Convicting an intel
After almost three years of proceedings, former head of domestic intelligence at the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Woldeselassie Woldemichael, has finally been convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison just the other week. Doubts linger as to the real motives of the charges. A falling out with colleagues cannot entirely be ruled out. After all, nobody out of the tight-knit band of brothers could have known about the misdeeds. It has all the signs of a domestic affair situation.
For reasons unknown, the stories of the trial for the large part were covered by ruling party owned and affiliated media: Walta Information Center(WIC), Fana Broadcasting Corporate(FBC)and the Reporter. In the good old days Walta was addressing the accused as “senior researcher on peace and security” occasionally quoting his “words of wisdom” in terror related stories.
We’ve heard that before
Woldeselassie, along with two of his siblings (if it rings a bell, you got it!),was charged with grand corruption,namely,using public office for personal gains and accumulating wealth beyond his means. If you think about it, owning expensive properties in the posh suburbs of the capital; hoarding prime lands; opening multiple accounts under various names by officials and the army top brass is a stuff of legend.
One charge brought by the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission(FEAC) is particularly interesting: misleading a top official(currently minister of state)into printing his work entitled Terrorism in Ethiopian and Horn of Africa. Little did we know the security chief had the calibre to take on such global issues in the absence of information about his academic or professional credentials. To add salt to the wound, he also forced scores of enterprises to buy hundreds and thousands of books taking cash in advance and never delivering the products. In the most anecdotal fashion, Et Fruit, a public enterprise responsible for the most mundane task of distributing fruit and vegetables is among the major sponsors of the publication!
Indications are Beyene Gebremeskel,former director general of Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency (PPESA), seems to have cowered in the face of the mighty security official. Not only did he give a green light for the production in at least three of the printing houses he oversees, but also according to the charging documents, might have involved in editing the manuscripts. No charges brought against him.
Handle with care
After the court passed a guilty verdict, the consideration of mitigating factors clearly shows how some citizens are handled with special care. The defendant didn’t let the opportunity slip without mentioning his involvement in the “struggle” to topple the Marxist regime gone a quarter of a century ago.The judge bought it! Translation: being a member of Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) can help reduce prison terms! Paradoxically, the publication which is at the center of the crime has also helped lessen the gravity of the sentence as the court concurred with the defense the work has created awareness about terrorism in the society.
Publishing books and squeezing companies to buy them has helped some ardent party hacks make quick money. Almost all who wrote the story of Meles had no difficulty disposing of the books to schools, various institutions and local government offices. One most notorious example is a Colonel Eyasu Mengesha who cobbled together a “biography” of the dictator launched in a pompous ceremony at the Sheraton Addis in the presence of the then head of state. A couple of others followed suit making good fortune in the process. The late head of Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) had a knack for churning out volumes and twisting the arms of government agencies into buying them. In that regard, it is hardly surprising that another TPLF official comes up to claim his share of the pie.
Woldeselassie’s actions are typical instances of abuse of power and lack of accountability at the highest level. The war against corruption is hopelessly lost. FEAC which is in its last legs,happily so, after a series of legislation took their prosecutorial power away from them, may take credit for successfully bringing a criminal to book. However, without risking to sound cynic, it is the squabbling rather than the actions of the dormant government watchdogs that eventually will bring the corrupt officials down.
Secretary general of the outlawed Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, Andargachew Tsige, was detained in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on June 24; and if we have to believe the official version, he was extradited to the security officials in Addis the same day.
Yemen, which never misses the top ten spot on the annual failed states index, seemed unable to contain the pressure of holding an opposition leader of a foreign country. They quickly dumped him over to his nemesis who already handed him a couple of death sentences. Worrying about international conventions and treaties is a luxury the Arabian Peninsula nation can hardly afford.
Two weeks after the arrest, Ethiopian officials were confident enough to put Andargachew on national television to prove they got their sworn enemy. One that triggered the government’s disclosure is probably to preempt whatever may come from London, a day earlier British official met the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. While the topic of the discussion was not mentioned, it is clear that Ms Lynne Featherstone didn’t travel 5,000 km to tell Hailemariam “the support of her government would further be consolidated in the future.” Andargachew, who is a naturalized British citizen, might as well be high on the agenda.
ETV showed some images of Andargachew in military fatigue and in villages, the location of which is yet to be disclosed. But a carefully edited grainy video which is more likely taped by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) shows him saying:
“I am at ease with myself. For me It is a blessing in disguise. I am in no rush. I just want to rest.I am really exhausted. I have no resentment, no anger and no despair.I am totally in control and stable.”
Those words barely convey any messages. We don’t know if they are given under duress. Or if the investigators want to cajole the opposition figure into getting him to give more information, if there is anything left by now. We see him shaking hands with his interviewer whose face is unseen, may be an attempt to show he is in good hands.
That puts to rest the weeklong speculation of the media and in some cases top ranking government officials. “I have no idea,” Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse. The government spokesperson Getachew Reda, who is closer to the inner circle of the leadership, was generally dodging the question by retorting to rhetorics.
So last night’s statement sets the government information officials free, at least not to deny what is the obvious. Your move Shimeles Kemal!
Originally posted on Jan.5, 2012
Sniffing the emails
Tunisia is among the first country in Africa that started harassing cyber journalists. The country was in the business of blocking websites that were critical of the deposed President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali, long before other African countries even started communicating on line. One of the means the Tunisian leaders used to monitor the online communication was by persuading people to use the local internet hosting services – most of which were owned by the President’s own family – instead of the popular webmails of Yahoo and Hotmail.
The online communications of supposed dissidents were wiretapped much easier from the local service providers than the others whose servers are spread across Europe and America. To frustrate Tunisians from using webmail, opening a Yahoo mail in Tunis at the time was said to be taking about 20 minutes.
To put that in an Ethiopian setting, the government would be discouraging people from using firstname.lastname@example.org in favor of email@example.com . The information on the latter’s account would be available on the servers of Ethio Telecom found around the La Gare area. That kind of arrangement would make it easier for the government to have access to citizens’ email exchanges; at least it has control over the infrastructure.
The suicide bomber from Arat Kilo
But the powers in Addis had been in total darkness when it comes to handling those kinds of situations. Every website that was perceived to have a different view from that of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was blocked. Human rights groups, journalist rights advocates and media owned by foreign governments – even when they were bankrolling the regime – were not spared of the onslaught.
At times the blocking could become so desperate; it turned out to be suicidal. When Blogger (a free service owned by Google) which was hosting millions of blogs was blocked in Ethiopia some years back, even the blogs of TPLF supporters had to suffer the consequences. In fact, a top level Ethiopian diplomat was among the bloggers in that platform. As the government couldn’t sift through the subject and the position of the blogs that were popping with each passing day, they decided to go the suicide bomber way by blocking the entire platform. The same thing happened when they thought it was time to block Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). They knocked their own ETV off the air for several days.
Chasing after passwords
Intolerance to dissent coupled with ignorance is at the heart of the latest repression of journalists and activists in the country. People are being arrested without evidences. The courts have no problem granting indefinite amount of time to the security forces to keep the journalists behind bars while the “evidences” are gathered.
In that regard, email account passwords have been the most prized pieces of information that security agents vie for. Almost all the detainees in the past six months have been forced to surrender their email account passwords. Most have been tortured and some have been put in solitary confinement for weeks in an attempt to force them in to revealing that piece of information. Most of them had no choice.
The surrender of that particular information has had a double edged sword effect on the “suspects”. Personal information can be used by the shameless agents to blackmail the detainees unless they confess to the imagined acts of terrorism. But most important, as the journalists are in jail with their passwords surrendered, the security agents can send any information to that account and receive same, all in the name of the suspect. There have been reports that Woubshet Taye, deputy editor- in- chief of the now defunct Awramba Times, was said to have received information from a “terror accomplice” many days after he was imprisoned.
Woubshet was detained on June 19, 2011 and the prosecutor brought to the court an email exchange dated June 30, 2011 as an evidence. Reeyot Alemu, the high school English teacher and a columnist for the Amharic weekly Feteh, had her mail box stuffed with messages that she didn’t know. Her plea to the court about the emails fell on deaf ears.
The prosecutor also produced dubious messages sent to the opposition leader Andualem Aragie that he never opened. Moreover, they were not exchanges between him and other parties. They were rather unsolicited emails, the origins of which are known only to the head of National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) Getachew Assefa.
TPLF investigators also forced three journalists of Yemuslimoch Guday (Islamic Affairs), the Amharic monthly magazine, to surrender both their email and Facebook page passwords.
The security agents are known for planting bombs in public transport systems and blame it on others. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who was Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Addis, is an ardent supporter of TPLF. Even she couldn’t help hiding the facts. “An embassy source, as well as clandestine reporting, suggest that the bombing may have in fact been the work of the GoE (Government of Ethiopia) security forces,” she wrote in a 2006 report dispatched to the State Department. In light of that heinous crime, what they are doing to the jailed journalists and opposition leaders may look like a favor.
In order to silence the private press, the government can simply stop issuing press licenses and close its Broadcasting Agency which would actually save it some money. It is hard to sell the idea of Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie and others plotting terrorism. If their writing has terrorized Arat Kilo, well that is another issue. That will simply enforce the adage the pen is mightier than the sword. For over six months the government has been looking for incriminating evidences all in the wrong places. As our online activities usually are not much different from what we do off line, it is time to realize for the TPLF henchmen to sober up a bit. It is also better to divert the resources to fix the shabby internet infrastructure of the country than planting fabricated messages on innocent citizens’ mail boxes.
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.