret comes from a speech he delivered, on August 17, at an artistic public speaking event entitled: “Ethiopia and External Pressure; Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” at the Ethiopian National Theatre.
Referring to the ongoing political chaos in Ethiopia, he said that there is a certainly fatal disease that can only be cured through medical operation. He used the metaphor “tumor” to describe the disease which he stated has been growing in the country for the past 40 years.
He said “… the tumor must be removed through [medical] operation … although that is painful. They may have told us ‘you better live with the tumor’… but they will not suffer the pain of the tumor for us. Why don’t they just do it themselves … by living with a tumor (like Taliban, for instance)? We should get rid of the tumor and be relieved…”
- HaqCheck recommends the public look for information from credible and original sources. They should also refer to statements, updates, and clarifications from authorities regarding the matter. Social media users are recommended to refer to original sources of video clips or images that are embedded to support claims.
- Open information access to the media and journalists, and to the general public should be allowed.
- Media institutions, organizations, and all concerned authorities should provide the public with timely and sufficient information on critical issues. Journalists and news outlets should look into both sides of a story when reporting. They should follow discipline in all aspects. More effort, dedication, and transparency are expected from local media in reporting the conflict and related issues.
- International media outlets should be more careful about their reporting, especially regarding sensitive issues. A more transparent correction is also required if a mistake is made.
- Social media activists, information pages, and bloggers should be careful about what they share. Especially when quoting another source, they have to make sure they use the right information and context.
- Public figures, politicians, government authorities, and all parties should take conscious care in their speech, especially regarding sensitive issues. They need to use easy and understandable language and avoid ambiguity as much as possible.
HaqCheck is a local multilingual fact-checking project based in Ethiopia, formed inside Addis Zeybe’s newsroom, now Inform Africa’s Counter Disinformation Project – a board-led Civil Society Organization (CSO) – dedicated to verifying media contents from social to the mainstream. HaqCheck works in collaboration with media outlets to monitor media contents in English and four local languages (Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrigna, and Somali).
This report is produced with the support of UNESCO under the #CoronavirusFacts: Addressing the ‘Disinfodemic’ on COVID-19 in conflict-prone Environments that the UNESCO Addis Ababa Office is implementing in Ethiopia with financial support from the European Union (EU). The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO or the EU concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO or The European Union and do not commit these organizations in any way.