Press Freedom in Ethiopia: Only the diaspora is allowed to speak

<i>Muluken Tesfaw</i>

Muluken Tesfaw

Exile, torture and persecution are an every day issue of the Ethiopian Media industry today. Social media and Ethiopian journalists writing from abroad are increasingly prominent. But why are western journalists so quiet about Ethiopia?

The media culture in my country, Ethiopia, is one of conflict, imprisonment and exile.

The story is of war. The Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has waged war against of Amhara people since its formation in early 1976.

Right after the TPLF took power from the military junta called Dergue in 1991, they allowed private media to exist for a while, to acquire acceptance by the Ethiopian people and donors. Dozens of private media houses started operating in early 1990s, and most of Ethiopians were very optimistic about the fate of their country. But this optimism did not last long.

Since then, the power has been with the Tigrai, and ethnic cleansing against the Amhara people have taken place in every corner of the country. Over half a million Amhara have been evicted and tens of thousands mercilessly slaughtered and killed.

Some media outlets started exposing these savage acts for their readers, but this was not tolerated by the TPLF-led government. And the culture of media persecution started.

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The Ethiopian Constitution adopted in 1995 granted the rights of free speech, freedom of thought and of opinion to every citizen. It seemed that a renaissance for the Ethiopian print media would start. A number of weekly, bimonthly and monthly newspapers and magazines were seen in Addis Ababa, and other large cities. However, media outlets who criticised the minority dominated regime and its ethnic-based injustices, were quickly seen as opposition, and considered as enemies.

The government then started to narrow the space for media and civil society systematically. The only public printing plant (Birhanina Selam Printing Press) which prints newspapers and magazines either refused to print “opposition” papers, or deliberately printed them after the publishing day had passed.

The situation continued like this till the 2005 national electoral period. In the pre-election period, the regime seemed more liberal at least in Addis Ababa. But after the election, dozens of papers shut down immediately, and hundreds of politicians, journalists and civil society leaders went to the legendary Kality prison and Maekelawi Torture center (the regime recently announced that It will be closed). Hundreds were shot dead. Only government sponsored media existed anymore.

After a year or more of jail time, most of the journalists and politicians exiled to western countries, when released.

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Time passed. New and unexiled journalists again tried to establish new media. But the private press environment remained narrow. In post 2005, two very oppressive proclamations were ratified and adopted by the TPLF-led government: The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation 652/2009 and the Civic Society Proclamation 621/2009.

These codes openly violate the constitutional rights. They were designed to control the media, the civil society and professional associations. By the anti-terrorism law, anyone can be suspected and jailed as a terrorist with no clear reason. Opposing the regime and/or being a family member of a politician or a journalist might be enough for a person to be labelled as terrorist. Sometimes someone’s ethnic background (being an Amhara or Oromo) automatically makes an individual a terrorist. Only unborn babies are able to escape from the anti-terrorism law of Ethiopia.

One of the most popular newspaper established and well-read in post 2005 election period was Addis Neger. However, the journalists fled and closed the paper even before approaching the next election period due to the above tyrannical codes. Prominent journalists like Eskinder Nega (the 2017 World Press Freedom Day Award winner) became inmates locked behind the hostile prison bars of the government.

If someone is suspected and jailed by the government, physical and psychological torture is common.

Due to the oppressive nature of the regime, the Ethiopian media did not show any development. We can count perhaps more than hundred established and closed newspapers and magazines. Hundreds of journalists fled the country. Those who tried to work with the oppressive codes, continued to go to jail or either lost their lives or got injured.

Journalists like Eskinder Nega, Wubshet Taye and Getachew Work are now supposed to spend decades in jail. Journalist Ephrem Beyene got paralysed by a deliberate traffic attack from the security forces. He was hit by a motorbike when he was going to court to defend the charges from the government.

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After the last national elections, in 2015, the social media like Facebook, has become more influential in Ethiopia. The door for formal print media has remained narrow. And this has paved way to an outcome which was not imagined before: The diaspora has become very vocal.

Journalists, human right activists and civil and political leaders who are living abroad have become widely heard and very influential, because they are living in safe environments, away from the brutal hands of the regime.

At home, politicians and scholars who comment, share or express their views on the issues raised by diaspora opinion leaders are mercilessly tortured and still go to jail. The government has tried to close media outlets, and this has created public mass resistance movements and protests. Thousands of innocent people have been killed by police and the military in a less than a year period.

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What I find surprising, is that journalists in safe, western countries are so quiet about what’s going on in Ethiopia.

It seems that African problems do not affect the rest of the world. The western media has to open its eyes and give more emphasis for the plight of Ethiopian journalists and ethic based evictions. They should give voice to the voiceless people suffering from injustices.

Moreover, donors like the EU and the western countries have continued donating huge amounts of funds and are thus strengthening tyrannical regimes in the continent.

Ethiopia has become the number one recipient of aid and loans in the region, while its citizens are suffering from ethnic based genocide, lack of democracy, good governance and justice. Unless the donors revise their policies of aid for tyrannical regimes, EU will be flooded with immigrants. It is only a matter of time.

Text: Muluken Tesfaw

The author is an Ethiopian journalist, exiled in Finland. He can be reached at mulukentesfaw@gmail.com