There has been an ongoing war in the northern part of Ethiopia since November 2020. The conflict started after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray accusing them for attacking the northern command and taking away the artillery. And the fighting has been active for the past nine months.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) denies starting the conflict saying it had struck preemptively because federal forces were preparing to assault Tigray, and the government wants to dominate their ethnic group for centralized power.
The nine months-long ongoing war has contained several issues. The Situation has been changing quickly and it was full of action. The regional capital Mekele was captured by the government forces after three weeks of the beginning of the war. After eight months of conflict the government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its defense forces. TPLF then captured the regional capital . The parliament also labeled the party as a terrorist.
During the course of the war, unconfirmed issues, rumors, conspiracies, and controversies filled the information sphere, especially social media, regarding the conflict in the north. Different ways were used to disseminate disinformation and to create controversy in the past month.
Usage of Images
The article “How Local Guerrilla Fighters Routed Ethiopia’s Powerful Army”, by The New York Times, with images of armed children, garnered attention. The article refers to the children as “…highly motivated young recruits…” which raised a question of war crimes, and the promotion of recruiting child soldiers.
Even though TPLF didn’t comment on the issue, the images were later changed with other photos.
Another article by Amnesty International calling “End the arbitrary arrests of Tigrayans” was criticized for using an unrelated image. Even though the article confirmed the reports that claim Tigrayans are being detained in Addis Ababa, the picture used by Amnesty shows a policeman searching people, who were on a queue during the June’s election. The picture was first used by AFP. The photographer was mentioned in the article, but Amnesty didn’t clarify that the image was taken on election day. The image was later changed.
One of the other controversies was related to the recapturing of Alamata, by TPLF forces. An image with the claim that the rebel army had seized a pickup truck of Amhara police forces went viral. The people in the image were holding and showing the license plate of the vehicle. However, some people argued that both the car and the plate were photoshopped and did not prove the vehicle had been captured. Some edited versions of the original image were also shared to disprove it.
Content that was released with images of children alleging that the TPLF, which was designated by the House of Peoples’ Representatives as a terrorist organization, is conscripting child soldiers into fresh battles also raised an argument.
One side claimed that the children and adults in the images were captured in neighboring Afar and Amhara regions during fresh battles. Different media outlets released video clips of interviews showing the supposed child soldiers.
As a counterclaim, others argued that the women and children in the images and video clips aren’t child soldiers conscripted by TPLF. They instead asserted that they are returnees from Saudi Arabia and have been forced by the government to be interviewed and give scripted interviews. For instance, a Facebook page with 20,433 followers claimed that one of the interviewees is a Saudi returnee and was forced to give the interview falsely and appealed to users to share the post. The post was shared more than 1,500 times across the platform. This shows how claims can circulate on social media widely.
The blockage of both road and railway between Djibouti and Addis Ababa was another controversial issue during the week.
Reports stated that the road and the railway, which is a corridor for 95% of imports to the Ethiopian capital from its eastern neighbor, were blocked by young protesters. The cause of the protest is said to be down to an attack on Gedamaytu town, in the Somali region, by special forces and militia from the neighboring region of Afar. Even though Somali region officials and residents alleged hundreds of people had been killed in the attack, no statement was given from the Afar region or the federal government. The information gap made it easier to share it in a lot of different contexts that misled the public.
Besides the image-based controversies, there were also different claims here and there, seen using inaccurate images. Some of them were debunked by HaqCheck.
A false image, posted on Facebook, claimed that the dead bodies of Amhara special forces had been taken to Gondar by Sino trucks. However, HaqCheck debunked the false image and information and confirmed that the image was taken from an advertisement. HaqCheck proved the picture of the truck was posted on 23 Dec 2019, on an online trading platform.
The other claim was information that stated firearms, ammunition, and military clothes had been captured from the TPLF Forces by the Afar Regional forces. HaqCheck found out the Facebook post used an old picture and other unconfirmed images. Similarly, another image was posted claiming to show captured TPLF forces by the Afar special forces. It used a picture that was actually posted on November 7, to support its claim.
Another Facebook post claiming a trusted military source confirmed a warehouse with a large stockpile of weapons set up [by TPLF] to control Afar and Amhara regions burned down to ashes by FDRE Air Force. The Facebook story also claimed that the incident happened at a place around Kaluwa, the border of Afar and Amhara regions. The images used in the post were taken at different times with different photographers and incidents.
A Facebook post claiming mothers in Mekelle, capital of the Tigray Region, were going out onto the streets to condemn the acts of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was also looked into by HaqCheck. However, the image that was posted with the claim was an old picture that first appeared on social media on 21 October 2018.
Unconfirmed controversial issues
Even though the federal government did not give an official comment, the Amhara regional state government announced that it had shifted from “defense to offense in the re-invasion of various parts of the state.” Following the announcement by the Amhara regional state, other regional state special forces also started to deploy their special forces to Tigray.
Following that social media posts that said “the Sidama special forces had refused to be deployed to Tigray” went viral. However, it was reported later, that the special force was “moving to stand with the national defense force, accepting a national call”.
Recent claims about Woldia town, located in the North Wollo zone of the Amhara region, filled the social media sphere from different sides. One side claimed that Woldia city is in the control of TPLF and the federal defense force was in retreat leaving its heavy weapons and vehicles.
On the other side, there was a statement on the official Facebook page of Amhara region communication saying “Woldia city and the surrounding areas are peaceful”
Controversial issues based on interviews
An article entitled “From Nobel Hero to Driver of War, Ethiopia’s Leader Faces Voters”, published on June 21, by The New York Times, also created controversy in the past month. The article narrates a conversation between Senator Chris Coons and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about the war in Tigray.
As mentioned in the article, the conversation was made on Nov 3, which was before the conflict broke out. But their phone conversation was actually on Nov 23, which the article was later edited to reflect. The writer, Declan Walsh, also announced that the article had been corrected, saying: “After publication Senator Coons said he misremembered the date and the story has been corrected and appended.”
Another issue was raised based on rumors and unconfirmed claims on social media, that former politicians and statesmen including Lemma Megersa, Siye Abraha, Tamrat Layne, Yared Tibebu, Dawit Weldegiorgis, Birhane Gebrekirstos, and others – are saying they are going to reconcile the federal government and TPLF in addition to conspiring against the government at the same time.
Following that other claims arose saying that the former Oromia regional President, Lemma Megersa, had rejected the allegation. He was said to have called for an end to trading on his name, in an apparent interview with VOA Afaan Oromoo.
However, VOA Amharic announced that there was no recent interview with Lemma Megersa. In the statement on July 28, VOA’s Afaan Oromo Editor-in-Chief, Nemo Dandi said “there was no attempt to contact Lemma for an interview, the idea was not even raised.”
The issue about Addis Ababa, Bole International Airport
Early in the week, a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter went viral, claiming that Addis Ababa, Bole International Airport had halted operations and was closed.
But the airport had only stopped operations due to adverse weather conditions. Flights heading to Addis Ababa were diverted to nearby airports due to fog and heavy rain. Two Ethiopian Airlines and one Turkish Airlines flight were impacted.
“The weather conditions are still unreliable which can change at any time and we’ll continue to update you on the progress,” a statement from the airlines said at the time.
Based on the trends observed in the past month, information disorder aggravates situations during political instability. This worsens when the availability of information to the public is limited. In this case, HaqCheck believes that the information gap accelerates the spread of disinformation. To minimize its damage, the government, public figures, and other concerned bodies should provide updates and allow access to information to the media and the general public since making the right information available in a timely fashion is vital for combating disinformation.
Some international media and organizations were also part of the misinformation spread the past month. They should be responsible for their reporting. They should care for humanitarian affairs as inaccurate information inflicts long-term damage on societies especially on those with less [media] literacy.
Social media activists and public figures should also refrain from spreading unconfirmed information and disinformation.
Media outlets should focus on providing the public with timely, accurate, and reliable information regarding ongoing situations. The journalists should stick to basic journalism principles and report accurate information without any bias, mainly about sensitive issues. They should also work hand in hand, with the concerning bodies, to enhance the media literacy of the public.
The public should be aware of such information disorders and protect themselves from not sharing unconfirmed information. Not all information coming from social media and not all images are true, so they should rely on information from credible sources.
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.