The art of war on Ethiopia's independent press
Alemayehu G. Mariam
2009-12-16, Issue 462
Use a sledgehammer to smash a butterfly! That is the exquisite art of war unleashed on Ethiopia's independent press by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi today.
The latest near-casualties in Zenawi's war on truth have just escaped by the skin of their teeth. Their distress signal ricocheted across cyberspace last week. In a press release they announced: 'Following legal and political harassment and intimidation by the Ethiopian government, Addis Neger Publishing announced that its major publication, Addis Neger Newspaper, ceased circulation. Saturday November 28, 2009 saw the final edition of the paper.' Joining the exodus into exile were Tamrat Negera, editor-in-chief; executive editor, Abiye Teklemariam; deputy editor-in-chief, Girma Tesfa; editor, Masresha Mammo; managing editor, Mesfin Negash; senior reporter, Zerihun Tesfay; and news reporter Abrham Begizew.
Mesfin Negash resonated his colleagues' deep disappointment and regret over the paper's closure, but was proudly defiant:
'Our newspaper was one of the country's best examples of what independent journalists with an internal capacity to act free of constraints can accomplish in being the platform for intake and synthesis of public opinion. Unfortunately, a government which had a habit of wantonly and aggressively stepping into the locus and crystallization of public opinion as both a platform controller and dictator had made our task impossible.'
The assault on the independent press in Ethiopia is nothing new. Addis Neger is merely the latest victim of an ongoing war waged against independent newspaper editors, publishers and reporters since the end of the May 2005 elections. Numerous newspapers have been shutdown, and scores of journalists have been arrested and jailed by the dictatorship. It is normal for journalists to be routinely and repeatedly interrogated by the police for days without probable cause, fingerprinted, ordered to apologise, given stern warnings and released without charge. In the recent past, Addis Neger reporters were charged with 'defamation' for reporting on the Byzantine politics of the patriarchate of the Ethiopian orthodox church. A journalist was imprisoned for reporting ethnically motivated human rights violations. Erroneously reporting the name of a judge in a case landed one journalist in prison. Opposition diaspora websites are blocked wholesale. Ethiopia, which by official account has experienced a phenomenal '11 per cent economic growth over the last six years' has the second-lowest internet penetration rate in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
The highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has repeatedly condemned the abuse and mistreatment of the independent press in Ethiopia. In 2006, the CPJ named Ethiopia the world's 'worst backslider on press freedom over the previous five years'. In its 2008 human rights report, the US State Department stated, 'The government continued to arrest, harass, and prosecute journalists, publishers, and editors. The government continued to control all broadcast media except three private FM radio stations. Private sector and government journalists routinely practiced self censorship.' In 2009, Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia 140/175 on its Press Freedom Index (Zimbabwe was ranked 136/175).
The dictatorship in Ethiopia is in a state of wilful denial. The official position is 'press freedom in Ethiopia is getting stronger and stronger', and the CPJ's reports do not reflect the 'reality'. Zenawi says everything is hunky-dory and anyone can criticise the government; the CPJ and the various international human rights and press organisations are making up stuff. He explained, 'I don't think people have any qualms about criticizing the government or rejecting its policies, or expressing dissenting views in any way… Have you read the local newspapers? Do they mince their words about government?'
Last year a Pronunciamento (dictatorial decree) masquerading as a press law was enacted criminalising the independent press: 'Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.' Imagine what 'terrorist acts' could mean for journalists charged in the exalted kangaroo kourts. Human Rights Watch protested the decree in its draft form: 'Ethiopia's counter-terrorism law could punish political speech and peaceful protest as terrorist acts and encourage unfair trials if enacted.' Ato Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, said that the date of enactment of the abominable decree will live in infamy: 'I consider the day on which this law was enacted as a dark day in the annals of Ethiopian history.'
In May 2009, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA) reported, 'Over 101 journalists are forced into exile, 11 are still facing serious plight in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Japan and India.' The association insightfully and accurately anticipated recent events when it reported, 'Journalists Serkalem Fasil, Eskindir Nega and Sisay Agena are still denied press license. Editors of weeklies: Awramba Times, Harambe, Enku and Addis Neger suffering under frequent harassments under the new punitive press Law, which has become the tool of silencing any criticisms against the ruling party.'
The war on the free press in Ethiopia is a mismatch of monumental proportions. The dictatorship has at its disposal a formidable arsenal of weapons of independent press destruction (WIPD). It can force journalists, publishers and editors to flee into exile; financially and economically ruin the defiant ones; delay, deny and discourage anyone who seeks a legal license to engage in independent journalism; use the police and security forces to relentlessly hound, harass, interrogate and intimidate journalists; undertake smear and vilification campaigns against independent newspapers and editors on television and radio in a futile attempt to demonise them; dredge up old bogus charges and fabricate new ones to criminally prosekute and konvict in kangaroo kourt journalists who refuse to give in and boldly defend the people's constitutional and human right to be informed by an independent and free press; and even jail its own reporters and journalists who refuse to tow the party line and report honestly.
Against the onslaught of this crushing juggernaut stand a few dedicated and heroic journalists with nothing in their hands but pencils, pens and computer keyboards, and hearts full of faith and hope in freedom and human rights. The dictatorship is winning the war on the independent press hands down. Young, dynamic journalists are going into exile in droves, and others are waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. The systematic campaign to decimate and silence the free press in Ethiopia is a total success. One by one, the dictatorship has shuttered independent papers and banished or jailed their editors and journalists. The campaign is now in full swing to shut down the Awramba Times. The dictatorship's newspapers are frothing ink in a calculated move to smear and tarnish the reputation of the Awramba Times and its editors and journalists. For the past couple of years, the Awramba Times staffers have been targets of sustained intimidation, detentions and warnings.
The dictatorship has also waged a victorious war over Serkalem Fasil and her husband Eskinder Nega. Serkalem was forced to have her baby in the dictatorship's prison in 2007, and the following year she received the prestigious Courage in Journalism award given by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF). In the official announcement, the foundation stated, 'Serkalem Fasil's arrest came after her newspapers published articles critical of the Ethiopian government's conduct in the May 2005 parliamentary elections. On the day of her arrest, Fasil, who was pregnant, was severely beaten by police.' Though Serkalem and Eskinder were acquitted of the charges and received a 'pardon', the dictatorship in its 'appeal' last week made clear its intention to ruin and completely vanquish them financially by freezing and confiscating their assets.
Addis Neger editors were driven over the edge to make the 'very difficult and heart breaking decision' to leave their country to 'ensure their physical safety'. They had to run to save their lives: 'This is the culmination of months of persecution, harassment and black propaganda by the Ethiopian government on Addis Neger', they said. They were tipped off that criminal charges, including the 'promotion of terrorist organizations and ideals' were soon to be filed under the new Pronunciamento. For whom the bell tolls next, Awramba Times?
Addis Neger (which means 'new thing') editors and reporters have waged an honourable and heroic struggle for the truth since they established the weekly in 2007 with the aim of nurturing informed and reasoned political discourse and exchange in Ethiopia. They are the vanguard of a new breed of Ethiopian free press defenders. They are among the few, the defiant, the proud Ethiopian journalists who have lost the war on the free press but have managed to win effortlessly every battle for the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. In a matter of two years, and under the most extremely unfavourable conditions, Addis Neger thrived and expanded. It gained 'phenomenal growth in its circulation, influence and investment' with a circulation of 30,000, an extraordinary accomplishment for an independent weekly operating in the total darkness of dictatorship. Addis Neger received much praise for its objectivity, journalistic courage and breadth of topical coverage.
In their public statements on the end of this chapter of Addis Neger, its editors plaintively asked a question which many had asked before: Why does the dictatorship go through hell and high water to crush the few struggling independent newspapers in the country? The answer is simple. Dictators fear the truth more than anything else. The independent press is a magnifying mirror that reflects the evils they do and crimes they commit everyday. Dictators fear criticism and genuine expression of public opinion because everyday they live a guilty mind. They remain awake at night fearing accountability for their criminality. Dictatorships are like castles built on sand which readily dissolves when struck by a single sweep of the ocean's wave. Dictators must keep cracking down on the independent press and terrorise the people because they are afraid of being vacuumed into the dustbin of history by the tornadic force of the people's fury.
There is another reason why dictatorships are terrified of the independent free press. Dictatorship fear the youth just as much as they fear the truth. The free press appeals to the youth and opens their eyes and keeps their minds sharp and critical. It is no secret that Addis Neger had a wide youth following. It provided a forum for the discussion of ideas passionately cherished by youth – freedom, democracy and human rights. It is impossible to keep the youth in a state of darkness with a fully functioning independent press. Look at the people who ran Addis Neger, and Serkalem and Eskinder and the others journalists facing persecution in Ethiopia today. They are all young men and women who believe in their country, their people and freedom. That is bloodcurdlingly scary to dictators!
The war on the independent press is not entirely lost. There is the foreign press corps in Ethiopia to keep the torch trained on the darkness that is enveloping Ethiopia. Reuters, the Associated Press, New York Times, Bloomberg, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), VOA (Voice of America) and others are now the witnesses for the people of Ethiopia. It is not easy being a foreign correspondent there. They too face subtle harassment, provocation and intimidation. In 2006, an Associated Press reporter was tossed out of Ethiopia for allegedly 'tarnishing the image of the country'. In 2007, a number of journalists, including Nairobi Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman, were subjected to threats, questioning at gunpoint and confiscation of their equipment while covering the Ogaden genocide. We must appreciate these foreign correspondents for their objectivity, balance and accuracy in reporting. They report it as they see it because that is a core part of their professionalism and ethical make-up as journalists. We may agree or disagree with their reports. But for now, they are all we've got!
This is the unfinished story of the art of war on the independent free press in Ethiopia, and the victors and the victims in that war. In the end, the war between dictators who wield swords and journalists who hold pens will be decided in the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. If Edward Bulwer-Lytton is right in his verse, there is no doubt ultimate victory will belong to the penholders:
'True, This! –
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! – itself a nothing! –
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! – Take away the sword –
States can be saved without it!'
If the paramount question is to save the state or to save the free press, I would, as Thomas Jefferson said, save the latter:
'The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.'
Tamrat Negera, Abiye Teklemariam, Girma Tesfa, Masresha Mammo, Mesfin Negash, Zerihun Tesfay, Abrham Begizew, Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Negar and the rest of the young Ethiopian press freedom defenders, we owe you a debt of eternal gratitude!
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