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 May 10, 2012
Awramba Times (AT) is back! This time it is not the 24 pages tabloid, but an online journal that is just joining the ever growing Ethiopian blogosphere. Awramba is not completely new to the online world though. Its print edition used to be available on some other sites in what is known as PDF format. They were even contemplating the sell of electronics copy of the paper through email subscription. Unfortunately that idea never took off.
AT was established in March 2008 after the release of its editor-in-chief Dawit Kebede from the Kaliti prison where he spent 21 months. His crime was to be a publisher of another defunct tabloid called Hadar. The charges were the all too well known clichés of genocide and outrage against the constitution.
Awramba was becoming popular and the circulation grew quickly averaging 7,000 copies which is a big deal for an Ethiopian private press. However, the issues entertained in the paper were unsettling for the revolutionary democrats at the Menelik Palace. As a result, the Amharic weekly became a regular subject of smear campaign by government and other ruling party affiliated media. The paper’s deputy editor-in-chief Woubshet Taye was arrested on terrorism charges in June 2011 and sentenced to 14 years in prison and ETB 33,000 fine. In November 2011, Dawit Kebede had to flee the country, effectively shutting down the paper.
Awramba’s and Dawit’s fate has a striking similarity to the other once popular Amharic weekly Addis Neger and its editors who had to flee en masse in December 2009 after a repeated threat of persecution from ruling party henchmen. Bizarre as it may sound, two years after they had fled the country some of them were charged with terrorism.
Hitting it online…
Awrambatimes.com was officially launched over the weekend. The bilingual page has all the features a modern day website can boast of; text, pictures, video and the likes. The page shows how the editors put an enormous amount of effort to bring that to fruition.
True to their newspaper background, the website looks more of an online magazine with news, politics, business, sports, entertainment and other columns.
With already established Ethiopian news websites on both ends of the political spectrum, AT has a lot to do to convince readers why they should visit their site. They already have a name recognition on their side which gives them a head start in comparison to dozens of obscure websites whose URL (the www address) can easily be misspelled and lost in the process. Nevertheless, the name recognition can also have unintended consequences. With the success of their print edition back in the days, the audience have built certain expectations of Awramba and meeting them is an ardent task.
Probably the key to that is the originality of their stories. Because the site is based in Washington, DC, it will have to rely on correspondents from Ethiopia.
As the government censors have intensified their web filtering this past couple of weeks, AT will be lucky to escape the prying eyes of the Big Brother at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) whose sole visible activity is censoring websites of those who beg to differ from the ideology of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).
While there are a number of websites that have been launched over the last couple of years, consistency and perseverance have not always been the hallmark of them. Without sounding cynic, the case of Addis Neger can be a vivid example. Addis Neger with its bloggers both at home and abroad had a very promising start. However, two years after its remarkable launch the story is completely different.
So Awramba will have to sift its way through these hurdles. Nevertheless, the sheer challenges should not discourage them from attaining what they set for themselves.
At last, the launch of Awramba on line should be welcomed in that it adds to the platforms where news and views are shared. It is also a symbol of defiance that the recipient of the 2010 CPJ International Press Freedom Award is throwing into the table. He is refusing to be silenced.
Wish them luck!
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 email@example.com in favor of firstname.lastname@example.org . 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?
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.