The extreme official secrecy surrounding the condition of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced by the government on September 2, presented a certain conundrum for international news organizations: namely, when to report that the Central Asian autocrat had, in fact, died.
The circumstantial evidence that Karimov had expired was ample well before formal confirmation of his death, from unidentified government sources, to foreign officials expressing condolences, to reported preparations for his burial in his native city of Samarkand.
But without the final word from Tashkent, media outlets had to make a call on whether to report Karimov's death as fact and pull the trigger on their queued-up obituaries of him.
Both Reuters and the Financial Times deemed the evidence of his death sound enough to publish obituaries hours before the Uzbek government's confirmation, with Reuters citing three unidentified "diplomatic sources." The FT and The Atlantic, meanwhile, hung their sourcing on Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim, who said in televised remarks earlier in the day that Karimov had "passed away."
If the Uzbek government is to be believed, and Karimov was indeed declared dead at 8:55 p.m. local time in Tashkent, then Yildirim actually jumped the gun in announcing the Uzbek president's passing.
But for journalists following the strange saga, it was difficult to know what to believe coming out of Tashkent. The websites of both the Uzbek government and president's press service were inaccessible for much of the day, while Russian news agencies published contradictory reports.
Most notably, Russia's Interfax news agency issued a breaking news alert shortly before 7:30 p.m. Tashkent time with the headline: Uzbek Government Officially Reports President Islam Karimov's Death.
The item was quickly picked up by Western news agencies, including Reuters and dpa. But the state-owned Russian news agency RIA-Novosti subsequently cited an unidentified Uzbek cabinet official as denying that the government had issued such a statement.
Around 30 minutes later, Interfax withdrew the news item, citing a "technical error." The sequence also played out on Twitter, where Interfax first tweeted out the headline Uzbek President Islam Karimov Has Died and then, in a subtweet, wrote: "He Didn't Die!"
Reuters and dpa followed suit in yanking their reports, with dpa issuing its retraction with the subject line: "Kill Kill Kill."
When Uzbek state TV finally announced confirmation of Karimov's death, the Russian news website Slon.ru best encapsulated the bizarre manner in which the whole affair unfolded in the press with a news notification that read: "In Uzbekistan, This Time They REALLY DID announce Karimov's death."