In 2003 the government wanted to solve the “problem” of Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (EFJA) once and for all. Unlike other civil society and professional organizations which already had surrogates implanted, it took time to infiltrate the Association. In many ways EFJA was more vocal than others. They also managed to rally international human rights groups behind them.
The Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA),which is as independent as the state run media, was not helping matters either. Its docile leadership was good for nothing.
However, EFJA was still suspended on technicalities. The Ministry of Justice claimed the Association had not been audited and was operating without license. Hardly anyone bought that excuse.
So one of the solution to this perennial problem was to create an organization in the name of the private press. Some members who had issues with the leadership were used as Trojan horse. While EFJA was far from perfect, the intervention played in their favor. In the eyes of international press watchdogs they looked like a victim.
To that end, the government created its own “independent” media association christened as Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU). The Union was to be led by an employee of TPLF owned Walta Information Center. Ever since its creation, the Union has been used as an attack dog whenever the ruling party needs their service.
Recently the President of ENJU appeared in the clueless national Amharic daily Addis Zemen to pour scorn on award winning journalist Eskinder Nega. Clearly the government is under pressure from all corners to release the jailed blogger who is serving an 18 year term on far-fetched accusations of terrorism. The leader of the Union didn’t hide his disdain to the person he was supposed to defend. For him the one time publisher was a terrorist, fascist and everything in between. Words were not enough to curse and maul Eskinder even to the level of saying they don’t know him as a journalist. It’s not clear then why he was part of the discussion at all.
The New York based press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was not spared the condemnation. Odd as it may sound, one of the reasons CPJ took the heat was for not helping ENJU.
Two of a kind
On the bright side though, the Union’s President talked about two imprisoned journalists – Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye – for whom they claimed to do everything “in accordance with the law” to secure their release. If bashing Eskinder will bring the freedom of the other two, so be it.
Reeyot has been in jail since June 2011. According to the sentence she should serve five years in prison. While the charges encompass a long range of sins connected to terrorist activities, what angered the rulers was a picture of graffiti allegedly taken by her and sent to a U.S. based website.
Woubshet has been an editor of the defunct Amharic weekly Awramba Times. The father of one was sentenced to a 14-year prison term, two of which served since his arrest. Last year just in time for the Ethiopian New Year, there was talk about his eminent release alongside two Swedish journalists pardoned on an 11-year sentence. However, a Ministry of Justice official quashed that hope when he said there was no request for his pardon.
Up with hope!
It is not certain whether the President was talking for the government. Could he be having some information about their release; and who knows if they are scrambling to get a little piece of credit when the two are finally set free.
It is customary to grant pardon during Ethiopian New Year that falls on September 11. That might as well be a sign that the courageous journalists may be walking out of jail as free persons. We will keep our fingers crossed.
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
For 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.
Originally posted on Oct.24, 2011
Two Ethiopian privately owned newspapers are on the verge of folding. Six months ago the ploy used to kill the private press was a price hike on printing costs. That evidently did not work. Now the government is trying to silence them by all means possible.
An orchestrated campaign against these newspapers spearheaded by the ailing Addis Zemen is well underway. Having gotten rid of all independent voices in the country, the ruling party is set to strike a blow on the last vestiges of free speech in a country.
Papers in question
Awramba Times whose co- deputy editor-in-chief is already in jail on terrorism charges has been a favorite subject of the ruling party propaganda machine. The paper which was established three years ago has been a market place of news and views. It has many columns that cater to the various kind of readership. Politics, health, entertainment, sports and so on. But their bold views have not been liked by the government. As a result, they have long become a subject of smear campaign by the government media, both print and electronics.
Its publisher the award winning Dawit Kebede is in unenviable situation. As he was among the journalists detained following the controversial May 2005 elections and eventually released on “pardon”, ruling party henchmen like to remind him of his terms of release in every possible opportunity.
Fetehe is the other weekly that also has an online presence. The paper has managed to attract the attention of leading public intellectuals.
Professor Mesfin Woldemarim, Professor Gebru Tareke, Dr Dagnachew Assefa, Asgede Gebre Selassie and the likes are some of the contributors. TPLF bigwig Sebhat Nega also penned an article in that paper. To his credit, many admired him for choosing to express his views in that manner.
But the strong and uncompromising views and articles published in Fetehe seem to have created discomfort in the TPLF village. The paper already has been charged with countless offences. One of the paper’s contributor Reeyot Alemu is arrested since June on terrorism charges (duh what else!). The Fetehe web site was running a ticker “This website is blocked in Ethiopia.” That has since been removed.
The two papers jointly issued a statement about their predicament. They indicated they have been barred from getting information from government offices. They also didn’t shy away from making it clear they wouldn’t compromise their editorial policy because of the setbacks.
The campaign is led by the only Amharic daily in the country Addis Zemen. The government owned newspaper, published under the Ethiopian Press Agency, was supposed to serve all citizens regardless of their political views. That is in principle. But the paper has always wagged its tail to whoever calls the tunes at Arat Kilo.
In its latest article entitled “How long shall we tolerate violence- mongers”, Zemen was urging security forces to arrest the publisher of Awramba Times. “As the government is responsible for maintaining law and order in the country, they should take measures against the individual.” The paper lists a number of articles published in Awramba at different times. By deliberately distorting the points of the arguments in Awramba, Zemen wants to paint it as a mouthpiece of outlawed opposition groups.
The Amharic daily accuses Awramba of meddling in the affairs of court cases that are still in progress. If they haven’t heard it yet, it is the chief of the revolutionary democrats who told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten that the Swedish journalists are “messenger boys of a terrorist organization”. But Zemen cannot question the utterances of his holiness as his words are sacrosanct straight out of the Holy Scriptures.
While the Addis Zemen is spearheading the campaign, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Agency, the Government Communication Affairs Office, a ruling party supported “private” radio station and a newspaper are going out of their way to help the “cause”.
The Prime Minister in one of his incessant lectures to the 99.6% Parliament added his weight to the smear campaign this past week. Short of calling names he was sending a clear message to the two papers accusing them of calling their imprisoned colleagues innocent while the prosecutor has not even filed the charges.
He said the government knows about the journalists’ link with terrorist organizations and the instructions they get from them. His threat did not stop there. He mentioned about the terms of release of some of them when they were sentenced to life in prison some years back. It was all clear who he was referring to. The PM’s enraged diatribe sounded more like a lecture on Journalism to unruly students. He accused the private media journalists of ignorance on the ABC of journalism. “They are vagabonds,” he concluded.
This strategy is not new though. Two years ago it worked for them with a popular weekly Addis Neger. Then also the preemptive strikes were begun through Addis Zemen in the form of opinions. That coupled with information about an imminent arrest forced the journalists to flee the country as they called it to “ensure the physical security”. After two years of existence, the once popular paper vanished just like that. The guys continued to replicate the paper online. While they still manage to scoop stories, the web edition is a far cry from the print version.
Where Addis Zemen at
Addis Zemen which normally is forgotten in press circles seems to have itself forgotten what is going on outside of its premises. To attack the managing editor of Awramba Times, Zemen has to go all the way to Rwanda. Then it talks about a radio station called Radio mille francaise. Only Addis Zemen knows where that radio station existed. But if they are talking about Rwanda, it should be Radio Mille Collins (In French, which was the official language of the country before 1994, Radio Mille Collins simply meant Radio of a Thousand Hills).
Addis Zemen was established in 1941. It was called Addis Zemen (New Era) by Emperor Haile Selassie when he returned from exile after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia for five years. He called the paper New Era to indicate the country’s new beginning. The paper which has huge budget; a relatively better distribution chain that have been put in place over many years; a daily which gets all the news without even sending its reporters to gather news; experienced photographers who are even trusted by Arat Kilo for foreign travels and the likes. Seems all is going well for it.
But the paper is deteriorating by each day. It is hard to get people who can read it. The only Amharic daily for a country of 80 million strong can hardly print 20,000 copies, if the managers ever talk about the paper’s circulation. If you heard the adage age ain’t nothing but a number, it bodes well with Addis Zemen!
But we should also remember that Addis Zemen defended the private press. That probably is a less known fact. One of the many ways the government used to crack down on the private press was by harassing newspaper vendors. Security forces were chasing and arresting those who carry private papers. So the vendors started to carry a couple of Addis Zemen on top of the private papers. Broad sheet as it is with its large A2 size, Zemen was doing a good job of covering the other papers. That way the police would think vendors were carrying government papers. Street vendors call the septuagenarian newspaper, a shield for lightening (Mebreq Mekelakeya). I will take consolation in remembering those sacrifices Zemen paid to defend the private papers.