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.