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 the CPJ Blog on Nov.16, 2011
Newspaper satirist Abebe Tolla, better known as Abé Tokichaw, fled Ethiopia fearing imprisonment in retaliation for critical news commentaries, media reported this week. His exit was overshadowed by the trial of opposition figures and journalists on charges of terrorism.
In an interview he gave to U.S.-based Addis Neger Online from an undisclosed location, Abebe said he fled the country because security agents threatened to throw him in prison. He did not even bid farewell to family members. Abebe alleged that state security agents pressured him for months to become an informant at his newspaper, the critical Amharic weekly Feteh.
Abebe had been writing for Feteh and Awramba Times, another Amharic weekly known for its in-depth coverage of local politics. In the Oromiffa language, which is spoken by about 40 percent of the Ethiopian population, Abé Tokichaw can be translated as “Abé the one and only.” It is not that usual to find dedicated satirists in Ethiopian print media. While there are some comedians in the country, most of them prefer to ply their trade on radio and TV.
Abebe’s satires can generally be considered political. He has been particularly critical of the cadres of the ruling party. That may be the reason for the pressure on him. For instance, he has satirized ruling party members for repeating policy terms coined by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, such as “transformation,” as in the government’s five-year Growth and Transformation Plan, without fully understanding the terms. According to him, officials have confused ordinary people in attempts to explain the policies to constituents.
But he has also touched on the lot of ordinary Ethiopians. By reading his satires, one can be assured of catching up with the week’s top issues, and the inevitable punch lines. He jokes about everything. He even jokes about punctuation. He loves brackets because they allow him to deviate from the main points. Last year he published a collection of satires.
Abebe becomes yet another entry on the list of exiled Ethiopian journalists. According to data compiled by CPJ, since 2001, at least 79 journalists have fled the country, the highest number in the world. “It is better to get out than to get in,” he told Addis Neger Online. In is for prison.
Currently, seven journalists are being held in Ethiopian prisons on terrorism charges, according to CPJ.
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.
Originally posted on June 27, 2011
At any given time there is an Ethiopian journalist in detention either in the notorious Maekelawi, Kerchele, and Kaliti or at times as far in a place as Assosa or even Gondar. Since the mid 1990s, scores of Ethiopian media professionals were put behind bars. The first victims of the government’s harsh response were the late Tefera Asmare of Ethiopis newspaper and its publisher Eskinder Nega. Tefera was forced to flee his country and died in exile in the Netherlands in 2003.
In its latest report, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Ethiopia as one of the top most jailers of media practitioners in the world. CPJ says there are six journalists currently imprisoned in Ethiopia. According to a data compiled by the media rights group, since 2001 about 79 journalists fled the country. With that number, Ethiopia leads the pack of the top 12 countries that are hostile to the independent press.
Ethiopian journalists are paying prices for doing what every journalist is supposed to do, write news or express views. The other week was particularly difficult. In less than a week, two journalists were put behind bars. No official reason has been given.
Pieces of information gathered from different corners lead to terrorism charges. How did an English language teacher and part time columnist find herself to be a terrorist? How was a family man, who does his job in full public sight as deputy editor-in-chief of a weekly, preparing to create havoc? At the moment only the guys from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have a clue.
As always the government spokesperson doesn’t know about the arrest. “There are no journalist arrests, incarcerated in Ethiopia,” Shimeles Kemal told CPJ shortly after the detention of Woubshet.
The legal excuse
In August 2009 the Ethiopian rubber stamp Parliament passed an Anti-Terror Proclamation. In short, this law is intended to give blanket authority to NISS to lock any journalist under the pretext of terrorism. Most of the articles in that legislation are deliberately vague that the government can take anything as an act of terrorism. Article 6 of the legislation says: “Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment… ” Of course, the underlined phrases can be interpreted in bazillion ways. The legislation is full of such articles and phrases.
Two years after that legislation, the 99.6 Parliament labeled Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, al-Qaeda and al- Shabaab terrorists. That was followed by the detention of Woubshet Taye of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, the columnist for another weekly Feteh.
Nobody can tell how long the journalists will stay in detention. The vague law gives security forces from 28 days up to four months to put them in prison without charges.
Woubshet Taye has been editor-in- chief of Awramba Times, the paper established in 2008 shortly after the release of its publisher Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison. The last feature Woubshet penned under his name was that of the June 18, 2011 feature entitled “Shimiyaw Yet Yadersenal,” an article about the rampant corruption taking place in the country. Though the article is critical of the government’s lack of commitment to tackle the problem, it is unlikely to touch the nerves of the occupants of the Arat Kilo Palace to overreact in such manner.
Woubshet has been in the radar of the authorities for a while though. In May 2010 he wrote a feature article entitled “Where did these people go?” The paper put that bold title against the backdrop of a huge public demonstration that took place five years earlier at Meskel Square.
Following the publication of that article, Woubshet was given a warning by the head of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Desta Tesfaw, that he would be responsible for any riot in the aftermath of the elections. Woubshet immediately resigned his job. However, he came back to the paper three months later as co-deputy editor- in- chief. (That position has been a safe bet for Ethiopian private press journalists for legal reasons). In that capacity he wrote commentaries on topical issues. As Ethiopian authorities are famous for retroactive criminal charges, before he knew it Woubshet may find himself charged for an obscure article he may not even remember when it was published.
The weekly Feteh is one of the most critical of the government. The paper has already been charged with dozens of offences. Some even predicted the paper would fold. But the story of their death seems to be greatly exaggerated. The paper’s columnist Reeyot has been picked by security forces from the school where she teaches English. Her house searched and she was reported to have appeared before a judge in a closed court. But as a member of the faction of Unity for Democracy and Justice (Andinet Party), she is a natural target of government repression.
The way out…
Imprisoning journalists on all kinds of trumped up charges has been a tradition for the regime in Addis. The only thing that keeps changing is the pretext. In the initial years it used to be defamation, incitement followed soon, and then treason and genocide became the plat du jour. Now the new song in town is terrorism. The charges are intended to scare sympathizers of the outlawed opposition parties. But locking journalists or forcing them to flee will hardly be a solution to the regime’s perennial fears. The unconditional release of the media practitioners is the only way out.