Since I published a blog last week on the lack of information about the health and whereabouts of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, readers have deluged it with comments (over 175 as of today), reflecting the pent-up interest in the premier's status and deeply divided views of his leadership.
For weeks, Meles' situation has been in question. International reports have claimed he is seriously ill at a hospital in Brussels, while the local and exile press have reports ranging from Meles being on holiday to having already died. A state press conference left reporters disappointed, with no new information other than claims that Meles was "recovering" and would be back at work in "a few days"--more than a week ago.
Comments on the blog echo the contradictory news reports; some claim he is dead, others follow the government line that he is resting and will return soon, and one even claims he is in a cave. Whether supporters or detractors of the prime minister, all commenters seem hungry for answers, refuting the idea that a news blackout quells the public's demand for information. "If Meles is alive as a respected Prime Minister, why doesn't he come out and speak to the people?" writes one commenter using the name Dang. "He needs to have a slice of respect to the people. This kind of disrespect doesn't take him any further."
Others blame the Western media for not bothering to investigate the matter properly despite having more resources and freedom to make inquiries than the local press. "Why have the credible international medias such as BBC and Associated Press failed to investigate and reveal the truth about the absence of Meles? The media is biased and do not seem to care at all for the poorest nations in the world," writes a user named Tariku. It's telling that none of the readers appear to directly criticize the local press for its inability to uncover the truth. They seem to know that access to information and opportunities for investigative journalism in Ethiopia are limited--so much so that the whereabouts and health of the country's driver remain a mystery.
Just as thoughts on Meles' health and whereabouts are divided, opinions of his leadership appear to be deeply polarized. Few commenters appear to convey a balanced opinion--all are either his vehement devotees or detractors.
If the disparate comments on the blog are anything to go on, the lack of detailed official explanation has created confusion among the public and allowed speculation and rumor to take precedence. Some commenters claim that CPJ is contributing to the speculation and harboring anti-government sentiments, but this is not the objective. The Ethiopian electorate has the right to know about the undertakings of elected officials, including whether they are fit to run the country. It is a right under the Ethiopian constitution. As the English weekly Addis Fortune wrote in a July 22 editorial, "Informing the public about the activities of elected officials is, indeed, a state affair. No different can the case be when it comes to the head of government."
(Reporting from Nairobi)