Feteh: Shooting the messenger

Originally posted on Aug.27, 2012

So editor of the leading Amharic weekly Feteh,Temesgen Desalegn is a “flight risk.” As such the judge decided he should be in custody pending trial. The paper didn’t hit the streets after June 29. The team of promising journalists and seasoned contributors have to bide time to vent their thoughts on the various aspects of life in this country of over 80 million souls.

The saga that began with the impounding of the last edition of Feteh under the pretext of carrying articles that are “ threat to national security,” ended with a different outcome. Though a judge decided to block the distribution and confiscate the 30,000 copies, charges had been dropped on that issue. However, that was not to be the end of the paper’s tribulations. Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has came up with freshly minted charges on previous editions of the weekly, some as far back as a year.

Health of a PM

The disappearance of the country’s leader from the public view since mid June has been the most discussed and dissected issue. Some broke the news of his death as early as July 15. So it is only natural for Feteh or any other media establishment to get to the bottom of the story. The government kept denying it until the newly elected Senegalese President Macky Sall – who happened to be in Addis for African Union summit meeting – told Ethiopians that Meles was sick.

Then the Government Communication Affaires Office (GCAO) and other TPLF bigwigs started to give all kind of conflicting information about the situation. At one point the head of GCAO even promised to bring the PM before the Ethiopian New Year which is September 11. The white lies of the pro government papers of Reporter and Addis Fortune didn’t solve matters either, except revealing their true colors.

As a paper worth its salt, Feteh couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. When they finally carried the story, along with the protest of Ethiopian Muslims, MOJ rushed to stop the distribution of their paper. The paper allegedly didn’t contain anything different from what was being rumored at the time.

When the weekly was impounded the publisher had to loose ETB 83,000 (around $4,500) in printing cost. While the publisher had the opportunity to run the stories online, it seems they didn’t want to complicate the situation. Unfortunately that chance doesn’t exist anymore as their site has since been blocked.

Unleashing the attack dog

Like all other charges preceding the imprisonment of journalists the government has been remarkably predictable in its action. For long time it used the 70 year old attack dog, the sole Amharic daily, Addis Zemen to demonize the preys.

The attack on Feteh was particularly intensified after they published articles about the PM‘s advisors, notably Professor Andreas Eshete, Dr Fasil Nahum and Redwan Hussein. While the officials never contested the truthfulness of the stories, Addis Zemen decided to step up the heat on Feteh. It started a series of articles to last for several months under the title of “A glimpse into Feteh and its columnists.”

The articles attack not only Feteh per se but all who contribute to the paper. The usual suspects like Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, the lone opposition parliamentarian Girma Seifu, ESAT, Eskinder Nega,Finote Netsanet, even Ana Gomez of the European Commission were not spared of the onslaught. “We have to say enough is enough to papers like Feteh who are fulfilling the missions of terrorist organizations under the guise of journalism,” warned Zemen in one of the attacks, a cue that precedes some serious action by the government.

Feteh’s last editorial read: “The public has the right to know” where they argued if the rumor about the deteriorating health condition of the PM is true, the public who picks the bill for his treatment has the right to know. It urged the GCAO to disclose information concerning the issue.  “The staff of Feteh have been exploiting this situation,” decried Addis Zemen. “Most local and international media have reported that the Prime Minister is recovering from his illness but those extremists who have tossed away their professional obligations have reported to the contrary.”

Apparently “the extremists” have been proven right. Ethiopia’s emperor for life Kim-Il Zenawi expired in a Brussels hospital, probably months before the official announcement of August 21,2012.

The face of Feteh

feteh-and-awramba-timesFor all practical purposes Temesgen Desalegn is the face of Feteh. The former external auditor and a graduate of Addis Ababa University Political Science department has been bold in his writings. He already has a book to his name entitled “Yemeles Amleko” (Worshipping Meles), a compilation of articles published in the paper.

His principle of calling a spade a spade is in full display in his articles. That might have cost him a lot though. In a recent interview he told the Amharic weekly Addis Admas that he has 35 charges against him, the status of which he is not sure about. While he has largely avoided prison, he is not new to the courts. Not so long ago he was found guilty of publishing a statement made by a suspect who has since been serving a 25 year term on terrorism charges. Though the suspect, Kinfemichael Debebe (Kesto) took responsibility for the article, the judge fined Temesgen ETB 2,000 ($110) for contempt of court.

Up, up and away?

In the last couple of years, two similar papers have vanished under tremendous pressure from the government. They were edited by younger educated professionals. Their average life span was two years. With the latest action, the regime seems to hit the last nail on the coffin of truly independent papers in the country. Whatever the outcome of the trial, surviving for four years in the most treacherous Ethiopian private media landscape is no mean feat.

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