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Amid Crackdown, Ethiopia’s Hope Rests on Foreign Journalists

New America Media, Commentary, Alemayehu G. Mariam Posted: Dec 20, 2009

Editor’s Note: Dictatorial regimes in some countries are forcing local media outlets to close down and foreign publications to step in and fill the gap. That is what is happening in Ethiopia today. A longer version of this report ran in www.ethiomedia.com.

Foreign journalists covering Africa often get criticized for their focus on negative news about the continent. Although this is generally true, in some countries they are the only hope for exposing human rights violations.

Take Ethiopia, for example, where the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi has unleashed a relentless war on the country’s independent press. In the latest near-casualties in Zenawi's war on the press, editors and reporters of Addis Neger Newspaper escaped by the skin of their teeth. Their distress signal ricocheted across cyberspace last week.

"Following legal and political harassment and intimidation by the Ethiopian government, Addis Neger Publishing announced [in a press release] that its major publication, Addis Neger Newspaper, a weekly publication in Amharic, ceased circulation.

On November 28, the newspaper published its final edition. Tamrat Negera, the paper’s editor-in- chief, along with five editors and two reporters, joined the exodus into exile to the United States, the United Kingdom and undisclosed locations.

Mesfin Negash, Addis Neger’s managing editor 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,” Negash said.

With the increased crackdown on the press, Western journalists are filling the void. Reuters, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Bloomberg News, BBC, Voice of America and others are now the watchdogs for the people of Ethiopia.

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, following which the dictatorship has also waged a victorious war over Serkalem Fasil and her husband Eskinder Nega. Serkalem was forced to have her baby in prison in 2007. (The following year, International Women's Media Foundation gave her the prestigious Courage in Journalism Award.)

Serkalem and Eskinder were acquitted of the threat to security charges and received a "pardon." But last week the dictatorship in its "appeal" made clear its intention to ruin and completely vanquish them financially by freezing and confiscating their assets.

Numerous newspapers have also been shut down, and scores of journalists have been arrested and jailed by the dictatorship. It is routine for police to interrogate journalists for days without probable cause. During questioning, journalists get fingerprinted, are ordered to apologize, are given stern warnings and released without charges.

In May 2009, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFPJA) reported that over 101 journalists had been forced into exile. Eleven are still facing serious plight in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Japan and India.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has repeatedly condemned the abuse and mistreatment of the independent press in Ethiopia. In 2006, CPJ named Ethiopia the world's “worst backslider on press freedom over the previous five years.” And in 2009, Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia 140 in on its Press Freedom Index of 175 Nations. (Zimbabwe ranked 136/175.)

Opposition diaspora Web sites 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 dictatorship in Ethiopia is in a state of willful denial. The official position is that "press freedom in Ethiopia is getting stronger and stronger." Zenawi says everything is hunky-dory and anyone can criticize the government. CPJ and various international human rights are making up stuff.

"I don't think people have any qualms about criticizing the government or rejecting its policies, or expressing dissenting views in any way,” Zenawi said at a press conference in 2007. “Have you read the local newspapers? Do they mince their words about government?"

But last year, a dictatorial decree, masquerading as a press law, was enacted criminalizing the independent press.

"Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging... terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years."

Imagine what "terrorists acts" could mean for journalists charged in the exalted kangaroo courts. Ato Bulcha Demeksa, leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, told journalists in 2008 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."

Thanks to the presence of foreign journalists, Ethiopia’s war on the independent press is not entirely lost. They, too, face subtle harassment, provocation and intimidation. In 2006, an Associated Press reporter was tossed out of the country for allegedly “tarnishing the image of the country.” In 2007, a number of journalists covering the Ogaden genocide were subjected to threats and questioning at gunpoint and their equipment was confiscated. But the fact that they are foreign makes Zenawi’s dictatorship tread carefully. Zenawi knows all too well that a war on foreign journalists is one he can never win.

Alemayehu G. Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.

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Africa's Media Explosion

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