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January 13, 2010
Ethiopia’s government tamps down on press freedoms

Tesfaye Negussie is challenged to an Eskesta dance-off by a friend.

Tesfaye Negussie is an American journalist whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia. Last month, Tesfaye traveled to Ethiopia to visit family and friends.

Below he shares a story about his experiences with restrictions on press freedoms that excuse those in power and propel social injustices.

“Remember, this is still Africa,” warned a friend.

He explained in a low whisper that I needed to be careful about what I said in public because one never knows who within an earshot may have close ties to the government.

My “guilty” comment involved the government clamping down and controlling press freedoms.

I arrived in Addis Ababa’s Bole airport as a vacationer — but I’m a journalist, so I had some equipment, of course. Well, airport security confiscated my Sony PD-170 video camera because I didn’t have special permission from the government to bring it into the country. I could get it back when I left the country after I paid a $150 holding tax.

A relative once told me that the key to success in Ethiopia is minding one’s business. In other words, to keep my mouth shut because my career could end with one swift phone call. He too said, “this is Africa.”

What does that mean — “this is Africa?”

OK, I get it, I’m not in Kansas anymore, and I can’t speak freely and unabashedly. But I can’t help but think that this resignation excuses those in power and allows social injustices to continue. I know this firsthand because several of my relatives paid severe penalties for speaking their minds in Ethiopia.

For nine years, my uncle was imprisoned for not agreeing with his boss on a work-related issue. Unfortunately, my uncle’s boss was a government official. My father, who is also a journalist, has not been able to visit his country since he fled as a political refugee almost 30 years ago. Because he reported on the current administration’s abuses once he was in America, he has been denied reentry on five separate occasions.

A family friend narrowly escaped Ethiopia after being jailed for two weeks. As a lawyer, he defended the political opposition party, and the government jailed him. After two weeks, he posted bail and fled the country before his court date — knowing that chances for a fair trial were slim to none.

Even as I write these words, I cringe that some government official is reading this, and my name too will be added to the blacklist.

But I am writing because I sympathize when people tell me to watch what I say. They are just following the rules in a country where one wrong step against the government can threaten your career, safety, freedom and, in some cases, your life.

A woman walks home after a day’s work. Photo: Tesfaye Negussie

But is this really Africa? Is this culture of press intolerance really perpetually repeating itself throughout the continent?

Botswana and Mauritius have had stable democracies and economies since 1990. Sierra Leone held fair and free elections while 27 independent newspapers freely reported on the elections in the capital of Freetown.

And though South Africa is a one-party state with the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance Party is slowly gaining ground opening up room for healthy debate. And I’ve yet to hear of intimidation of South Africa’s press and citizens since the end of apartheid.

Democracy is still new and fragile on the continent; so, most countries retain a level of censorship to this day.

From 2002 to 2008, 90 percent of government attacks on journalists by the government in the Democratic Republic of Congo were met with impunity. The Gambian government has been noted for its iron-fist approach when dealing with the media.

After Ethiopia’s last national election in 2005, neutral overseers of the election stated that inconsistencies in the ballots required a recount. The incumbent administration ignored these requests and claimed the victory, according to the Carter Center. Hundreds of unarmed protesters took to the streets to voice their dismay resulting in Ethiopian soldiers killing as many as 193 people and injuring hundreds.

Some “journalists” in Ethiopia are responsible for publishing bold-faced lies just because they don’t support a certain individual or political group.

For example, last year there was a barrage of unfounded reports that the Patriarch of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church had ordered the murder of four priests. Maybe the current administration is afraid that these “journalists” will spiral out of control writing lies about the government.

But is that a valid excuse for the current censorship?

Maybe it’s too much to expect the people to fight for their freedom of speech. Maybe if a country is struggling to feed all its people then what comes out of their mouth is not as important for the people as the food that goes in.

Many families in Ethiopia are simply trying to give their kids a decent education. But couldn’t freedom of speech help bring more attention to the insecurities?

If the people were able to transparently elect their own government maybe the administration would pay more attention to the needs of the people. And, if the press could freely report what it sees, and people could freely talk about their political position there could be a change for the better.

Colonialism, coup d’etats, genocides and famines have steamrolled across Africa. Country by country, Africa rebuilds and gets stronger.

But does this mean that freedom of speech cannot grow alongside development and infrastructure? Does this mean that citizens must still lower their voices when expressing views? Should we accept that newspapers are subject to closures because they publish disapproving information? Or, that university students could be killed by soldiers for peacefully protesting?

Can all the progress be dissolved with three simple words?

“This is Africa.”

– Tesfaye Negussie

For more Worldfocus coverage of Ethiopia, visit our extended coverage page: Ethiopia Past and Present.

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Comments

25 comments

#25

Tesfaye, the author tried to reveal the day2day reality in Africa. This guy is born in a free Obama’s USA. Then I think it should be a shock for him to see black canibalism in Ethiopia practised by current regime. If you are not Tigre it is difficult to be employeed even as a guard let alone in a well paid positions throughout the country. All privatized former public properties are owned directly or indirectly by Tigres. So there is no surprise when the prevent free media, which can point at such type of practices in this poor country.

#24

Without responsible journalism, there can be no press freedom. Below are actual private newspaper sales grabbing headlines before enactment of government press law:

“North Gondar under Amhara rebel control…Seyoum Mesfin in hiding after attempt on Meles Zenawi’s life…Dr. Richard Pankhurst assassinated…University student’s organs stolen for sale by doctors…”

I have not even touched on headlines that preyed on Ethiopia’s ethnic and political divisions. Private press made record profits during 2005 elections, while people got killed for nothing. Be a real journalist, investigate the real reasons yourself, and don’t just report what others have written.

#23

I agree with Tesfaye’s observations 100%. There is no freedom of press in Ethiopia. For those who doubt this please go check the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog organization for global press freedom: http://www.cpj.org/ and search for Ethiopia. Or feel free to research any organization that advocates for press freedom, and you will find Ethiopia near the top of the list of countries with the least press freedom. This is a fact, not opinion.

Furthermore, just recently the Founders of Addis Neger, a newspaper that was based in Addis, were forced to flee the country because of their views on the government, and this has been reported on several websites.

If you truly believe Ethiopia has freedom of press you either work for the Ethiopian government, support the Ethiopian government, or you are simply ignorant and do not know the least bit about this topic. Period.

#22

I have been to Ethiopia too and it was totally different as to what this journalist clams. There is always two side of a story. Apparently this journalist is from the Amhara tribe who wants to topple the government and continue their old rule. The oppositions especially in the diaspora are from this tribe who are accusing the government with a trump up lies of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, mass imprisonment and mass killings etc. The foreign embassies had asked them to show them for some proofs unsuccessfully. The naive Genocide watch had publicised once their accusation without checking the facts,their origins and their ethnic malices and has now restrained themselves from it. These are the backgrounds of this journalist and the people he was associating with in Ethiopia. Of course, it was forbidden to invent genocide and declare a tribal strife to achieve your own tribal dominance. For this so called journalist, my advice will be to go and meet every tribe who are supporting the government but at the same time are not shy to express their discontents loudly whenever they see one.

#21

I find it amusing when people are concern about freedom of speech or freedom in general. When in reality freedom is a privilege awarded to those that are subordinate, and this applies to all nations. A citizen of any country with an established government, no matter what type of government, has limited to no freedom; for a government is as powerful as the freedom it takes from its citizens.
So I ask this to the author and fellow reader, are citizens of USA or any non- African country free? Take the 2000 election of Bush Jr. into office and in fact Bush’s administration in general. How about FOX or CNN news are these journalist exercising freedom of press, when they are told that they have to limit their report on the Iraq War or when the are told they can not show dead bodies of soldiers because it will upset the public.
To me freedom/democracy is a allusion and governments everywhere try to keep their citizens from demanding it be real The only issue is that African governments are not as good as others covering up their tracks. Where in Ethiopia many are slaughtered in the streets, in America people are quietly suppressed or bought out. Kansas or Africa… no one is truly free except within oneself.

For those who argue that freedom/democracy is real than think about this fact. Many African countries have experienced only 53 years of sovereignty (after colonization) and it takes time for some form of democracy and freedom to establish itself firmly. When USA gained its independence from UK … it took more than 53 and a civil war to provide equal rights to all. So I say give Africa a break!
PS- Love the picture of the women

#20

It is interesting to read the comments to Tesfaye’s story especially those who are reffering to it as the whiteman in desguise job. These are the types of reactions we Africans also receive from those who careless or are in cohort with the those plundering our continent.
I am a journalist from the West AFrican State of Gambia that Tesfaye mentioned in his report. Tesfaye was my host on a visit to his work place in New York.There are a lot of parallels in his story on Ethiopia.
The three words “this is Africa,” the author mentioned is also frequently used in my country by relatives or friends worried about the safety of someone speaking in public about the state of affairs in the country because one never knows who the other person is.
We as African’s are still bent on blaming others for our present predicaments. True as it maybe, only us can bail our selves out. The truth is freedom os speech and expression is yet to take hold in AFrica with the exeption of few countries as South Africa, Ghana, Mali etc, etc.
Those in power also interpret ivergent views as “disturbing the peace” as mentioned by one of the commentators below. In a society where people cannot freely express themselves and have access to divergent views, progress will be limited.

#19

Greetings Everyone,

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate Tesfaye on completing his mission on going to Ethiopia and writing a piece on his experience and research. As an African-American myself, more specifically, from the thriving country of Ghana (had to shout out my country), my perspective on tyranny, corruption, injustice, and so forth derives from intimate family stories, newspapers, and books. I, myself, have not been subject to such behaviors, but am well aware of its actuality. As I read over the comments below, I conclude that many are speaking from a non-native perspective and vice versa. I agree with Tesfaye and do believe there is a certain degree of tyranny and all the injustices that come from it, but do I know to what extent? NO! So for that very reason I will not refute his firsthand experience/research, but rather, appreciate the courage put forth in completing his personal task. At the end of the day, the reality is that the country of Ethiopia has not reached the finish line meaning there is still work to do– so everyone should ask themselves, “What is the next course of action?” Instead of going back and forth about who is wrong or right, let’s exert the same amount o energy in finding a solution to this question, “Where do we start?”

Great job partner!

#18

For anyone outside the bogus asylum seeker camps, there are sensible recommendations to be respected in running a post-conflict state, not to be confused with long established democracies. These priorities are as follows:
1. foremost priority, SECURITY
2. next, ECONOMY & livelihood
3. third, SOCIAL SERVICES, such as health, education, infrastructure, elections and the rest of the paraphernalia of democracy, freedom of the press etc…
Now, POPINJAYS like Tesfaye Negussie do not belong anywhere in this scheme of things. We don’t have a special wagon for liars disguised as journalist who expect to be treated like holy cows.

#17

This why the monarchy of Ethiopia should not have been abolish in 1974. Only when Ethiopia was under the monarchy were we Ethiopian’s truly free, and united as a people. We really should consider restoring the monarchy, as and constitutional monarchy.

#16

whene will the lie stop whene.Negussa did u to ethiopia or eritra

#15

Well written article.. Those of you who are telling us there is freedom of expression in Ethiopia should better explain why a 35 year old Judge and Chraismatic; Popular and first female leader of a major Political party put in Kality Prison (for life or until tplf leaders die with all kinds of diseases they are suffering from and rot in hell and hopfully soon) for expressing what is true ( as it has been confirmed by others who went through the same process) and hundreds of other Ethiopians languishing in tplf brutal jail systems at the will of any tplf cadre ( not the courts or the law under the consitiution)? Tell me if you can live (trade, get a job, farm, pursue higher education or get other affairs done without the interference of tplf cadres? You are doomed especially if you are thought to be supporter of the opposition. Where are your facts? Are you telling me Eskindir Negaa, Serkalem Fasil, The editors and publishers of all the independant newspapers, including the latest Addis Neger are being persecuted, killed or put on exile because they were fearmongering and misinforming the public? Have you ever read any of the newspapers? The publisher of ‘Awrambaa Times’one of the last ones remaining in the country is now being harassed on a number nonsense charges in the tplf kangaroo court system. If you may read Awrambaa Times issues and tell me why and how it affects Ethiopians? Those of you who just go to Ethiopia to sleep with 14 year old daughters of yours and try to show off the poor peasant, who was expecting you to struggle for his freedom need to reflect on your deeds in the past and think of your legacy in life. It needs clear conscious and principled lifestyle to defend the “TRUTH” and I don’t think those defending the tyrants in Ethiopia have none. I just hope the future of Ethiopia belongs to the likes of BIRTU_CAN Mideksaas, whose stance for Justice and Peace for all Ethiopians would bring about the best of our countrymen and women building democratic institutions and ending poverty, not just in ETV (or ATV as some call it) but from the lives of 75+ millions of Ethiopians. Free Birtukan Mideksaa! Long Live Ethiopia!!! End to tplf regime!!!

#14

Dam it! We are brave enough to understand what is going on in Ethiopia. Those of you who believe the government is growing roses to make ethiopians happy, keep your view to yourself. What does it matter if you travel bottom to top in the country in so called “peace” you have mentinioned. This is a govenment that has been gang rapping the country nearly for two decades. They killed,they imprisioned, they robbed.. name any more vice! The economy, the govenment machinery, the millitary every thing you name it is run by one only one ethinic group which is thought to constitute under 6% of the population. If you don’t speak or work against them, ofcourse, you must be dead and who will be interested to be interested in you.
When are we going to see rays of hope in that country?
Alas!!

#13

Well I think Ethiopian Journalist need to learn more about balancing and investigating stories, but I definitely agree that there is no freedom of press in Ethiopia. I mean can someone tell me of all these 20 years EPRDF was in power they never lost any judgments in court. Get a life if you are blind enough to believe that EPRDF is always 100% correct then they should really run the UN from top to bottom.
They can come and take you to jail and say well we found these items, we found that item etc.. that is a bull. Can you order the person to be in court, can you ask the reporter to verify it’s a researched topic?
It is like comparing a thief who stole $50 versus thief who stole $500. You can claim well I like the $50 thief and force yourself to believe he never stole anything or you might think its okay he only took $50.
For me thief is always a thief. This is 2010 off course no African government going to dictate their countries like in 90’s, the citizens are sharper and knowledgeable so the government has to sharpen style of dictatorship.
People might like the little evil than the big evil they had; but for me I don’t want any evil at all. I have seen places and countries where evil is defeated it’s freedom of you to do what you want to do and I do not want to support the little evil suppressing my bloods.

#12

I just visited Ethiopia, about 6 months ago. I disagree with Mr. Negussie. I’ve never visited the country for almost 15 years until last year. I travelled through out the country, I did not encounter any restrictions; this is because I respected the law and did not disturb the peace. This is a common sense. If you do report lies and try to destabilize and disturb peace, of course, there are consequences. I’ve read lots of news papers in Addis Ababa and most of the contents in those news papers were based on facts. If your actions are based on non-sense and try to ignite hate and bring malise, whoever did that deserves for what they’ve done. Even developed countries have so many limitations. I am very amazed by the progress and developments they people of Ethiopia have undergone in the last 20 years. We should be honest and give credit for those who are working really hard to bring lasting development and destroy poverty in the country. The country just started to grow. With previous governments, it was dwindiling downwards. I am not saying the current goverment is completely innocent. In every country, there are ups and downs. Regardless, the people of Ethiopia and its diaspora should work hard and add their skills and efforts to the work this is in progress.

#11

EPRDF has been on power for almost 20 years, the people who are complaining about press freedom are the onece who has been runing a privately owned newspapers since the government took power from derg. They lose their business from dewindling revenue, then they fled to the west and claim political refugee to get their green card. these people are not reliable sources to report about press freedom in ethiopia.

#10

I think Tesfaye is streaching it too far. He sound the usual diaspora opposition blogers.I myself visited Ethiopia this year,went freely from south to north and east hear most people speak freely. Tesfaye is surely exagerating.Or he might be still bearing the trauma from the Derg(previou marxist dictator).

#9

[…] WorldFocus EthioSun January 14, 2010 […]

#8

[…] posted here: Ethiopia's government tamps down on press freedoms | Worldfocus Share and […]

#7

Christine, Justin, Yoseph: So very familiar in content as well as style, as the usual and ubiquitous supporters of Ethiopia’s dictator who make sure to comment negatively to every pro-democracy blog about Ethiopia–and also in typical fashion, (at least the first two) hide behind American names to make themselves seem legit to the usual readers of worldfocus.

The atrocities and repression committed by Ethiopia’s dictatorship against rural poor pastoralists in the South-East, darker-skin populations on the Western border, and students, journalists, and pro-democracy activists everywhere in the country is tremendously well documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, GenocideWatch, Reporters without Borders,… I could go on. WorldFocus Reader, just google “Ethiopia Human Rights” and you will have access to the reports by a range of international rights-based organisations–much more than I can write in this short comment.

#6

Freedom of speach doesn’t mean inventing malices and falsly acusing people. Ethiopian journalists need to learn a lot from their western counterparts on decency and balanced reporting. Some are even active in blackmailing officials, borrow much money they couldn’t pay back etc. and when they get caught they run to the west and become a political refugee. Press freedom in Ethiopia is better than many countries.
Apparently your sympathy is with the corrupt opposition that is why you write such a junk of an article. Get a life.

#5

A Joke — go read the private Ethiopian newspapers and see if they are afraid to criticize the government. They freely criticize the government without any repercussions. But to knowingly print bold face lies is illegal like in all free advanced countries. That is called reckless disregard for the truth or slander. And if you do it under oath, it’s perjury. So my friends, just because you say you are a journalist, it does not mean you can say and write anything. You must do due diligence that your accusations are based on facts, not deliberate or reckless falsehoods

#4

Lucky for those white they got one more negro to speak for them. Back then a white man will do this because tesfaye’s were unfit humane for the job. Now they polish a black man on how to speak for white and this negro is happy to destroy a nation for his refugee status of his family.

#3

[…] Source: WORLDFOCUS […]

#2

Please check your numbers.According to the government’s own enquiry commission there were 193 dead and more than 700 wounded and tens of thousand came out to protest.

#1

[…] Ethiopia’s government tamps down on press freedoms | Worldfocus worldfocus.org/blog/2010/01/13/ethiopias-government-tamps-down-on-press-freedoms/ – view page – cached “Remember, this is still Africa,” warned a friend of Tesfaye Negussie, an American journalist whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia. Last month, Tesfaye traveled to Ethiopia to visit family and friends and shares a story about the restrictions on press freedoms that excuse those in power and propel social injustices. […]

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