The Escobar Case: A Case Study of How Disinformation Is Created Through the Misuse of Real Events and Data

Eskobar Gabijel
FOTO: KoSSev

In the last few weeks, a certain piece of news about Gabriel Escobar, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Balkans, was shared on social networks and by some media, which was, to say the least, confusing for all in Serbia and Kosovo alike. Has Escobar been fired, did his wife receive money from Serbia, and is his alleged relative the owner of a law firm hired by Republika Srpska for lobbying in America?

By Andjela Milivojević

The little-known site Frontliner, headed by Vudi Xhymshiti, who presents himself as a photojournalist from London, published an article about Gabriel Escobar, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Balkans in early May, which very quickly garnered the attention of the regional media in the Western Balkans.

An analysis of the data published on that website and a comparison with publicly available information shows that the claims about Gabriel Escobar are based on data that is either fully inaccurate or presented in a manipulative manner and placed in the wrong context to present them as credible claims.

The media have a legitimate right and duty to report on diplomats’ ties to local authorities and, in the public interest, point out and expose potential conflicts of interest. The way information on Gabriel Escobar was published is a good example of how citizens can be exposed to misinformation that at an initial glance appears to be reliable claims.

First claim: Escobar was dismissed

Information about the alleged dismissal of Gabriel Escobar was published on May 5 on the Frontliner portal, which was founded and is edited by an individual named Vudi Xhymshiti. The article states that Escobar „has been relieved of his duties as the envoy to the Western Balkans“. The alleged confirmation for this dismissal arrived „from a source within the US Congress“. In the text, the author presents several claims that suggested “a compromise of his neutrality in the sensitive Kosovo-Serbia dialogue

As it turned out, the author of the text either incorrectly or intentionally described the information that Escobar was leaving office as „dismissal“. The very next day, the State Department announced that Escobar was not dismissed, but rather that would soon be leaving his post

„All career Foreign Service officers rotate assignments every one to four years as a matter of regular practice. As a career Foreign Service officer, Escobar has served in his current role for three years, and is due for a long-planned transition to his next assignment in coming weeks. Until the scheduled transition, he shall remain in his role as the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy in the office of European and Eurasian Affairs as well as Special Envoy for Western Balkan Affairs,” reads the State Department’s response to the Tanjug news agency from Belgrade.

Escobar denied Frontliner’s claims during a media briefing a few days later.

„I want to say directly that everything in that report is a lie and provable a lie. First of all, I’m not being fired, and everyone at the State Department has verified that,“ said Escobar.

The State Department’s website states that Escobar was appointed to his current position in September 2021, with a term of three years, which means that his term ends in September of this year.

Citizens and readers need to know what is expected of journalists before they publish a news piece. The Code of Journalists of Serbia and the Code of Journalists of Kosovo state that a journalist must not blindly trust the source of information and that the journalist must take into account that „sources of information often follow their personal interests or the interests of social groups to which they belong and adapt their statements to those interests.“

In this case, the author of the text, Vudi Xhymshiti, quoted an unnamed source from the US Congress, whereby the readers were deprived of the information as to who gave the information so that they can judge whether they believe the source of information or not.

Journalists can use anonymous sources in certain situations when there is no other way to publish the information. In that case, journalistic practice says that the information should be confirmed by at least three independent, mutually unconnected sources so that journalists could use this piece of information in their reporting. When it comes to the Frontliner website, this is not the case, as the entire claim relies on one unnamed source.

Escobar himself questioned the claim that someone from Congress could have disclosed this information to Frontliner because, as he said, Congress was not officially notified of the changes on the day the information was released.

„The claim that the information came from congressional sources is false because Congress has not been notified of any personnel changes. In fact, the report came out after I had through diplomatic channels reached out to all the governments in the region to start talking about the transition. And this one – this report came out shortly after I communicated to the Government of Kosovo,“ said Escobar.

Journalist codes state that „inventing anonymous sources is a serious violation of the standards of professional conduct of journalists“ and that the credibility of journalists and the media can be seriously harmed if it is proven that „hiding a source serves to cover its non-existence“.

Second claim: Escobar’s relative received money from Republika Srpska

In its text, the Frontliner further claims that it has obtained documents that show that Escobar has a relative by the name of Manuel Escobar, who is one of the partners in the McGinnis law firm from the US, which at the end of 2019 signed an 80 thousand dollar-a-month contract with representatives of Republika Srpska for lobbying purposes. According to Frontliner, “the allegations against Escobar and his family’s ties to Serbia and Kremlin-linked interests demand a thorough investigation and transparency.”

As proof of this claim, Frontliner published a copy of the contract addressed to Zlatan Klokić, the then Minister for European Integration and International Cooperation of the Republika Srpska. According to the contract, the Texas company McGinnis undertakes to advise and represent the Republika Srpska and work with its designated representatives regarding international legal and policy matters.

In the text published by the Frontliner, there is no information about the evidence based on which it can be concluded that Gabriel Escobar has any family ties with the McGinnis firm and the individual who shares his last name. According to some websites, there are between 40 and 50 thousand people with the surname Escobar in the United States of America, so it is unclear how the author of Frontliner concluded that these two people are related.

Escobar said that he has nothing to do with Manuel Escobar and the law firm. He also underlined that „that law office has a public website and at some point, a responsible journalist can read it to confirm that I have no links with them“. The State Department also said in a statement that „it is irresponsible to publish such falsehoods. We encourage any journalist to check the facts before spreading offensive and unfounded rumors.“

In addition, the Frontliner author failed to explain to readers that the information about Republlika Srpska paying a US lobbying firm is several years old. In May 2019, Balkan Insight published a story about the Government of Republika Srpska hiring the Texas-based law firm McGinnis Lochridge to provide legal advice. The source of this information was the investigative journalist Casey Michael from the US news website „The Think Progress“. In a tweet, he posted a link to the US Department of Justice website where a copy of the contract can be found.

 

During 2020, Radio Free Europe (RFE) also reported on this topic after learning that Republika Srpska renewed its contract with the US firm. A copy of the contract was published at the time, which Frontliner used in its text. RFE, in a February 2020 text, says that the document was published by the US Department of Justice, and the contract is still available on their website. RFE states in the text that a similar contract signed by Banjaluka and the Texas company the previous year expired at the end of 2019. This contract is also publicly available on the website of the US Department of Justice.

Using information and work of other media outlets without proper citation is considered a violation of the Code of Journalists, which states that journalists and editors are obliged to indicate the original author if they transmit or paraphrase other people’s texts and findings.

The third claim: Escobar’s wife receives money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia

As an example of Escobar’s bias towards Serbia, the website Frontliner writes that his wife, Elizabeth Escobar, allegedly receives money from Serbia. As evidence for this claim, a link to the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, where the news about the exhibition organized in Washington in December 2022 was published, was used in the text.

Once you read the news, you would learn that Escobar gave a speech at this exhibition and that his wife Elizabeth collaborated with an artist from Serbia, Marija Milošević, to organize the exhibition.

„After reading a poem she wrote in memory of her stay in Serbia, Elizabeth Escobar also spoke about her personal experience of Serbian culture and art, which she had the opportunity to learn about during her husband’s service at the US Embassy in Belgrade,“ the ministry website reads.

There is no information in the announcement that Elizabeth Escobar received money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia for this event. During the media briefing, Escobar also addressed these claims and said that his wife does not receive any money from any foreign government.

“My wife in every embassy that we have served in – Bolivia, Portugal, Italy, and even Serbia – has been a proud proponent of people-to-people contacts, but she does that without any kind of payment and without any kind of contract. She will continue to do that.”

Frontliner failed to provide any additional evidence to support the claims about the alleged money that Elizabeth Escobar received from Serbia except for a link to a news story that does not include this information. The Frontliner author did not send inquiries to the Serbian Embassy in Washington or a request for access to information of public importance to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia to try to prove these claims. Also, the author did not reach out to Elizabeth Escobar, to give her an opportunity to explain the funding claims.

The right to answers is one of the basic journalistic postulates when reporting and is considered crucial for unbiased and balanced reporting. A right to answers is a way for readers to hear out all sides mentioned in the text. Given that the Frontliner site did not give the other party, in this case Elizabeth Escobar, an opportunity to respond to the accusations, the public was deprived of knowing all the circumstances of the disputed exhibition because the only thing offered in the text was the author’s proof-less claim.

Who is behind the Frontliner portal?

The Frontliner site was registered in February 2022, and officially launched in March 2023. The company VX MEDIA is behind the site, founded by Vudi Xhymshiti, who presents himself as a photographer whose work has been published in The Guardian and The New York Times. The website says that after nine successful months since the launch of Frontliner Magazine in March 2023, Xhymshiti decided to part ways with it and launch a new publication – „Gunpowder Chronicles“.



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