The Death of a Newspaper – Zerihun Tesfaye
Nowadays it is not unusual to hear that newspapers that have been in circulation for years have folded. In almost all such cases, it is also true that the main reason for this occurrence is the economic non-sustainability of the newspapers due to the proliferation of online and alternative media and with it the loss of advertising revenue.
In the case of Ethiopia, however, when a newspaper or magazine ceases to publish it is more than likely due to undue government interference. The International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and others have been monitoring the level of repression being experienced by Ethiopian journalists. They have been in the forefront pleading with the government and the international community for the repression to stop, to no avail.
It is true that, the EPRDF, in the earlier period of its rule had allowed the publication and distribution of a number of magazines and newspapers. As soon as the magazines and the newspapers began to get traction and their readership began to grow EPRDF’s attitude began to change. Hundreds of journalists have been dragged through the court system on mostly trumped up charges, fined excessively and/or incarcerated for a long period. Hundreds of others have fled and many more are being forced to flee the country. Except for the pro government the Ethiopian Reporter no other independent newspaper has lasted long enough to see its 1000th issue print.
Over the years the minority regime of EPRDF has enacted several laws that restrict journalistic freedom, each increasingly more stringent. It has now finally enacted the latest draconian law under the guise of national security, which will allow it, upon its discretion, to label any and all reporting as being against the security of the nation and imprison journalists from twenty years up-to life imprisonment.
It is within this context then, we need to see the decision of the editors of Addis Neger to cease publication of their newspaper and flee the country half a step before the regime’s security’s plan to frame, prosecute and throw them in jail or worse. We now have learned that the government had set up a committee targeting Addis Neger, under the guise of investigation, to compile supposed transgressions of the new media law by the weekly paper. According to the newly exiled editors the committee had been busy in the past few months harassing, attempting to intimidate and cow the editors and journalists of the weekly. If this doesn’t do the trick the committee was authorized to manufacture charges and prosecute the staff and editors of the newspaper.
According to these same editors some of the methods were so vulgar that they declined to disclose them in public. One of the crude methods of harassment used by the security people described by the editors is following the editors in all places with close proximity. (It reminds one of the workings of the Romanian secret police under Nicolae Ceauşescu where they made sure that the targets knew they were being watched by sometimes bumping into them physically). Hovering around the office Addis Neger, interrogating any and all who exit the office, and threatening them with dire consequences if they continued coming to the premises or do not stop associating with the staff or editors of the weekly, was another crude one mentioned by the editors. The highest form of intimidation used by the security office was a phone call to the editor in chief made by the highest official of the country directly informing him that in the opinion of his office the newspaper was endangering the nation’s security and that they need to be careful.
As these series of efforts at intimidation failed to coerce the editors of the newspaper, a new tactic was adopted, i.e. writing opinion pieces in the major government newspaper, Addis Zemen, purportedly documenting Addis Neger’s efforts in undermining the country’s democratic progress and threatening the national security. These articles always conclude with a suggestion to the authorities that it was high time that the government took drastic action to curtail the ‘anti peace’ activities of the weekly.
In the Byzantine world of Ethiopian politics this was meant to be a final warning to the editors of Addis Neger to cease and desist from their rigorous journalistic activities and follow the prescribed route. The opinion pieces were meant to create a context if not a favorable ground when the government decides to go after the editors. This, according to Tesfaye Gebreab, a onetime head of EPRDF’s Press and Media Office, is the favored tactic of Bereket Simon and Meles Zenawi, who usually write these concocted opinion pieces accusing individuals of high crime when other efforts fail at silencing.
According to former insiders such as Tesfaye Gebreab if the target of the articles written by these two leaders of EPRDF happens to be abroad, the idea is to create fear of persecution upon return as has happened several times, in which case the target decides not to come back. If the target is in the country, he or she will be dragged to court in short order and face whatever had been planned for them in advance, be it long incarceration, hefty fine or both.
To their credit, the editors of the weekly in fact challenged the government’s newspaper and the supposed writer to back up any of its spurious claims against Addis Neger, and failing that to stop its harassment. Instead of responding to the challenge put out by Addis Neger and seeing that their effort has backfired (some columnists in other papers came to the defense of the weekly) the committee set up to silence it ratcheted up its activity. It was in the process of editing a TV program laying out the foundation upon which charges were to be filed against the editors of the paper. Having gotten wind of this activity through their contacts in high places, and knowing that they had no other recourse, the editor’s were forced to flee the country for their and their staff’s safety and security.
It is indeed tragic that a regime that has near monopoly of the media in the country feels so threatened by a weekly newspaper that has been in publication for only two years, that it uses all instruments under its power to shut it down.
A free and independent press is probably the only guarantor of the freedom citizens enjoy in many countries. In other parts of the world the emerging Internet media is greatly supplementing even fast advancing to replace print media. In Ethiopia in addition to the tight place the minuscule but brave print media finds itself in, Ethiopia’s access to the internet by the government’s own short sighted policy, is one of the lowest in Africa. Even this limited access, thanks to our Chinese ‘friends’, is filtered through the government’s sensors. Virtually all Ethiopian and Ethiopian issues related web sites blogs are blocked. The few independent newspapers in the country despite the constant harassment by the government are trying to fill this void.
In my opinion Addis Neger was developing to be a premier source of news and analysis in the two years it has been in publication and the forceful measures taken by the government to stop its publication is a great loss.
The case of the weekly Addis Neger proves what Leon Gambetta once opined, ‘Despotism and freedom of the press cannot exist together”.
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