The Ethiopian journalist: an endangered species

By Yilma Bekele

Attack on the press in Ethiopia

Attack on the press in Ethiopia

An endangered species is a population of organisms that is at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters. The free-press journalists in Ethiopia fit such description. The definition is true on both points. Our journalists are becoming extinct because of the draconian laws passed by the minority government and the predatory nature of the TPLF regime. The number of Independent publications is close to zero whereas the threat from the minority based TPLF regime has grown exponentially.

I was going to mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the different articles such as Article 29 of the Ethiopian Woyane Constitution that supposedly protect the citizen from the long arm of the state. But all that really don’t make sense in a totalitarian state. Words are stripped of their meaning in a police environment. The slogan ‘what you see is what you get’ is an attempt to show there is no trickery but in Ethiopia it means the exact opposite. Department of Public Security is the fountain of public insecurity, Ministry of justice is the breeding ground for injustice, Defense Department is where aggression against neighbors is formulated and the Communication Office is where lies and defamation is concocted.

So this last week it was the turn of another independent paper to be hounded out of existence. Addis Neger became the latest victim of the illegal regimes attempt to dim the flow of information. Why we are surprised is very perplexing. Is this an isolated incident is a very good question. Isn’t it another of the many humiliations dished on us? What did we do when we were confronted by the previous injustice? Big fat nothing is the answer. What are we going to do this time around other than having a leisurely conversion while sipping our morning coffee? I see another nothing around the corner.

There are three predictable responses that have become our trademark. One is silent condemnation of Woyane while feigning surprise. The second is blaming the editors of Addis Neger for going too far and angering the power to be. Those in the third category have the chutzpah to condemn the exiled journalists for leaving the country instead of staying and confronting the regime.

Despite our indifference the Woyane policy has real victims. Due to the decisions made by the Prime Minster and those around him real people pay the price. The closure and elimination of Addis Neger is another instance in the life of the independent press in Ethiopia. Moged, Muday, Urgi, Tobia, Maebel, Fiameta, Mebrek, Goh, Ruh, Tomar, Ethiop, Ethiopis, Zegabi, Askual, Tikuret, Admas, Express, Menilik, Satenaw, Aemiro, Feleg, Dink, Agere, Damotra, Hilina, Seyfe Nebelbal etc. etc. etc. are a few of the victims of TPLF injustice. You see these are not just names of News Papers. There were real people behind them. People with families that cared for them, people with dreams of informing their fellow citizens and people that worked hard saved and established a thriving enterprise. The papers were shut down by the regime. Do you wonder what became of the people?

Some were murdered. Some are still in prison. A good many were scattered around the globe. Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, South Africa Europe and USA are where they dislocated. No one enters the news business to make money and get rich. Our journalists are the truest of professionals in every sense of the word. They play hide and seek with Woyane tugs endangering their lives and the lives of those around them because they love the truth and they love their country. So many of them have been imprisoned, abused, beaten and humiliated but they are back on their desk the following working day. It has been said that their terrorizes envy the reporters dedication. All that is being done to them is part of our glorious history. It is written with blood. I will give you a few examples as told by my friend Ato Dawit kebede of Fiameta, himself a victim of TPLF injustice. I thank Dawit for giving me permission to quote extensively from a plea he made regarding the plight of our journalists back in 2007.

There is Ato kifle Mulat, the President of the Ethiopian Free Press who was thrown in jail because his association wrote demanding the release of Urgi editors. The court decided Urgi editors to be sympathizers of OLF that is considered to be a ‘terrorist’ group. Ato Kifle was asked to retract the statement or go to prison. He spent many months in Jail. He is now in exile.

There is Eskinder Nega who was publisher of the successful paper ‘Ethiopis’. Eskinder and his editor in chief, the late Tefera Asmare were jailed with made up charges and the paper was closed. Upon his release Eskinder established ‘Habesha’ in English that became popular among the diplomatic community. Addis voice’s Abebe Gelaw was Habesha’s editor in chief at that time; their biting articles and successful cartoons made them famous. One of Eskinder cartoons that depicted the Eritrean President as a snake did not go well with the TPLF cadres and Eskinder was taken to ‘maekelawi’ jail and confined in the famous room # 7. After a few days without food and water; one late night his jailers took him out and tortured him in a separate room for hours. They beat him up badly including his writing hand. He was released and the case dropped when TPLF went to war with their former friend.

There is Zegeye Haile owner and editor of Genanaw who has the misfortune of reporting on the unsuccessful attempt to kill Mengistu in Zimbabwe. Zegeye report the informed speculation that the attempt was made by Eritrean intelligence. He was prosecuted for defaming the good name of Eritreans; fined ten thousand bir and banned for two years from writing.

There is Dawit Kebede of Fiameta who wrote an investigative piece on a certain police colonel. He was hauled to jail because his publication included a picture of police insignia. That was enough to land him and his brother in jail in wereda 10 where they train police dogs. Being terrorized by dogs trained to kill was the punishment he encountered.

The editor Aklilu Tadesse was brought to court because he wrote regarding the existence of an organized opposition group in northern Shoa. He was charged for fabricating a story and the prosecutor demanded a two years jail term. The same day, in the same courthouse Professor Asrat was being charged for organizing an army in northern Shoa.

There is Abera Wegi of Maebel that reported on the curious covering of Yekatit 12 martyr’s monument. He wrote an investigative piece regarding Woyanes crime of erasing a few key words from the monument.

“ቢነገር፣ ቢወራ፣ ቢተረክ ቢጻፍ፤
ፍጻሜ የለውም፤ የፋሺስቶች ግፍ።”

Those words were removed from our monument. Abera Wegi was right and paid the price in Kerchele Prison.

In the aftermath of the famous 2005 general election several Ethiopian journalists were victims of Woyane terror. We will remember Serkalem Fasil who gave birth in a dirty rat infested jail her husband Eskinder Nega, with Sisay Agena, Dereje Habtewold, Fasil Asefa, Fasil Yenealem, Feleke Tibebu, Nardos Meaza, Mesfin Tesfaye, Andualem Ayalew, Wenag Seged Zeleke, Dawit Kebede and Dawit Fasil.

What is happening is just a continuation of eighteen years of crime against the Ethiopian people. Our journalists are a glaring example of the abuse of power by the minority-based government.
Our journalists did their part to tell the Ethiopian people the truth so they will be able to make an intelligent decision. They did not do it for fame or glory. They saw their friends being killed, hunted like wild animals, tortured to make them deny the truth, their property being confiscated and ultimately exiled from their home and country. It requires a person of strong will and unselfish character to withstand such injustice. It is a testimonial that there are still some left imbued with that heroic Ethiopian character that puts country ahead of personal gain. It is a strong indictment against all of us that dwell on our petty differences instead of our collective strength. Our journalists are holding a mirror forcing us so we can truly see our selves and question our commitment to the truth, justice and a united and free Ethiopia.

This is not an attempt to lament what is lacking but to see what is possible when individuals are held accountable for their actions. When we see the strength and resolve of our journalists shouldn’t we all ask ourselves what is required of me to save my people and country? Shouldn’t the question be what is good for the many instead of what do I gain from this? Those of us outside are truly lucky. We are spared from watching the crimes of ordinary cadres against our people; we are shielded from witnessing the hunger of our elders for one meal a day, the plight of our sisters on their hopeful attempt to go where danger awaits them, the hopelessness of our little brothers reduced to drug consumption to forget.

Addis Neger is our humiliation. Addis Neger is our call to action. Addis Neger should anger all of us. It is time we channel our anger and work collectively to overcome injustice. It is time we wholeheartedly support those who are fighting on our behalf. It is not about what happened yesterday, but rather what is possible tomorrow.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Mr. Obama said:

“Make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.”

Something to think about. May the Ethiopian god safeguard our recent exiles and protect their loved ones left behind.