Ethiopia releases journalists and activists; are the times a changing?

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has submitted his resignation a day after releasing scores of activists, opposition party leaders, religious rights advocates and journalists that for the most part were charged with terrorism.

Dr Merera Gudina, Bekele Gerba, Andualem Aragae, Ahmed Mustafa, Ahmedin Jebel, Mamushet Amare, Olbana Lelisa, Natnael Mekonnen are among some of the dissidents released in the past couple of weeks. Some are leaders of officially registered political parties, others mere activists and some religious leaders opposing government interference in the way they practice their faith.

Then last but not least were journalists serving prison terms some up to 18 years. Prominent among them were Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye. And charges on three of the Zone Nine bloggers (winners of CPJ International Press Freedom awards for 2015) were discontinued. Another well regarded journalist Temesgen Desalegn was released last October after fully serving a three year sentence for articles he wrote as far back as 2011 on the now defunct Amharic weekly Fiteh, where he was a publisher. Still there are a number of others whose status at the moment is not known, among them Yonatan Tesfaye imprisoned for his Facebook posts.

Under pressure from the on-again, off-again protests in various parts of the country for the third year running, the Prime Minister promised to release all political prisoners at the beginning of the year amid a tacit admission of their existence. His office’s Facebook post had to be rewritten half a dozen times to correct the slip of the tongue. But the attempt to get the prisoners to sign confession of guilt and ask for forgiveness was botched. Some were even heard saying it is the government that should do so instead. In any event, they were released abruptly to tame another protest that was adding fuel to the already precarious situation.

Coming back swinging

Eskinder was happy to be released after spending six and half years in prison. He was joyous and hopeful. He called for unity, a halt to destruction of property and ethnically motivated attacks. The prison didn’t seem to break his spirit. He looked more invigorated and energetic. The winner of scores of international awards told the Amharic service of Deutsche Welle about his intention to continue writing and peaceful activism.

Before the government crackdown on journalists in the aftermath of the May 2005 controversial elections, Eskinder and his indefatigable wife Serkalem Fasil were publishing three Amharic weekly papers. When he was released the government denied him a license to operate. Then his well-articulated weekly articles written in impeccable English and Amharic begun to appear on Ethiomedia Online and they were an instant hit.

In one of his most memorable articles entitled Open letter to PM Meles Zenawi he says: “Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want — no, need — you to leave office… The people are closely watching events in North Africa. Listen to them before it’s too late.” (Never mind Meles passed away in August 2012). In Mubarak in court: Is Meles next? Eskinder warns: “An African Spring, with Ethiopia, Africa’s largest dictatorship, as its epicenter, is unavoidable.” Writing about his former prison mate of 17 months, the legendary actor Debebe Eshetu (Shaft in Africa along with Richard Roundtree) which incidentally was his last article before joining him again in the notorious Maekelawi prison, Eskinder wrote: “How in the world could such a person be involved in terrorism? It simply defies logic.” Eskinder was unabashedly right. Debebe was released couple days later. Maekelawi, the infamous torture center almost at the center of Addis Ababa is going to be closed and will be turned to a museum, according to the PM.

For Woubshet things are a little different. Though as a father and a husband, anytime he is released is a joy to his family, the government can hardly take credit for magnanimity. The “pardon” didn’t do much in the way of reducing his sentences as he probably served most of the time. The paper where he was a deputy editor is out of publication and was through a lot of history. It is also important to remember he was charged along with Reeyot Alemu, a fearless voice who spent four years in Kaliti prison before moving to Washington D.C. where she works with Ethiopian Satellite Television.

Temesgen Desalegn who finished his terms months before the latest events, is still reeling from health issues suffered while in prison. In an interview with the Amharic Weekly Addis Admas he talked about the treatment he was receiving for ear and back pain. He has been invited to a number of speaking engagements in Europe and North America. For the moment he seems to be quietly pondering his next moves.

While scores of promising young bloggers have emerged in the past couple of years thanks to the increasing repression, ironically; and the development of social media, Eskinder and Temesgen by far are the most revered journalists writing out of the country.

How these developments will shape the country’s media environment is yet to be ascertained. However the mere release of the latest batch of activists and journalists should be welcomed as a move in the right direction.

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