Ethiopia: “Terrorist journalists” and press freedom By Abebe Gellaw
Two young Ethiopian journalists, Woubishet Taye, Deputy Editor of Awramba Times, and Reyot Alemu, a columnist of Fetih newspaper, have been facing terrorism charges under the controversial “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No.652/2009”. Coincidentally, it was only last week that the 547-seat Ethiopian Parliament, where the ruling party occupies all but two seats, officially named Al Qaida, Al Shabab, Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), terrorist groups. The implication of that on journalists and government critics is that any news reports or commentaries on these groups can be deemed abetting, promoting, encouraging or endorsing the causes of terrorists.
In August 2009, Ethiopia’s “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No.652/2009” entered into force with its publication in the Federal Negarit Gazeta. Since its inception, the elastic terrorism legislation has been dogged by controversy as it further criminalizes freedom of expression and thought. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among many others, took turns to appeal to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to reconsider the legislation. But, as usual, Mr. Zenawi did not take his regular critics seriously.
Critics argue that the law is deliberately broad and ambiguous. It not only allows hearsay to be presented in court as evidence against terrorism suspects, but also deems demonstrations and protest rallies terrorist acts if they cause disruption of public services, including traffic, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis on the legislation.
Article 6 of the proclamation stipulates: “Whosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism…is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.”
Freedom of the press, which has now been deliberately confused with terrorism, has a fascinating story in Ethiopia. After the fall of the Mengistu regime in May 1991, freedom, democracy, equality and justice were loudly declared by the new sheriffs in town. In his first televised address to an anxious nation waiting for change, Meles Zenawi assured Ethiopians that a transition to democracy was launched in earnest that would transform Ethiopia for the better.
“Our fellow countrymen, the era of the brutal military regime is over. Now is the beginning of a new chapter. It is an era of unfettered freedom. Our 17-year long armed struggle has completely destroyed tyranny, which will never come back to terrorize and haunt you again…never, never again,” the rulers announced at every opportunity and venue. The promise was undoubtedly too good to be true.
Realizing the fact that press freedom is one of the pillars of democracy, freedom of expression and thought was “guaranteed”, at least on paper. Newspapers mushroomed in Addis Ababa as soon as press freedom was declared in 1992. To the dismay of our liberators, however, daring journalists and ordinary citizens started “abusing” their new-found freedom. The critical stories and commentaries that were being published were too much for the liberators, who became victims of the freedom they declared. They needed to find a way to regulate the “free” press, a thought that gave birth to the 1992 Ethiopian Press Law, which critics referred to as draconian and oppressive.
For fear of backlashes, the publicly funded media outlets, including the only national TV station and the only national radio station have been protected from critics and divergent views. Consequently, the work of journalists and broadcasters working for the government media is too easy to be called a job. It is all positive news, paying homage to the rulers and congratulating them for their shining victories and successes.
The private press was the problem child that needed to be disciplined all the time. Zenawi appears to be convinced that “freedom of expression” needs a limit and journalists had to be muzzled and tethered so that they would not run amok. With that in mind, the courts started sending journalist to jails and imposing hefty fines that not even business tycoons could afford to pay. As a result, human rights organizations and media freedom advocacy groups have given all kinds of bad names to Mr. Zenawi, whose commitment to regulating free press and violating human rights has been unwavering.
In the last 15 years, nearly 200 journalists, from the state-owned as well as the private press, have gone into exile. To their credit, a few journalists who have refused to leave their country have been courageously visiting jails now and then. Eskinder Nega holds the record for being jailed nine times since the days of his popular newspaper Ethiopis. In the eyes of the regime, he is one of the most dangerous “terrorist journalists.” That is the very reason why his publishing license has been revoked. Sisay Agena is another terrorist journalist and winner of the 2010 PEN USA Freedom to Write Award who was jailed seven times. Sisay is now out of the country and unlikely to return home. If he chooses to do so, he will undoubtedly face charges of committing acts of terrorism.
The worst time for Ethiopia’s once fledgling private press was the aftermath of the disputed May 2005 elections. After security forces killed 193 civilians, wounded 789 and rounded up nearly 40,000 people, the crackdowns against dissent reached a climax. The story was under-reported around the world. But one of the few Western reporters who witnessed the brutal crackdowns, David Blair of the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “A crackdown on this scale has not been seen in Africa for 20 years and the repression exceeds anything by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for the past decade at least. Apartheid-era South Africa’s onslaught against the black townships in the 1980s provides the only recent comparison.”
Journalists, scholars and newspaper columnists have also been routinely facing accusations of committing capital crimes only for publishing or broadcasting news and opinions. Nearly 20 newspapers were closed down and close to 40 editors, journalists and critics were charged with high treason, “genocide” and outrage against the constitution. The accused included five popular Voice of America Amharic service staff, two exiled website editors, Abraha Belai and Elias Kifle, who have never been to Ethiopia for nearly two decades. The wheelchair-bound professor and renowned philologist, Getachew Haile, who is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Award was also among those changed with capital crimes. Professor Getachew left Ethiopia over three decades ago after an attempt on his life during the Melngistu regime but he is still committing the “capital crimes” the regime dreads to see by publishing his strong views on the Internet.
A couple of weeks ago, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency of the US Government that oversees all civilian international broadcasting of the United States, sent a delegation to Ethiopia to discuss with senior government officials issues related to the jamming of Voice of America Afaan Oromoo, Amharic and Tigrigna transmissions to Ethiopia. The jamming of all independent broadcasts including the Ethiopian Satellite Television has particularly intensified after Mr. Zenawi told reporters in March 2010 that he would authorize jamming.
“We have been convinced for many years that in many respects, the VOA Amharic Service has copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda in its wanton disregard of minimum ethics of journalism and engaging in destabilizing propaganda,” he said.
“We have to know before we make the decision to jam, whether we have the capacity to do it. But I assure you if they assure me at some future date that they have the capacity to jam it, I will give them the clear guideline to jam it,” Zenawi declared. Thanks to the Chinese government, the regime has now built a capacity to jam shortwave radio and satellite TV signals.
VOA Amharic reported on its June 23rd broadcast that during the meeting the BBG delegation was given a lecture on the history of the Tigray People Liberation Front by Bereket Simon, Government Communication Affairs Minister. David Arnold, Chief of VOA’s Horn of Africa, said that Bereket Simon demanded VOA not to give platform to well-known critics such as Dr. Merara Gudina, Dr Birhanu Nega, Siye Abreha, Professor Beyene Petros, Professor Petros Milkias, Girma Moges, Getachew Metaferia and Ali Abdu. “The list goes on,” Arnold disclosed. (Needless to say, I am also said to be included in the long list.)
The amazing demand did not stop there. According to informed BBG insiders I talked to, Bereket Simon also urged VOA to fire respected broadcasters like Tizita Belachew, Addisu Abebe and Solomon Kifle. What is clear from the wish list of Meles Zenawi is the fact that his regime lacks a basic understanding of how civilized countries like United States operate. They do not seem to have a clue that the U.S. Constitution is sacrosanct and not even President Obama has the power to make Zenawi’s hopeless dreams come true.
When the five VOA broadcasters were charged with “genocide” and high treason in 2005, it was enough for White House to send the then U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Vicki Huddleston to Mr. Zenawi’s palace to have the charges dropped. Quite obviously, the Ambassador must have explained to Zenawi that the Voice of America is owned by the U.S. Government, which is ultimately responsible for the content of its broadcasts. Despite all that, Bereket Simon once more exposed nothing but the most serious problem that has been undermining the Meles regime, i.e. the fact that it suffers from deficit of common sense. Ignorance, especially when it is deliberately self-imposed in this time of enlightenment, is neither easy to treat nor expunge from the body politic.
The Anti-Terrorism Law was supposed to protect the nation from acts of terrorism. It beggars belief that the legislation safeguards our best interests by locking up journalists and government critics. Both journalists facing terrorist charges, Woubeshet Taye and Reyot Alemu, are widely recognized for writing sharply critical articles on corruption, human rights violations, discrimination, injustice and administrative malfeasance. According Shimeles Kemal, former prosecutor and currently one of Zenawi’s foolhardy spokesmen that have been objects of ridicule, the ring leader of the terrorist plot was the exiled journalist Elias Kifle, editor and publisher of Ethiopianreview.com. Elias, an Ethiopian-American living in Atlanta, has already been sentenced to death in absentia for publishing and distributing incitement against the government.
It appears that when dictators experience severe episodes of paranoia, they become extremely nervous and afraid of practically everything including their own shadows. Yes, it is quite understandable that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, as the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said. In any case, that should not be translated to mean that journalists are terrorists, which seems to be the entrenched view of the regime.
George Orwell once said: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Given the fact that the “terrorist journalists”, the second batch to be labeled as such, are benign, they must be released sooner rather than later as the travesty will only backfire on the regime.
Whatever the case, freedom of expression is not tantamount to terrorism. Ethiopians do not need to be protected from up-and-coming young and passionate journalists like Woubeshet and Reyot, who is one of the few female political commentators in Ethiopia. If they are terrorists, let us see the evidence other than the “self-incriminating” stories and articles they have written. As long as they are armed only with sharp pens, they will never harm a silenced nation like ours.
Former President Negasso Gidada has summed up the popular sentiment toward the terrorism legislation. “The law itself terrorizes citizens. We are strictly against it,” he told AFP.