Ethiopia: Time to tell the truth, Ambassador
By ANDREW RETTMAN |
Ethiopia’s war is being fought not just in a blackout, but also in a fog of lies – and Ethiopia’s envoy to the EU is making matters worse.
Hirut Zemene, Ethiopia’s EU ambassador, recently wrote to EUobserver, accusing Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, of making “erroneous” claims after he visited the region and told press that violence and suffering was “out of control“.
Zemene stamped her letter with a government seal and hand-signed it after its final word: “Sincerely”.
EUobserver published her letter as a right-of-reply to Haavisto.
But, in fact, it was Zemene’s own claims which were full of half-truths and “fallacies”, according to EU institutions and independent aid agencies and NGOs.
The half-truth was that Finland’s Haavisto had refused Ethiopia’s invitation to visit the conflict zone in the Tigray region, because he did not care what was really happening, but wanted to create “unnecessary pressure” on her government by listening only to refugees’ stories in neighbouring Sudan.
She repeated this in an online conference a few days later, in which she said Ethiopia had “begged” the EU for Haavisto to go to Tigray.
She also met Finland’s ambassador in Brussels, Hanna Lehtinen, to press her line.
Neither Finland nor the EU contradicted Zemene on Haavisto’s Tigray invitation, when asked by EUobserver.
But if he was invited and declined, this was because the visit of one VIP, to one part of Tigray, in an Ethiopia-controlled expedition was not the point.
“Our request for access does not concern a visit of high officials,” an EU spokesperson told this website last Thursday (4 March).
“The primary objective of Pekka Haavisto’s mission was to meet with Ethiopian authorities in Addis Ababa to request full and unhindered access for humanitarian workers and supplies, independent human-rights investigators, and international media teams to all areas in the Tigray region,” the EU said.
Meanwhile, Zemene’s claim that Ethiopia was “begging” the international community to find out the truth did not match her government’s actions.
“EU diplomats and humanitarian workers have only access to Tigray’s capital Mekelle and to limited areas within Tigray,” the EU said.
And the angry tone of Zemene’s letter to EUobserver did not match her face-to-face meeting with Finland’s ambassador, which sounded more like a pro-forma exercise.
Zemene’s meeting with Lehtinen was “short, but friendly” and the discussion was “very general”, a Finnish diplomat said.
The half-truth aside, Zemene’s letter also contained “gross fallacies”, other sources said.
Some of her evasions concerned humanitarian aid.
“So far, 3.5 million people have benefitted from humanitarian aid distributed in 34 woredas/districts out of 36 in the region,” Zemene wrote, in a what she called “tangible progress”.
But for his part, Chris Melzer, from the UN’s aid agency, the UNHCR, in Ethiopia told EUobserver the UN was “not satisfied with access”, which had “improved”, but which was still limited to Mekelle and two refugee camps.
“There are large parts of Tigray without any access … and many people are living in dire conditions,” Melzer said.
Another official from an international aid agency on the ground in Tigray was more blunt.
Zemene’s letter to EUobserver contained “gross fallacies”, the official said.
The source asked to remain fully anonymous for fear of losing what little access their agency had to people in need if they were too outspoken.
Zemene’s 3.5 million figure represented “cumulative dispatches” of food shipments since early January.
But there are 4.5 million people in Tigray who have lacked food for the past four months, meaning there should have been at least 18m food shipments to have made “tangible progress”, the source said.
And many of the 3.5m dispatches never reached hungry men, women, and children, either because they were “looted” by Ethiopian or (allied) Eritrean soldiers, or because they were being sold for profit by Ethiopia’s local officials, the source added.
“Yes, it’s ‘out of control’. In Tigray, 4.5 million people are at risk of starvation,” the official said.
Zemene’s other “gross fallacies” concerned the level of violence.
The ambassador said Ethiopia’s military operation against the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had ended in November and that current fighting was limited to “some remnants of the TPLF leadership and militias”, which were being “dealt with”.
But this was also untrue, international agencies said.
“The information coming out of the region suggests that conflict is ongoing and not just isolated pockets of fighting”, Laetitia Bader, the Horn of Africa director from Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO, told this website.
“Tigray is bleeding as we speak,” EUobserver’s anonymous source also said.
“Planes are bombing from the air … [and] rocket shells are indiscriminately hitting rural villages,” the official told EUobserver last Wednesday, referring to attacks on the town of Samre and the villages of Adi Ahferom and Hawzen in Tigray.
Not the first time
Zemene’s letter was not the first time she tried to use EUobserver as a platform for disinformation.
Last November, the ambassador told this website the ongoing internet and phone-blackout in Tigray was caused by a mysterious cyber-attack on Ethio Telecom, the state telecommunications company.
Then she recanted her statement and said it was in fact caused by physical damage to infrastructure.
In the same interview, Zemene also denied Eritrean forces were fighting in Tigray, while claiming the TPLF had a “factory” making Eritrean uniforms, which were being used in false-flag attacks.
And as for the TPLF-uniform factory, the UNHCR’s Melzer said: “No. We have never heard about such a false-flag operation. We talked to literally hundreds of refugees. None of them told us such or a similar story. None of them had uniform pieces or things like that”.
And four months later, the blackout has intensified – piling more doubt on Zemene’s “begging” for transparency.
“When the conflict started the government shut down [electrical] services to the region, so people couldn’t charge their phones and record evidence of ongoing abuses. Government forces also confiscated phones,” HRW’s Bader said.
“For months, warring parties tried to fight this war in the dark, in a way unseen anywhere in recent years”, Bader noted.
The blackout makes it harder for NGOs and media to push back against Ethiopian or TPLF propaganda.
And in the meantime, Zemene’s diplomacy is just a small part of the government’s campaign of nonsense.
When Amnesty International published its war-crimes report on 26 February, for instance, it was met with a “great deal of disinformation disseminated via social media, which is aimed at discrediting our findings, much of which seems to be coordinated”, Joanne Mariner, one of the report’s authors, told EUobserver.
Some of this included “outright conspiracy theories”, Mariner noted, such as an assertion that Amnesty International used testimony from a “fake priest” who lived in Boston in the US, instead of from eyewitnesses in Ethiopia.
“The claim about the guy in Boston was just made up, pulled out of the hat, spread on the internet, and repeated by the Ethiopian foreign ministry,” Mariner said.
And when asked about it, Zemene’s EU embassy forwarded this website a foreign-ministry press release which not just repeated, but also highlighted in red the fake-priest “conspiracy theory”.
Both Ethiopia and the TPLF have also set up Twitter accounts to push their narratives in English, using titles such as ‘#UnityForEthiopia’ or ‘#StandWithTigray’, which include instructions for creating Twitter accounts and pre-written tweets to copy-paste and send.
The TPLF campaign has included fake images and videos, according to the BBC.
But while the TPLF has focused on calling for international assistance, the Ethiopian campaign has concentrated on discrediting critical voices and aggravating ethnic hate.
Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency, for instance, claimed in December the TPLF was sending out 20,000 fraudulent tweets a day – “a finding that is not supported by our data”, US newspaper The Washington Post said in a recent investigation.
Two Twitter accounts – ‘#ShameOnAmnesty’ and ‘#AmnestyUsedTPLFSources’ – were also used to attack the Amnesty International report, sending out tens of thousands of tweets since 26 February, according to research by the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank.
“The [Ethiopian] government is encouraging people to question fact-checking carried out by legitimate organisations,” the think-tank’s South Africa-based researcher, Tessa Knight, said.
The level of resources being pumped into the campaign was indicated by Ethiopia’s having hired a US-based lobbying firm, Venable, on 1 February for $35,000 (€29,000) a month, according to Venable’s declaration at the US justice department.
In a final touch, Zemene’s embassy also invited EUobserver to send a reporter to Ethiopia to see what was happening for ourselves.
But if the invitation was made in good faith, then it was undermined by the Ethiopian government’s arrest, a few days earlier, of a BBC journalist and two translators working for the AFP news agency and the Financial Times newspaper in Tigray.
They were freed after an international outcry.
But for the New York-based NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the intention was clear.
“Their arrests send a chilling message to other members of the press who may wish to cover the ongoing conflict,” the CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo, said.
The journalist and translators were arrested because “they were disseminating [the] wrong information,” one of Zemene’s diplomats told EUobserver.