The “Fish Rain” Hoax and Other Previous Bogus Stories as Diversions from Popular Protests
This is the second and final piece on my observations on amusing bogus stories by EPRDF propaganda. Creating hoaxes has been a familiar tactic the EPRDF propaganda machine has utilized for quite long time. Two hoaxes have circulated during the last week. I have reason to suspect these hoaxes circulating in the horn of Africa during the last two weeks could be part of such scams regularly being churned out by the Woyane security to divert public attention from the unfolding Oromo Protests.
One is related to “fish rain” in Dire Dawa. The other suspicious hoax was the “Eritrean polygamy law”. Many people dismiss such things as simple acts of hoaxes news being released by a group of silly individuals just for fun. But when we examine the timing of such releases and possible motivations, then things would start making sense. For the regime in Addis Ababa, it pays to create hoax messages as long as such news can engage and divert the attention of a good number of unsuspecting individuals. In the past, I have developed a habit of taking note of similar hoaxes generated by the regime’s propaganda machine. I have shared one such story in my previous blog post entitled FABRICATING STORIES: THE ETHIOPIAN REGIME’S “GOLDEN RULES” TO GET ITSELF OFF HEADLINES. In this piece, I will share three more suspicious stories.
This afternoon, as I conclude this piece, and before I posted it, I came across a twitter message that Ethiopia’s Health Ministry has called a press conference on H1N1, swine flu, and Zika viruses. It is highly likely that they will deliberately put Ethiopia in a high risk category. The motivation are there: The primary purpose being shifting attention from the Ongoing domestic protest as well as seeking funding for surveillances of these deadly viruses.
Addis taxi, An encounter
This one falls in a different category. For someone who is not aware of the motives behind the story, it can be heartbreaking, one can easily fall in the trap set up by the spin doctors – getting captivated by the story and hence caught up in a string of passing the information to each other through formal or informal means. This is exactly what the spin doctors want – disengage the domestic audience from the ongoing tragedy, deflecting the attention of the domestic audience. However, for those who can spot the trick, such stories would still have an entertainment value, a short comedy patched together by a novice writer.
Here is the story whose setting is an Addis Ababa mini-bus taxi travelling from Bole to Qality carrying 12 passengers, whose final destination is far away regions. A middle aged man was interested in striking conversation with a young man, the driver’s assistant. The conversation went beyond a simple act of breaking the ice because the middle aged man continued to ask a series of very personal questions:
Man: What is your name?
Man: Your father’s name?
Man: Birth place?
Boy: Why do you keep asking these questions, are you a policeman?
Man: No, I am not a policeman, but I am just interested in knowing about you!
Boy: Well, I am born in Debre Zeit (30 km South East of Addis) but I moved to Addis Ababa about 10 years ago.
Man: But why did you leave Debre Zeit, and who are you living with here in Addis?
Boy: when I was a little boy of 5, my father joined the army, abandoning me and my mother. My mother was very poor, so she had to work as a maid to support me. When I was 10, she brought me to Addis, left me with her sister, got married and moved to Asebe Teferi (a town about 230 km East of Addis Ababa). I have been living with my aunt ever since.
Man: what is the name your mother?
Boy: Mekedes Shiferaw.
At this point the man could not hold on to his tears any more. The rest of the passengers were shocked, the driver slowed, moved to roadside, and then inquired what was going on.
The man explained: “I am crying because I just found my son. My name is Seyoum Tefera. 22 years ago, I had a son with Mekedes Shiferaw. Life was very tough back then. When my son was 5 years old, I had to join the army in 1990. E. C. When I returned to Debre Zeit eight years later, I was told my wife married and moved to unknown location. I have desperately been looking for my wife and my son ever since. Now I talked with this boy and everything he said confirmed that he is my son. Look at his hair, his face, and every bit of his look resembles mine. So now after 17 years of separation I found my son in this taxi, that is why I am crying!”. The father and son hugged each other and cried. The rest of the passengers clapped to celebrate the miracle they just witnessed.
This story was written in Amharic and posted on Dire Tube on 20th December 2015. It is now widely circulating on social media. By the time I began to write this piece, the news item was “liked” by 6,124 and “shared” by 1,347 Facebook users.
A heart breaking story indeed. Whether or not this is an authentic story is anybody’s guess. In my view, this falls in the category of suspicious story that can be safely listed with EPRDF’s fabricated stories. I immediately suspected this story was made up. I had a very strong reason to be suspicious about the authenticity of this story. My curiosity led me to trace the origin of the story. Sure enough, I traced this story back to none other than the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, actually it was written by a journalist working for EBC FM 97.1 radio station. The fact that EBC was the original source simply strengthened my suspicion but it may not be a sufficient evidence to confirm that story was a fabricated lie.
The other piece of evidence I can adduce is related to the motive for fabricating such a sensational story. For this we need to look at the exact date when this story was released. December 20th, that is at the height of the Oromo uprising. By then both domestic and international public opinion was such that the image of the regime was already tarnished. The fabricated story is meant to divert attention of the public and soften the hearts and minds of at least some domestic audience. The Ethiopian people were captivated by the larger scale savagery that was unfolding in towns and villages throughout Oromia. This kind of story needed to be fabricated to disengage and shift the public attention from the real tragedy, the massacre of hundreds of Oromos.
The Lion Miracle
I vividly recall the day yet another fabricated story was released around mid-June 2005. When it was known that the election was stolen, the widespread protests against the stolen election results were met with brute forces and dozens of demonstrators were massacred at different locations. Ethiopia stayed in the headlines of most media outlets. It was then the EPRDF unleashed its spin-doctors to replace the headlines with another bogus story. The so called lion miracle was made up. This one was met with astonishing success, perhaps a pleasant surprise to the EPRDFites themselves. Most major world media outlets were immediately captivated with this fabricated story.
The fictitious story runs something like this. The BBC headline at the time was “Kidnapped girl ‘rescued’ by lions: A pride of lions has rescued a girl from her kidnappers in rural south-west Ethiopia, according to police.” BBC elaborated: “A 12-year-old girl was snatched by four men on her way home from school early in June. A week later, kidnappers were moving her with police in pursuit when three lions encountered the group and chased the men off, local police said. The lions stayed with the girl without harming her, before departing as police searching for her came near. Sergeant Wondmu Wedaj told the media from Bita Genet, some 560 kilometres (348 miles) south-west of the capital, Addis Ababa, that they found the girl alive but shocked and terrified.”
Intrigued by the amazing story, NBC invited a wildlife expert who described the situation as “a young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn’t eat her”.
This spin-doctors selected this topic because “abductions for forced marriage” is something that Ethiopia has most frequently cited in United Nations led global gender and development rhetoric. NBC made a reference to this element as: “Kidnapping young girls has long been part of the marriage custom in Ethiopia… The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, practiced in rural areas where most of the country’s 71 million people live.” Incidentally, multilateral agencies as reputable as UN take such ridiculous statistics and report it. Ethiopians recognize that the problem of abduction does exist but it is madness to put the figures to such abnormally high level.
Statistical lie is one of the scams of the EPRDF era, which is deliberately churned out to attract funding from unsuspecting bilateral and multilateral agencies.
The lion miracle attracted the attentions of many other global media including fox news , the Guardian, science forum, and many others, each seeking some expert opinion on the rather unique situation “emerging” from Ethiopia, applying fancy stuff like artist impressions (e.g. the third picture in the above collection) of what it looks like for a poor girl being looked after by a huge lion!
The fact of the matter is the explanation of the situation was supposed to be sought in the behavior of the EPRDF government and its communication apparatus, specifically noting the exact dates that sensational but suspicious sounding news items released are the immediate aftermath of landmark political and social upheavals.
Ethiopia’s bird flu that never-was
It proves useful to begin by describing the context for the fake bird flu story released early December 2005.
First, I approach this by highlighting the timeline of bird flu pandemic. First, the first patient of human cases of bird flu was recorded and alarming level of its re-appearances were reported in Hong Kong in 1997 and 2003 respectively. The incidences of the pandemic kept rising throughout 2004 and 2005, spreading with rising frequency in westerly direction and affecting most far east and South Asian countries. Indonesia, the nearest toe the western world from among those affected, reported an incidence in December 2005. The global media very closely followed and reporting the alarming rate at which the pandemic was moving in space and time, progressing rapidly toward the Western World. Epidemiologists all over the world were dispatched to predict the likely geographic routes the pandemic might pass through on its way. For the purpose of this discussion, it is critical to note that the experts reached a consensus that Ethiopia and Kenya were at high risk, due to seasonal migratory birds that arrive in the Rift Valley.
Second, it is significant to note that the fake bird flu incidence was announced when the upheaval in the aftermath of the 2005 election was at its peak. The general election was held on May 15, 2005. On May 16, 2005, it opposition claimed that the tallying process was jeopardized and the vote was rigged. The EPRDF government declared a state of emergency, outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces, and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special forces drawn from elite army units. The National Election Bureau Ethiopia (NEBE) was required to announce the official results on 8 June but after a few rounds of revisions NEBE announced final results on September 5 declaring that the EPRDF controlled the majority vote. Widespread public protests began on November 1, 2005. This was followed by massacres of over 193 protesters and 60,000 opposition supporters were arrested and imprisoned at concentration camps located in several locations.
Needless to say that the large scale tragedy in Ethiopia attracted the attention of major media outlets in the world. Ethiopia stayed in the headlines of most print media and prime time broadcasts of many broadcast media for much of November 2005, when the mass killings and arrests were taking place. It was in this context that the EPRDF government announced suspicious dead birds at two locations in Ethiopia during the first week of December 2005.
BBC reported that “Agriculture ministry official Seleshi Zewdie said the dead birds had been discovered in the eastern Somali region and near the capital, Addis Ababa. He said reports of the dead pigeons over the past two weeks showed that the early warning system established by the government was working. There have been no confirmed cases of bird flu in Africa, but Ethiopia and other east African countries are considered at risk as millions of migratory birds fly there during the European winter”.
However, the timing of this announcement, given the context and the sequence of events discussed above, makes it highly likely that the bird flu case was manufactured by the EPRDF propaganda machine for the purpose of curtailing the length of time the regime would stay with such tarnished image in the headlines of global media.
Ironically, the regime can get too clever targeting multiple objectives with one fabricated story. In this case, it was EPRDF propaganda machine presented a story which effectively appeared to have reversed the adage – two stones one bird! Getting itself off the headline is the most straightforward motive. The bird flu was a highly suited story to attract funding from multilateral and bilateral sources in the name of fighting the pandemic from spreading westwards. There were telltale signs of such motives in the press release by the Minister of Agriculture, who announced the scare. “We have to investigate, we cannot exclude bird flu until the investigations are completed,” the minister told the AFP news agency. “We are on alert because of the risk of bird flu.” The latter statement is significant, it is meant to lure donors to indicate the Ethiopian government has such an organized and efficient surveillance mechanism.
Sure enough, multi-million dollar funds started flowing into Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s national avian flu coordination committee has approved a multi-million dollar contingency plan to strengthen preparedness in the event of the disease spreading to the Horn of Africa country. A budget US $124 million covering a three year plan was allocated to the Avian Human Influenza National Coordination Committee. Apparently, this was meant to cover costs of “surveillance systems, stockpiling of essential medical supplies and equipment, as well as systems for building national, regional and local response capacity. It also aims to boost public awareness of the disease, and strengthen laboratory diagnostic services”.
Needless to say that laboratory tests on birds suspected of having died of the H5N1 avian flu virus in Ethiopia in March showed negative results. The government hit two objectives of the regime were successfully achieved: (a) with avian flu story around, no global media ever returned to unfolding massacres in Ethiopia; (b) considerably large amount of funds was allocated to the regime in Addis Ababa, which projected itself as the “most efficient” in the region in implementing surveillance and control mechanisms to stop spread of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian public were subjected to barrage of awareness campaign, changing the subject away from the ongoing killings and gross human rights violations toward preparedness for the bird flu pandemic. The ultimate victims were Ethiopia’s small holder farmers whose livelihoods were ruined. Flocks of birds in some small farms were destroyed and the market for poultry and eggs were shattered.
In this series I confined my analysis to stories whose true nature have not yet been revealed to the public. For this reason, I deliberately left out fake stories that were already known by the international community. For instance, the Wikileak Files on recent bombings blamed on Oromos possibly the work of GOE [Government of Ethiopia] and Ethiopia Bombs Itself, Blames Eritrea.
Even then I could only provide a highlight, and hence I limited my analysis to only four such fabricated stories. Otherwise, it is beyond the capability of an ordinary mortal to compile a comprehensive list of fabricated stories by the EPRDF spin-doctors during the last two and half decades. There is a substantial element of fabrication in most news items and documentaries being discharged on daily basis by the government controlled broadcast and print media.
In the three pieces, I trust I have shed some light on the nature of news coming from the regime in Addis Ababa. This is believed to alert the general public and the international community to take with a pinch of salt most news items released by the EPRDF propaganda machine. Specifically, it is time that the foreign media get alerted and stop being caught up in the web of lies set up by the regime to fool them and the international community. Foreign correspondents would need to take their jobs a bit more seriously, exercising caution and routinely scrutinizing press releases before they relay them to their global audience.
Additionally, correspondents in Addis Ababa have a public duty to at least occasionally do some investigative journalism to go underneath some suspicious sounding storylines that the regime puts out intermixing with raw propaganda. I am intrigued that the regime has got away with fabricating exceptionally sensational stories in the middle of very tense social upheavals.
Finally, the analysis in this series may inform the regimes propaganda team that after all at least few people are aware and closely follow the fabricated stories they craft and release at opportune moments. This may help them think twice when the team contemplates to create the next hoax news.