The dazzled three year old Dawit Kebede could not comprehend how people’s voice was coming out of the small machine – his father’s radio. The small radio was broadcasting the Voice of America (VOA) Amharic service.
In Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991, the state broadcasters were fully controlled by the military junta and people like Dawit’s father had to tune in to the VOA and German’s Deutsche Welle Amharic radio services to hear news about the rebels’ advance no mentioned in public broadcasts.
As the father tuned in for news, his son wondered if he could be one of those people whose voice comes through ‘the small machine.’
He was lucky; his father said so, as his 11th birthday was later followed with the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) march on the capital Addis Ababa, unseating the military junta. Both the father and son believed that Dawit would soon become a journalist.
TPLF dominated ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), were advancing the kid’s dream of becoming a journalist, as they took steps to make independent press legal in Ethiopia.
Right from high school Dawit joined Unity University and graduated in Journalism and Communications in July 2004.
In absence of private electronic media, many like Dawit joined the independent press. A Journalist he became, but later he had realized that it could entail a huge price he never thought he would have to pay.
Like some of his colleagues, he was jailed in 2005 for life. The 31 year old Dawit Kebede struggled to continue the childhood dream. Zeal must have helped, as Dawit rejoined the independent press soon after being released by pardon.
“They told me that I couldn’t use Hadar, the name of my revered and widely popular newspaper. I didn’t argue. I chose another name, less-known isolated egalitarian society in Northern Ethiopia called Awramba,” Dawit, founding editor of the Amharic weekly Awramba Times, told Capital in an online interview earlier this week.
But once again he would see his paper’s demise. The young paper came to a close as its senior editor in chief was jailed, facing terrorism charges. Later, Dawit, managing editor, would leave the country fearing a similar fate.
A few months ago, Dawit fled to the United States, fearing a lift of the government pardon that spared him from a life sentence in 2007. And that marked the end of Awramba Times.
“I had to go to the United States instead of vegetating in a single hall with people with Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, other infectious and easily communicable diseases,” Dawit said of the prison he was sure was awaiting him if he didn’t flee.
Dawit’s case is increasingly becoming a classical fate of contemporary Ethiopian journalists working in the independent press, according to rights groups which say Ethiopia, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, forced more journalists to flee the country than any other nation.
Ethiopia’s independent press has a rather short story. It all started some 20 years ago.
In May 1991 Ethiopia, a country of 80 million people, saw the downfall of the Communist regime that had brutally led the country for over 17 years.
The new rulers, comrades of the EPRDF, swept the Western world off their feet by proclaiming a free state with an independent press. However, the Ethiopian public wounded by the military’s junta outright oppression and so many broken promises largely remained skeptical.
Freedom of expression was guaranteed for the first time in the nation by the Transitional Period Charter of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia in 1992. Based on the Charter, the government enacted a Proclamation to Provide for the Freedom of the Press on the 21st day of October, 1992.
The enactment of a new, democratic constitution later followed in 1995.
The 1995 constitution and subsequent legislations derived from the constitution including the latest one, the controversial Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, sustained the new era leading to various free publications.
This however would only tell half of the story about the local media, which is one of world’s infant but unfortunately most prosecuted independent press.
From the young ones who rushed to join amateur journalists’ clubs hoping to find a forum to present their write-ups, to those trained, in what was at the time the country’s sole mass media training institute, such little prepared writers largely defined the Ethiopian independent press.
Over the years, journalists flirted between an outright defamation and critical coverage aimed at winning readership.
Still a number of prominent newspapers with reputable journalists, both in English and Amharic languages, have stayed strong during the period.
Entertainment, romance and sex related stories were the hot selling covers of more than few newspapers.
Then came the historical 2005 elections.
“Two major events in the recent history of Ethiopia have left indelible traces in the collective memory of its citizens: the liberation from the Derg regime in 1991 and the violence which erupted after the elections in 2005,” reads 2010 the African Media Barometer, in a report about Ethiopia.
2005 emerged as “the test of the authorities’ tolerance of dissent”, according to experts quoted in the report.
A third one for the nation, “the 2005 national elections would be faultless,” Prime Minister Meles promised in the months leading to the May, 2005 elections. This had attracted a significant number of people like Yacob Hailemariam (PhD), a scholar and former United Nations prosecutor, who was residing abroad after first fleeing the country during the communist regime “Red Terror” that killed, tortured and forced hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to exile.
“2005 was really a remarkable era for the Ethiopian press; during the period the independent press flourished and it was exemplary for the entire continent,” Dr Yacob said in a Capital interview.
Freshly engaged political leaders, who teamed with the usual suspects of the opposition camp, dominated the public sphere.
Election debates on various social, economical and political issues among leading political groups were broadcasted live in state run electronic media, much to the euphoric celebration of democracy for the first time in the nation’s history.
The private press, although state run broadcasts catalyzed the elections by covering debates live, made itself very relevant amidst the heated election period.
Most of the independent press’ coverage was dedicated for discussions about personas of the likes Berhanu Nega (PhD), Justice Birtukan Midekessa, Lidetu Ayalew and other newly emerged opposition leaders while demeaning the ruling party officials.
“The 2005 polls have enjoyed significantly enlarged freedoms for political campaigning in comparison to previous elections,” said the European Union (EU) which dispatched the largest observers’ mission during the period.
The 2005 elections put a limelight on the press; various publications sold copies in tens of thousands. One newspaper was usually circulated among co-workers, even cafes allowed newspaper sellers to enter to “let” the papers for customers while they sipped coffee.
The EU observer mission described the campaigning season as ‘calm, culminating in two massive, peaceful rallies in Addis Ababa, one by the EPRDF and one by the opposition’.
Post election violence, crackdown
During the evening of 16 May, 2005 Prime Minister Meles declared a state of emergency, and banned any public demonstration.
His decree soon proved unheeded by the largest opposition who, according to the country’s electoral board, swept the seats in the capital Addis Ababa but lost the national parliament majority.
Feeling rigged by the ruling party and pressured by the populist advice not to assume the parliament seats they won, the opposition contemplated calling a public demonstration surpassing the government’s state of emergency decree.
Threatened from the power for the first time since assuming office in 1991, Meles assumed direct command of the security forces and warned off the opposition.
EPRDF dominated the national parliament and was sworn in September, 2006. The opposition leaders not present in the opening session saw their immunity lifted.
A standoff persists
“When you look at a tragic situation like 2005, basically the aftermath of 2005, you begin to regret so much of what happened because most people said the elections were at first very good,” says Vicki Huddleston, former American ambassador to Ethiopia, looking back on the period. In an interview a few months ago in her home in Washington D.C., the former top US diplomat said donors’ led negotiations almost struck deal between the ruling party and the two main opposition groups.
“If you remember, we were actually successful for a while; we brought the opposition together with the PM and then we had talks moderated by Bereket [Simon] on the government side and various political leaders such as Berhanu [Nega], Bulcha [Demeksa], Merara [Gudina], Beyene [Petros] and others on the opposition side. Basically those talks broke down when Hailu Shawel returned.”
As the standoff persisted for weeks, a majority of the independent press stood alongside the opposition groups, featuring the ‘prepare for strike’ messages the opposition was disseminating.
Protests of the official elections results, led by the former Coalition for Democracy and Unity, began on November 1, 2005.
As Meles ordered the military to step in, the killings of hundreds and arrests of tens of thousands soon tragically followed.
However, the press didn’t retreat.
“By 2005, leading up to the most-controversial election in the country’s history, Hadar was printing close to 50,000 copies per week. By then, opposition parties and EDRDF reached a serious political impasse,” remembers Awramba Times’ Dawit. “I was writing many editorials that were criticizing the government’s reactions to the peaceful demand of the people.”
As the state security apparatus began putting into custody active actors of the protest, journalists would assume a significant share. Among a sector hard hit by the crackdown was the independent press, which saw its leading editors and journalists jailed.
The government pressed severe charges against editors of the opposition leaned papers, blaming the editors for the post election violence equally with the opposition leaders who called for the public protest. To the outcry of activists, the prosecutors even asked for the death sentence against some journalists.
During the period the private press at times featured an outright allegation in its cover, upsetting authorities. One for example alleged that a battalion was coming from Eretria with a mission to kill the opposition leaders.
Doesn’t this warrant some of the government actions that were taken in the post election period? Wouldn’t any government, even in the West, hold the journalists accountable to what they have published in their newspapers?
The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) speaks in defense of the Ethiopian press.
“Certainly there was vitriolic content in 2005 because of the high emotions at that time; because of the contested elections but also because of the brutal repression with which those peaceful protests were met. Security forces killed a lot of people and unarmed demonstrators in 2005 so emotions were very high, understandably,” said Mohamed Keita, CPJ’s Africa Advocacy Coordinator, in an interview in his office in New York City.
“But the Ethiopian government in its strategy was attempting to blame the deaths on the journalists or on the editorials that were printed, claiming that those editorials somehow caused the deaths or incited the violence, to me that is really a stretch of the imagination. They probably aroused tension and increased the sense of anger and injustice during the period of demonstrations, but at the end of the day the bullets that killed those people were fired by Ethiopian security forces,” he said.
Slow but a solid restart
After releasing the opposition leaders who had shaken his party’s dominance for the first time, Meles danced off the third Ethiopian millennium in September 2007.
Government pardons brokered by the country’s prominent personalities were widely welcomed as the popular pop star Teddy Afro raised the country’s spirits singing ‘Abebayoshe….We started in reconciliation’ hit single.
Though the opposition fray from the self inflicted dispute, some even abandoning the peaceful struggle to go abroad and vow attacks against the state, the private press rerouted easily. Except for a few, most editors were allowed to rejoin the sector and re-launch their papers.
However, facing poor circulation and unable to sustain high printing cost, more than few papers were forced to come to a close.
“The print media in Ethiopia is characterized by very low circulation figures due to a number of factors: the poor culture of reading among the general public, illiteracy, the cost of newsprint, distribution problems, high copy prices and crippling taxation,” reads the African Media Barometer report. “The tendency is to be either pro or against the government. Investigative journalism is rare.”
But a star in the private press was about to emerge from a rather weakening Amharic weeklies.
Addis Neger, an Amharic weekly, was launched in 2007 by six journalists. In the slowed industry it rapidly rose to prominence.
“Addis Neger was to some extent different from other (independent) newspapers and received a wider readership in a short time,” professed Bereket Simon, a senior cabinet minister and ruling party official, in his recent book A Tale of Two Elections.
The analysis and some investigative journalism products the paper offered was largely welcomed as the nation looks to the 2010 elections.
Other newspapers tried to follow suit; abandoning toned headlines they tried to offer in-depth, balanced and professional article as a means of attracting readers.
Press in Exile
Criticized by rights groups the ruling party well in advance before the 2010 polls moved to write three controversial laws concerning NGOs, the press and later political parties.
CSOs are now outlawed from operating in areas of advocacy of rights if funded by foreign donors.
“Since the law came into force, it has had a devastating impact on human-rights organizations in Ethiopia, and therefore also on the promotion and protection of the rights of the Ethiopian people,” Amnesty International said in a report released last month.
More hyped and also worrying for the independent press and the opposition groups alike came with the 2009 Anti Terrorism Proclamation Addis Neger newspaper belittled from its inception.
“Anti Terrorism Proclamation 2009 which allows for the “encouragement” of (undefined) “terrorism” to be punished with severe jail sentences, and the Revised Criminal Code of 2004 which provides for criminal defamation,” said the African Media Barometer of such legal hurdles the press faces.
Addis Neger and its editors came under fire including in the state run Addis Zemen newspaper.
The newspaper editorials and opinions are usually taken as the government’s views. At times ruling party official including Meles himself admitted that they send articles to be published in the paper.
In 2009 all of Addis Neger’s editors, including managing editor Mesfin Negash, executive editor, Abiye Teklemariam, editor-in-chief Tamerat Negera and other contributors and writers quietly slipped out of the country.
Safely abroad, except some journalists who up until now are struggling to receive asylum in a foreign land, the editors claimed they were about to be prosecuted by the state which was about to make them the first victims of the Anti Terrorism Law.
Meles denied the accusation.
As now Awramba Times is about to do, the editors launched an online version but soon it became inaccessible in Ethiopia.
Awramba Times editor, which became influential following Addis Neger’s closure, said he too left after becoming a target of Addis Zemen op-ed he said serve as warning address to flee or go to prison.
This too is denied by the government. But the state is now perusing charges against some of former Addis Neger editors even in absentia.
“Even in 2005 when there was so much outcry about attack on the press, I said it’s mainly our fault as some journalists abused it. But the current period is worse, I stopped writing after receiving a lot of intimidation over my election coverage in the months after the May 2010 elections,” said one journalist who asked not to be named. She says while some flee, she chose to stop writing, and simply gave up.
A three part article in Addis Zemen last week similarly attacked Feteh, an Amharic weekly, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority web portal places as number one in circulation with some 17,500 copies weekly.
Prime Minister Meles, who two years ago started and recently stopped hosting all members of the press for a bimonthly briefing, once said Addis Zemen’s articles should not worry anyone but rather be treated as a difference of opinion.
But the fleeing of some journalists is not merely panic. More than few journalists are facing terrorism related charges; the same charges Addis Zemen newspaper sort of implied its targets, journalists, should face.
Most journalists in court are not finding luck. “It is difficult to understand the Ethiopian justice system’s stubborn insistence on strictly applying an anti-terrorism law that has been accused of infringing on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and on convicting journalists who have not been proven to have done anything more than make contact with opposition figures,” said the Paris based rights group Reporters Without Borders after the latest round of prosecutions and launching a fact finding mission into the trend.
Charges against few journalists including the prominent blogger Eskinder Nega are pending.
But all is not dark
Prime Minister Meles in his recent appearance in parliament signaled journalists including the two jailed Swedish journalists could be freed.
Already Awramba Times senior editor Wubshet Taye is seeking pardon from a 14 year sentence.
But this trend, described by the CPJ as ‘licensing, forcing to flee or jailing and later pardoning’ is tiresome, an activist says.
“I think the Ethiopian authorities should make the laws clear. If they cannot tolerate a free press in Ethiopia, they should not allow licenses for independent newspapers. If they do not want to have a free press in Ethiopia why spend all this energy on gradually eating away at every little freedom the press has been given? Why not openly say they do not want a free press? Maybe PM Meles would be better served by following the steps of his predecessor who was very clear and adamant on what was tolerated and what was not tolerated,” says CPJ’s Mohamed Keita.