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.
The other day Redwan Hussein was briefed about the activities of Ethiopian Olympic Committee, an office he is expected to oversee in his capacity as the new Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs. And this week he signed some agreement related to sporting events in the Southern Region. Should anyone care to know such trivial matters? And most of all when these are the tasks one is assigned and paid to do?
But these mundane chores are deliberately given coverage on state media just to show how it is business as usual for the ex-spokesperson.The former biology teacher was unexpectedly transferred from his post of director of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) which used to put him in the limelight. However it is hardly business as usual.
When the Ethiopian Parliament, alternatively known as the ruling party council for its 100% control of the seats (never mind Susan Rice’s laughter) convened, the first order of business was to rubber stamp the appointment of ministers. Prominent among them: the reshuffling of high-flying head of the GCAO to the less momentous post of leading the Youth and Sports Ministry.
To avoid speculation concerning this sharp twist, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn tried to convince a rather suspicious audience saying the Second Growth and Transformation Plan calls for the full participation of the youth and the appointee has the energy and potential to mobilize that section of the society.
For a little over two odd years, Redwan was the official government spokesperson. During the frequent press conferences he acted out the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more than any other impersonator. He has been aptly successful in looking and acting everything like his idol. In that he was actually more Catholic than the Pope. He surly passed the dedication part with flying colors.Though some tried to argue in the aftermath of the reshuffle that his successor is more competent, merit has never counted as priority in appointing officials.
It seems the squabble within the parties that make up EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front) got in the way of business. Now it became apparent that the dedication and the blind loyalty has suddenly become irrelevant.
GCAO, which sprang up from the ashes of the Government Spokesperson Office of the Ethio-Eritrean war of the late nineties, has become one of the most potent institutions in the country. Under the tutelage of Bereket Simon, the de facto second in command, that office has become a propaganda juggernaut. Bereket set up clones in every government offices; pushed legislations to muzzle dissent ; they even trained Internet commentators on the social media that counter criticisms of government; made sure that he and two of his deputies control the entire state media by chairing their board. That exercise has become a hitherto established tradition: the minister controlling the radio and television; and the two ministers of state leading the press and news agency. Meaning: an uncontested control of the entire state media.
The soon to be built multi million dollar complex housing GCAO, ironically to be located near the Arat Kilo Palace, is a yet another confirmation of the growing influence of that office. As such, along with defense, security and foreign affairs offices, the control of that parastatal has become detrimental. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), which lost the prime ministerial position when its leader succumbed, was not going to settle for less. In their effort to make up for the loss, they sought the control of that office, and their wish was Hailemariam’s command.
Now the baton is firmly in Getachew Reda’s hands. The former academician has been climbing up the party’s ladder to be member of the EPRDF council. As a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs, and later as media and publicity minister of state—whatever that meant—not that he is not new to the position, he was everywhere in recent years that it was difficult to tell the exact differences among Redwan, Shimeles Kemal and himself.
All the three positions at the GCAO, that is, a director with the rank of a minister and two ministers of state have been filled. The appointment was orchestrated along party lines. While much is not known about Workinesh Birru, the minister of state representing Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), she is expected to chair the board of Ethiopian News Agency along with other tasks at her office. Last but not least is Frehiwot Ayalew, a veteran of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). She was a long time editor of the party’s publication and her last position was head of the Addis Ababa Communication Affairs Office. In her new position, she will be heading the government newspapers as a board chair being the heir apparent to Shimeles Kemal. The later, is not yet assigned an official position.
While papers like the pro-government bi-weekly, the Reporter, try to paint a picture of an equal share of the cabinet pie among OPDO, ANDM, and SPDM, that is hardly the case. Crucial cabinet portfolios have always been under the control of TPLF, a reality Ethiopians learned to come to terms with for a quarter of a century. And the last reshuffle once again sealed that undisputed truth with the single act of the appointment of an official.
If one steals smart — the logic goes — they should get away with it. Isn’t that the case? However, some try to get as smart, then, they fumble. That’s what happened to the English language weekly The Reporter, when they ripped someone else’s story undeservedly making it their own.
When was the last time we mulled over this subject? Remember the former Ethiopian ambassador to South Africa and Uganda? That was Tesfaye Habisso whom some folks nicknamed Copysso. The gentleman was churning out articles after articles on history, democracy, governance and all the grand ideas. It was not too long before someone exposed him. His strategy was like get a good story; change the title; add a few lines in the beginning; scribble a couple of others at the end; also don’t forget to put your name. Voila a piece! Little did he know that in this age of the Internet one cannot thrive on plagiarizing somebody else’s labour of love. By the way, have you heard from him since?
Here we go again
With two decades of experience under its belt, The Reporter seems to have everything going for them. They publish in Amharic twice and in English once in a week. When others struggle to put together just a weekly, Reporter is the only one coming out three times in that time frame.They even had a monthly magazine back in the days.
As the former Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) fighter and the first post Derg head of the Ethiopian News Agency, the owner, Amare Aregawi is almost unrivaled in getting insider news from his sources in the security and intelligence. As a ruling party cheerleader, they get countless advertisements from leading public enterprises such as the Ethiopian Airlines, The Commercial Bank, Ethio Telecom and scores of others, funneling millions into their coffer. As if that is not enough, even government ministries and the likes of Anti-corruption Commission patronize them by placing ads in the form of messages, all covered by tax payer money.
Reporter’s huge financial muscle prompted them to set up their own printing press a few years ago until the plan went up in smoke, but that is another article.
With all these huge resources at hand, it is puzzling why they have to steal part of a story, the subject of which is closer to their turf than the paper they copied from.
On the July 5, 2014, Reporter English edition a story reads: Confusion circulates over Andargachew’s extradition. A few paragraphs down the line, some sentences that have been seen elsewhere start to pop up.
Unfortunately, those paragraphs were copy-pasted from The Guardian of the United Kingdom, a paper of reference almost two centuries old. It is highly unlikely the two publications share correspondents. Could it be the vice versa? If the time on the page is any indicator, The Guardian story was posted almost seven hours before The Reporter went to press.
Free Press Free Speech Free Spirit are lofty ideals the Reporter took as its motto, but what we got instead was Free Ripping; words not to live by particularly when making hype of your 20th anniversary.
Check out a glimpse of the stories from the image; or alternatively click the links below.
Amid the drama and conspiracy theories surrounding a co-pilot who had hijacked a plane, two local politicians were hitting the headlines in their own ways.
Zenebu Tadesse is Ethiopian Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. Last week she allegedly tweeted: “There is no place for hate, discrimination in my beloved Africa. It’s not Governments’ business to make dress code or anti-gay laws.” The tweet was a reaction to an anti-gay bill that was signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini. Zenebu’s comment quickly drew controversy both at home and abroad. However, the tweet was a short-lived one: deleted. The Minister later denied posting it.
In an interview with the ruling party owned Radio Fana, Zenebu said while she actively uses Tweeter to promote some of the activities of her Ministry, she denied posting the tweet. “I was out of town when I heard about the tweet. I was saddened to hear that. I didn’t even have access to network… I am not an IT expert to comment on how it was posted. We are conducting an investigation.”
Probably the most important issue here is not the content of the tweet. It is to what extent the officials are free to speak their mind. Was the Minister forced to retract her comment?Would she be as blunt to comment on such controversial issues without expecting a backlash? Is the level of IT sophistication that high to easily hack on to her account? Why didn’t the hackers go after more prominent politicians that are known to use Tweeter? What ever the answer to those questions, officials will be intimidated to say what they think, making their online life as boring as the officialdom they are caged in.
Making Alemnew famous
Alemnew Mekonnen is deputy head of the Amhara Regional State and the second in command of the Party that is imposed on the Region.
Alemnew – according to his own explanation – was “training” the local media staff on issues of good governance and democracy, put simply – he was engaged in political indoctrination.
A leaked audio from the “training” shows what ruling party functionaries are capable of saying behind close doors. Alemnew scorned the Amhara – Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group considered to be 30 million strong – labeling them “ultra-chauvinists” and “barefoot pedestrians.” He added: “The Amhara walks barefoot but what they say is utterly poisonous.”
Those remarks aired by Ethiopian Satellite Television and later spiraled onto other social networking sites brought about disgust and indignation. While the government was mute about it, some government affiliated “private” papers talked about the incident without delving into the content.
All sorts of discussion and condemnation ensued. Opposition party members staged mass protest in the regional capital Bahir Dar. Scores of them actually took off their shoes to make a point on the “barefoot” remark.
The deputy chief convened a press conference of handpicked journalists who read questions from a script.The caption that run on the TV screen didn’t even identify him as deputy regional administrator — a move taken by the spin doctors to distance the administration from the comment — only vaguely mentioning his position in the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).
Alemnew took an hour to basically say two things:
First, he denied making the remark.“How can I say that?” he threw the question back to the reporters.“I didn’t say any of the comments that has been attributed to me by the opposition.I have respect for the people.Who am I to make such disparaging comment against my own ethnic group? (The whole thing) was doctored by computer technics. It is the work of the opposition politicians to alienate the ANDM leadership from the people.”
Second, he blamed the participants of the training for their chauvinistic outlook. He insisted that he was mainly trying to address issues of ethnic politics that the trainees lacked tremendously.
For whom the bell tolls
Remarks by officials that single out specific ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara, are not uncommon. To start with, the pages of the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) manifesto handwritten in February 1974 are packed with references to the “oppressing Amhara ethnic group.” That’s where small time ethnic ideologues get their cue from.
Former chief of Southern Region, who has since become Minister of Education, Shiferaw Shigute issued a letter akin to ethnic cleansing when he ordered the eviction of Amhara settlers from the Gura Ferda locality in southern Ethiopia. His counterpart in the Somali Regional State, Abdi Mohammed Oumer was shown in a video advising his “brethren” which ethnic group they should embrace if they happen to go to the Capital, Addis Ababa.
Such ethnic disparaging languages should not be tolerated where ever they come from. At the end of the day no body chooses where they come from. An attack on one is an attack on all. “… never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Former Ethiopian leaders are breaking their silence. Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, who for the last 22 years has been living in exile in Zimbabwe, spoke about his encounters with the late South African President Nelson Mandela.
From that interview we learned: Mengistu handed a $100,000 check to the anti-apartheid icon shortly after his release from prison; the colonel is still mad at former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev for telling him to seek peaceful alternatives to the insurrection; he has a good grasp of the southern Africa political dynamics. The septuagenarian also speculated that the reason Mandela didn’t visit Ethiopia after TPLF/EPRDF assumed power was because he didn’t want to see a divided Ethiopia from which Eritrea separated. Suffice to say evidence was in short supply.
Days earlier, the born-again Christian Tamrat Layne talked at length with the Australian public radio Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) host Kassahun Seboqa.
Both interviewees are thousands of kilometers away from their homeland in the true “spirit” of African leaders who can hardly walk their streets after they are booted out of office. That said, both should be commended for being gracious enough to share their side of the story.
Fall from grace
Tamrat Layne was Prime Minister of Ethiopia when rebel forces unseated the military regime in 1991. Initially the post of the PM didn’t matter at all. Then with the ratification of the 1995 Constitution, Tamrat was pushed to the deputy premiership as the ever shrewd Meles took his position.
After his relegation to irrelevance, the last time we heard from him was when in an emergency session Meles briefed the Parliament about the “repetitive ethical misconduct” his deputy committed while in office. “My Party decided that I am not capable of discharging my duties and responsibilities. In open discussions I held with fellow party comrades, I came to realize the mistakes I made while in leadership was unbecoming of me,” Tamrat told s stunned nation.
“I fully comply with the measures taken and I support the Party’s decisions and I want this House to allow me to resign my position.” The House cheerfully fulfilled his wish. That opened the next chapter of his life which lasted longer than his stint in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. By confessing his sins right there and then, he might have thought of saving some skin. That was never meant to be!
Tamrat is obviously a different person now. Seems to have found solace or a hideout (depending on how you look at it) in religion. Ever since his “redemption”, he devotes his time to the family he missed so much in the dozen years he was away from them. The father of two is currently living in the United States.
Coming back to the hour long interview, it is safe to say there was nothing groundbreaking. The talk of writing books serves to show his importance than the significance of the content of his work. After all, ANDM was a mere pawn in the TPLF politics and as such has no life of their own.
As if we are not tired of the talk of legacy, now Tamrat has his own. One might think the legacy he left behind in the five uninspiring years may be as impressive as that of the last President of the country, Girma Wolde Giorgis.
Nope! He is not ready to settle for less. “For the first time in (Ethiopian) history religious equality was granted under EPRDF rule on my watch. I signed the document,” he declared. When the radio host challenged his assertion, Tamrat reiterated: “Under Dergue there was no religious equality. For example, Protestant religion was outlawed. Protestants used to be persecuted, imprisoned, banished, killed. Everybody knows that.” It is not clear whether he had foreseen his own conversion to that church. Tamrat might have presented himself as the champion of religious freedom in Ethiopia by telling the story to the laity of the U.S. mega churches where he makes occasional appearances.
To give the devil his due, the Dergue regime soon after the overthrow of the Imperial regime, not only declared the separation of Church and State but subsequently made the three Muslim holidays public holidays.
As Mengistu Hailemariam claims not to have killed a single individual to these days in the face of scores of evidences, Tamrat insists that he has not stashed away public money. He wants the public to believe the stories of the millions of dollars he was accused of embezzling were mere fabrications. Tamrat told the interviewer that the Government tried in vain to recover them.This begs the question: what was the “ethical misconduct” for which Tamrat himself confessed in public?
On a positive note, Tamrat deserves respect for apologizing to the former Dergue officials. In the days when he was flying high he said: “These people were not supposed to be alive by now.” Now they are all free. While the apology could have served its purpose if delivered in person, entertaining the idea by itself is no mean feat. He should also consider himself lucky to have made it thus far in the treacherous politics of Ethiopia where he miserably failed to make a mark.
It has been a year since long time Ethiopian ruler Meles Zenawi died of unestablished causes in a Belgian hospital somewhere between June and August of 2012. The Government hasn’t come out clearly about the cause of his death.
During the last several weeks the state run media were preoccupied portraying a person akin to a saint. The praises showered upon him were more than needed to canonize him. 21-gun salute was fired; millions of trees planted; fellow leaders of neighbouring countries were at hand to give pomp to the event; scores of parks renamed after him, and the list goes on and on.
University professors, army generals, cabinet members, and party operatives were paraded to give testimony about the deeds of his excellency. They said he was an intellectual, a military strategist, a farmers’s best friend, and man of the people.
ETV even took a page from North Korean manual on cult of personality. They took us to his office showing the working area displaying a document he allegedly was working on; Koreans already did that telling the story of Kim Il-sung (the senior Kim). If that is any indication, everything Meles touched may be preserved as historical relic.
For those whose thirst about Meles’ myth were not quenched, the Sunday shows came up with the selected speeches that tried to make an entertainer out of the chief priest of “revolutionary democracy.”
Meles had all the answers for every question under the sun; he was talking to the rubber stamp parliament ready to giggle at every phrase uttered; he was addressing the youth, the business men, the revelers at a millennium party, you name it.
While the nation propaganda machine wants to paint a demigod, it is only fair to complete the story. As they say, journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” Here are some of his pronouncements that were willingly left out:
• In April 1990 a year before Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) controlled Addis Ababa, Meles had an interview with the late CIA and National Security specialist Paul B. Henze in the TPLF’s Washington office. “We can no longer have Amhara domination,” Meles told him. While it was no secret that Henze sympathized with TPLF, he still confronted the rebel leader to which Meles tried to soften a bit: “ When we talk about Amhara domination, we mean the Amhara of Shoa, and the habit of Shoan supremacy that became established in Addis Abeba during the last hundred years.”
• In a visit to the Tigray region shorty after his ascendance to power the then Ethiopian President played to the emotions of the public somewhat in the line of Hitler’s rhetoric about the Aryan race: “We are proud to be born out of you…we are proud to be gotten out of you.” ( Enkwae abhatkum tefetirna…enkwae abhatkum terehibna ) That part of the speech is always left out when ETV takes sound bytes from that “historical” speech, not to offend the “nations and nationalities.”
• In August 1994 (some say it was October 1995), Meles Zenawi visits the U.S. and confers with members of Ethiopian community in Washington D.C. Flanked by his yes-men like Seyoum Mesfin, Berhane G.Kristos, Dr Tekeda Alemu and other TPLF top brass, Meles was entertaining questions from the audience. A lady asks him what his vision was for Ethiopia ten years from then. Meles responded his vision was to make sure the people eat three times a day. Decade after the promised era, Ethiopians scavenge for left overs at restaurants or in city waste disposal sites.
• In an interview with Professor Donald Levine – a renowned U.S. sociologist and professor of Ethiopian studies – the late premier retorted: “The Tigreans had Axum, but what could that mean to the Gurague! The Agew had Lalibela, but what could that mean to the Oromo! The Gonderes had castles, but what could that mean to the Wolaita?”
That comment was to haunt him on the eve of the 2005 general elections where he was afraid to face any opposition politician for debate. In his last appearance prior to the vote, Meles explained that gaffe saying it was taken out of context. But he implied that the Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture (then Ambassador to France) Teshome Toga who hails from Wolaita Zone was put in charge to counter the perception his words created. Teshome eventually oversaw the return of the Axum Obelisk in April 2005.
When history is written by historians rather than victors, those speeches and comments hopefully will get their rightful place in the interest of posterity.
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 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 Nov.14, 2011
The Ethiopian Federal High Court was busy this past week looking into the case of scores of terror suspects that were paraded before them. Unfortunately dozens of them are still at large, but nonetheless tried in absentia. Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs will be a little busy over the next couple of days writing letters of extradition – if they are serious about it, that is – to several countries across three continents.
Some of the suspects have been sentenced to death many times that they will be forgiven if they lost track of how many death sentences they have on their head.
Charges against journalists.
Eleven journalists have been charged with terrorism, a record high since 2005 when private press journalists were charged en masse of treason and genocide. From the latest suspects six are under custody, two of them being expatriates. Five are living outside of Ethiopia sprawling across the three continents of Africa, Europe and North America. Some of them already citizens of other states and some even living abroad for almost as long as the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power.
Shimeles Kemal who actually writes the charges and doubles as the government spokesperson told TPLF owned Fana Radio Station last Friday that the charges have “nothing to do with freedom of the press. They are terrorists. Terrorists, simply because they work as media practitioners, will not be spared responsibility for their acts.”
Swedish men in Addis
The trial of the two Swedish photographers, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, who are accused of supporting terrorist organization, began days earlier than the others. Their trial has attracted a lot of attention and the court was packed with diplomats and several local and international media representatives. The Swedes had the resources to hire top Ethiopian lawyers who have media experience and connections.
But Make no mistake that they will be released. Not to discount from the ability of the lawyers to effectively defend their clients, the fact is their case is hardly about their collaboration with terrorists. The regime in Addis wants to get to Sweden for criticizing human rights violations in Ethiopia over the years. As a result, last year the Prime Minister announced they were closing the embassy in Stockholm because “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden.”
Ethiopia and Sweden had diplomatic relations for over half a century. The same thing happened with Norway earlier when Ethiopia expelled six Norwegian diplomats. After a year the diplomatic relation with Norway was restored. The same will happen with Sweden when the dusts finally settle down. As to the charges, the most important evidence the prosecutor presented to the court was laptop computers, cameras and flash discs and other computer accessories.
The Ethiopian voices
Eight Ethiopian journalists were charged with terrorism. The ninth suspect Sileshi Hagos who has been under custody since early September has not been charged.
A look at the 17 page charges simply reinstates the common held view that the government is out to crush any sign of dissent. Buried under the clichés of terrorism, wrecking havoc, blowing up infrastructure etc, the actual offence that TPLF was irritated with are the following:
Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been in custody since June, 2011. Reeyot Alemu was a high school teacher and a contributor to the weekly Feteh. Woubshet Taye was deputy editor- in- chief of another weekly Awramba Times.
The two are accused of taking pictures of graffiti that say Enough (Beka) most notably around the regional bus terminal in Merkato. To prove their points the prosecutors brought to the court homeless street kids and tissue vendors from around the terminal popularly known as Atobis Tera.
Eskinder Nega was arrested days after the Ethiopian New Year in September. He is probably the most experienced journalist of all who are charged. He has been in the media business for two decades. As he has been denied of his right to publish, he was contributing articles to online media, most of which are even blocked in the country.
His well articulated weekly articles written in impeccable English and Amharic were well received. 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.” 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 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 over the weekend. In the charge brought against Eskinder it says: “He has called for terror and uprising. Using various means, he disseminated articles with a view to agitate the public.”
Three Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) journalists from Europe and America have also made it the charge list. Some of them are not new to Ethiopian prisons. ESAT is particularly known for the saga with the blockade of its television broadcast to Ethiopia. Their offence according to the charge is “for using the television program to agitate the public.”
Some of ESAT journalists accused of terrorism have a record of writing op-eds in such prestigious dailies as the Wall Street Journal. One of the accused Abebe Gellaw reacted to the charges by saying: “ I would like to thank you (the PM) profusely for including me in the latest roll call of patriots and freedom fighters…I assure you that the honor will inspire me to do even more to accomplish what is expected of me more effectively and efficiently.” But Abebe Belew who is a radio host in the U.S. told the Voice of America that he is taking the matter seriously. He wants to set up a legal team if other co-accused join him to take the matter all the way to US Congress and State Department.
The fourth category is the two journalists at the Addis Neger Online blog. The latest charges simply justifies the journalists fear when they fled the country two years ago, closing their popular weekly. They are accused of giving platforms for Ginbot 7 political party which has lately become TPLF’s worst nightmare.
Both of them have dropped messages on their Facebook pages. “For spending my waking hours thinking and talking about my country, for dreaming to see my country achieve its promise and potential, I am charged of terrorism by Meles Zenawi,” says Abiye Teklemariam. Mesfin Negash on his part posted: “My official Status according to Meles Zenawi’s book is changed to “a wanted terrorist.” It’ll inspire us all; don’t expect us to give up!!! ”
Waiting for the episode
When two week ago the prime minister was roaring like a lion about the evidences his spies gathered, we wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The tradition was they would bring out the usual rifles and bombs from the ammunition at Maekelawi prison and parade the prisoners there. Then announce the news that they were caught red handed trying to topple the “constitutional” government. Nothing like that this time! At least they have known by now that didn’t work for two decades. That’s a progress.
But trust me bringing street kids and toilet tissue vendors as witnesses is not a nice alternative either. Of course we can’t wait to see the docudrama that will be produced by ETV in collaboration with Ethiopia’s anti- terror task force .What part is the latest episode again?