Ethiopia: Whither Press Freedom?

by    /  January 5, 2015  / 1 Comment

For his first column with Sampsonia Way, Chalachew Tadesse overviews the deterioration of Ethiopia’s press freedom.

Young men reading newspapers at Arat Kilo, Addis Ababa, near the national parliament. Photo via flickr user: tristam sparks

As an Ethiopian columnist writing my maiden article for Sampsonia Way, choosing any topic other than the dying press freedom in my country would be a disservice to this august magazine. So, my focus here is the declining trajectory of press freedom that has led to a worsening state of affairs for Ethiopian media.

  1. Column_Tadesse
  2. This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
  3. Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.

On April 25, 2014, Ethiopia’s leaders apprehended six “Zone-9 bloggers” and three affiliated journalists, accusing them of plotting to instigate a popular uprising — akin to the Arab Spring — and carry out acts of terrorism to destabilize the regime and the country. Illusion could mean reality and vice versa in Ethiopia. Subsequently, they were accused of terrorism. This incident marked the commencement of last year’s crackdown against press freedom.

In August, the second phase resumed when six independent publishers were charged with “defamation” and “inciting violence.” Why publishers? To kill three birds with one stone, I believe. Firstly, the regime sought to divert the attention of its critics from imprisoning journalists to publishers. The pressure for the release of seventeen jailed journalists is already gathering momentum. Secondly, it wanted to deter potential publishers in the future. Thirdly, it aimed at paralyzing the institutional, professional and economic capability of the press — which, I believe, was always its main target, and one that it has effectively met.

Consequently, several publications — including the magazines Addis Guday and Fact — were shut down. Three publishers were also sentenced to imprisonment in abstention. What adds salt to the wound is the subsequent exile of more than twenty journalists and publishers from the country. Certainly, journalists’ fear of persecution and partly exile is justified, albeit the government’s counter-narrative of “exile mania.” But why exile at alarming scale, given that the regime’s favorite narrative is that “Ethiopia is a flourishing democracy and is close to a middle income status in which all citizens enjoy freedom and seize ample opportunities”? Unsurprisingly, its narratives are either untrue or paradoxical.

Vindication of journalists is rare, as Temesgen Desalegn’s story, for instance, testifies. From 2008-2014 his four publications — including Fact magazine, where I was a columnist — were shut down. In October 2014, the 2012 “defamation” and “inciting violence” charges — for which he was then imprisoned briefly before the charges were dropped — were reinstated. Finally, he got a three-year prison sentence. Since then, he has languished in the infamous Ziway prison, outside the capital. Then, I put pen to paper and wrote: “The infamous seven-year long war of attrition against one defiant journalist-cum-activist, who carries over thirty pending charges on his head, ended.”

In Ethiopia, journalists are often presumed “guilty until proven innocent,” so to speak. Hence, the government manufactures unscrupulous TV documentaries to criminalize journalists and the press. In The Untamed Pens, which aired on state TV last August, I saw my own picture, along with those of other writers, being zoomed in and out on the TV screen. Some titles of my articles were also read out aloud. The producers are well-versed in the art of selectivity to make uninformed folks panic. Despite our Utopian wish, we were caricatured as “doomsayers” inviting curse onto our country. True, the words “Ethiopia” and “Utopia” are poles apart, so much so that few people confuse them despite their phonetic similarity. But the enigma is that even wishing Utopia for dystopian Ethiopia is a crime.

But, what message does the regime convey through The Untamed Pens? “I am a high priest who communes with God and entrusted with a Messianic mission to discipline and civilize the untamed pens of the gutter press.” Apart from hostile documentaries, harassments, ridiculous accusations, frequent and harsh incarcerations, press shutdowns, vituperative diatribe and vulgarity are all the hallmarks of the regime’s modus operandi with regards to journalists and the press. In reality, the press is supposed to tame the authoritarian and paranoid regime, which has much irreverence to fundamental freedoms, not vice versa.

By the way, an old African adage has it that short men cast long shadows. The late prime minister Meles Zenawi, who left Ethiopia unstable, was one of Africa’s short leaders with long shadows. That is why his successors emulate his anti-press legacy. Today, old and defunct newspapers are back for sale in Addis Ababa. What they envision is a “ghost republic” where only freedom of silence prevails. Ironically, even silence makes them panic. I wonder why the August 2014 crackdown coincided with the second year commemoration of Meles’ death. Was it a tribute to him? Perhaps.

When I was disillusioned with the press crackdown last year a friend once consoled me: “Don’t worry. Press freedom will be reinstated after the May 2015 election.” That was an erroneous assumption. Election or not, the fundamental predicament is this: the regime’s hegemonic ambition to impose a bizarre leftist ideology — a “revolutionary democracy” — is inherently antithetical to freedom of expression and press. Yes, a subservient press is a sine qua non for this regime, which one distinguished academic calls “thugtatorship.” Of course, albeit its precarious status, the regime is a mild modern Ethiopian version of George Orwell’s 1984, so to speak.

It is against this bleak backdrop that Ethiopia commemorated December 10, 2014, the 20-year anniversary of the constitution that unequivocally guarantees press freedom. Amidst this, Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Ethiopia among the top ten journalist jailers globally. In no uncertain terms, the hope for press freedom has vanished. Hence, my country is setting a precedent that vindicates Afro-sceptics. But in this, there is a positive story to be found: the irresistible zeal to salvage fundamental freedoms is gathering momentum. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

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