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.
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.