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As Zenawi speaks, editors are grilled in Ethiopia

Choice is important, Zenawi says. But editors back home are not always free to make their own choices.

On Wednesday, just a few hours before Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi delivered the keynote address at the World Leaders' Forum at New York's Columbia University, two journalists back in Addis Ababa endured nearly seven hours of police interrogation. 

Ethiopian federal police summoned the editors of Sendek, a weekly Amharic-language newspaper, ostensibly to investigate whether the paper has a publishing license. "We already have a license. I don't know why they summoned us," Editor-in-Chief Firew Abebe, one of the two, told me today. Local journalists believe Sendek and three other private newspapers are drawing police attention because they published interviews with an opposition leader named Leggese Biratu.

In the interviews, Biratu, who recently resigned from a leadership post in the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, accused party chairman Ayele Chamiso of aligning with Zenawi's ruling party.

Wednesday's interrogation is no aberration, CPJ research shows, and it highlights the severe restrictions facing Ethiopian journalists whenever they tackle sensitive political issues.

In his speech here in New York, Zenawi asserted that Africans enjoy more freedom than ever in choosing their destiny. "The fact that Africans now have a choice is ... fundamentally liberating," he said.

Following the speech, in a Q&A session moderated by Mamadou Diouf, director of Columbia's Institute of African Studies, I asked Zenawi to reconcile the gap between his words and his administration's record of press and Internet repression. "Should we really take you at your word when your country is known to restrict the press and the websites that Ethiopians might read?"

After a 10-second pause, Zenawi declared: "I think choice is important and fundamental to every human being's free impression of himself." Speaking of his days as a guerrilla freedom fighter, he added "I believe I have contributed my fair share to fighting the systems in Ethiopia that were unmistakably oppressive." He then suggested critics in the Ethiopian press were disgruntled supporters of the former Derg regime. "We had to step on some toes." When someone else asked about the government's jamming of the Amharic-language service of Voice of America, he said Ethiopia was following the spirit of a 1940s U.S. law prohibiting VOA from broadcasting domestically.

The prime minister faced tough questioning on other issues--including his party's incredible 99-percent sweep of May parliamentary elections and the imprisonment of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa. Zenawi said he appreciated the concerns of the questioners but declared they had had "inadequate chance to consider" the reality in his country.

Across Broadway, two rival groups of Ethiopian expatriates, a bus load each, offered cheers and jeers for Zenawi--evidence, perhaps, of the differences seen in the reality back home. 

September 23, 2010 4:44 PM ET | | Comments (21)

Comments

Nice article Mohamed, and it is nice to see some tough questions. One time when I visited the TPLF museum in Mekele, I was struck by the gap between the what the TPLF showed itself to be struggling for during all those years in the bush, and the reality of today. I for one would truly enjoy an opportunity to discuss with the Prime Minister the "reality in his country."

Dear CPJ

One day CPJ and others will stop being hoodwinked by the Ethiopian equivalents of the Tea Party. The current Ethiopian opposition is made up of right wing zealots who brought nothing but misery to all Ethiopians during successive regimes. Today like Obama Ethiopia's Meles is digging out from the ditch the country driven into the dust bin of Ethiopia by the same people hoodwinking the CPJ.

The same people crying today are the same ones who denied the Ethiopians freedom of press, assembly and the right to pursue peace and prosperity for decades.

CPJ open your eyes and stop being so rigid.

Thanks so much for this. Great question about Birtukan, which I'll pass on to some in the diaspora. Of course, Meles obfuscates and lies. How to get him out when he jails all opposition?


Locking up in jail the first woman main opposition party leader in Ethiopia, and declaring a 99.6% election victory!!! Is this what democracy means for Zenawi's supporters? What a shame?

Meles has the ability to lie without showing any kind of emotions and signs which may give people a hint to know that he is lying. He has exercised and mastered lying for many years now that the people in Addis say, that if Meles stops lying his cloth would start telling lies. That shows you that no ordinary citizen in Ethiopia believes Meles. The Ethiopian people have had a very good experience with brutal dictators like the former Mengistu and now Meles.

Meles would say anything to present a democratic face to the west. But at home nothing in every corner of the country is out of the control of his security police. Ethiopia is virtually a police state where every sector of life is monitored and controlled by TPLF.

Though the west is not willing to see the reality in Ethiopia, the truth is Meles is more, I say it again, more dictatorial than even Mugabe.

The election commission in Zimbabwe had at least the freedom to declare almost a 50% win for the opposition. In Ethiopia this is unthinkable! The election board does what Meles says and as seen by the last election, Meles wanted all the opposition out of parliament, so did the election board. This is the reality. Forget the talk on the world forums.

But time is changing and Meles is increasingly feeling bold by the support he gets form China and he is now willing to show more of his real face to the world. This is only the start. Meles will show more of his ugly brutal dictatorial communist face to the west by the day, as he feels more and more secure by the support he gets from China. For the ordinary Ethiopian, it stays the same. No surprises. We know Meles as a devoted Marxist Leninist communist dictator, who is simply good at covering his real face from the west and he will stay the same to us.

In the just ended EPRDF Conference, all members of the party started calling each other with the word "comrade", which is a typical communist party vocabulary for their members. It is also interesting to note that no western representative was invited to the conference, only from communist party representative of china, India etc.

This is only the start. Meles will surprise the west more in the future, by showing his real ugly communist face. Mark my word!

CPJ,

In my opinion, some of them, so called journalists, have to be on a short leash because they are not really professionals or responsible. They will print anything no matter how inappropriate or illegal. For the most part the journalists in Ethiopia have gotten much better and are becoming more professional. But there are still some remnants from the past who have no idea or do not care about responsible, professional journalism. It’s common now the Ethiopian government just ask papers to correct obvious mistakes or give an explanation for seemingly intentional false allegation instead of suing in courts as it used to do a lot. In my opinion, that is what transpired here given the History of MR. Leggese making blatantly false allegations against the government and his political opponents.

I don't know way you cpj people are always against our government.is this b/c you can't see the development in the country and your editorial policy doesn't allow you to say something positive. journalist in the developing world like other ordinary people wants to get the benefit of your developed economy. At least try to look the case of Editor-in-Chief Firew Abebe in this way.

for tfrew,

You don't need to talk about the identity of Meles' opponents, that is irrelevant. The most important thing is all the crimes, corruptions, his dicietful personality, can be verified with evidence. There is a great deal of documentation about Meles' atrocities in credible international organizations including CPJ.

Eric it is great you visited the museum in Mekele, but did you as well visit the grave yards and mass burial locations in the Ogaden and Gambella that genocide took place under Zenawi’s command? Or are you just another paid Zenawi’s propagandist?
Think twice man.

To TFrew: You must be one of the regime's die-hard supporters who care less for millions who are suffering due to injustice and gross human rights violations by Meles's regime.
Your and your governments tactic is to label all the opposition in the diaspora as the former regime's members. Not really!!!!
I'm one of those Ethiopian-Americans who were too young to be part of the Mengistu's regime, and who left Ethiopia a year after TPLF entered Addis. I do believe that I'm impartial in my judgement and the Meles regime's legacy of bad performanc (e.g. human rights violations, corruption, ethno-centric politics, policies towards Eritrea, etc.) way outweighs the good deeds (e.g. building infrastructure within the past few years).

A few major mishaps are as follows:
- lack of balance of power/segregation between braches of government (TPLF is all of the 3 branches of the gvt de facto).
- lack of freedome of speech
- lack of political space for real opposition (it is unheard of in human history of election/vote for a party to win 99.9% and that after 20 years in power.
- lack of trasparency and accountability of the government
- the TPLF government owning and running the largest corporation in the country (i.e. EFFORT). In civilized countries, it's illegal for a political party to own and run a business
These are just a few examples of gross shortcomings of the regime.

What you tried to do here is to misinform the American public of realities in Ethiopia. Are you paid for this by the way?
If I'm a person of no-moral and personal integrity, I could lie about the Meles regime and post a 'rosy' picture of Ethiopia to the outside world.
To Mohamed: Thanks for sharing your thougts.

Press freedom in Africa in not only a problem on government side, but also a luck of Journalistic ethics and professionalism. If there is anything I am failing to understand in today's Africa is the endless proliferation of rights and the unchecked status of journalists. Part of the reason for the deterioration of journalism in Africa is a result of the undeclared mandate of immunity provided for journalists by the likes of your organization. The noble task of journalism is not a guaranty for the noble did of journalists. Please put aside the rhetoric of press freedom for a while and bring some sort of sanity to African journalism. There is nothing absolute in this world including journalism.

Mohamed Hassim advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program great qustion him dictator killer meles zenawi field and an elected government no freedam in Ethiopia no
Human Rights no press freedom imprisonment of
opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa jamming VOA wondesen from uk

Hello there!
I hope you are not Ethiopian or you are veteran or sonn of aveteran of the old military junta! Birtukan! your father and you your self are those who are in need of keeping "statusquo". if you can understand what I mean, stop hazzling people with no evidence and work for your country and people.
I hope U don't have any knowledge about politics but you are simply pooled by those who have some experience of rude politcs of killing people in the past.
After all who are that you be concerned about criminal individuals.

I personally can accuse Meles and the general governance in the country if they try to release Birtukan and other guilty people who work for voilence and disturbance of my country.
I believe that prisoners should only be released if they are found innocent. This is the reality.

Come down and lets be friends!

It takes a genious to understand the man,I wouldn't blame you if you didn't. No one has ever been charged of stupidity.
Zenawi, however, is a leader we are so fond of. Respect is all what's in our hands to pay, him and his comrades.

The Prime Minister should be reminded that the protection of freedom of speech is to those who are "disgruntle". On the surface Africans seem to enjoy "more freedom" than before; unfortunately however, Africans are subjected to an enormous human rights abuse by deceptive regimes like the TPLF. It is equally unfortunate that the people of Ethiopia who are subjected to systematic abuse and deprivation of their basic civic and human rights have to endure, on a world stage, the lies and deception of the prime minister who is a "king" of misinformation and mischief.


See the blog reports by New School students of the protests here:

http://africadidntaskyou.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/columbia-university-loves-controversy/

http://newschoolthoughtsonafrica.wordpress.com/

sendeke is one of the weyenes news paper.it does not publish the reality but rather the manifestations and goals of the weyene regime.
if truth shall be considered i am refuge found in norway and i met a famous journalist who is also a refuge here with me. his name is aseged tefera if cpj stands for journalists who are indanger in there countries in my opinion i think he is worthy of being protected by any means necessary.i have been checking youe site for a long time and u have been posting journalists from addis neger and the so called sendek.but i think he was on the same path as them and has passed throgh many obstacles and deserves the same attention as them.and i will write more

CPJ,

Like I said previously Mr Leggese Biratu is very well known for making blatantly false allegations. This time, if as reported on the paper, he was railing against his own party’s Chairman, Mr. Ayele Chamiso. I bet you CPJ, the paper - journalists and editors alike - did not even lift a finger to get Mr. Ayele Chamiso side, a basic journalistic principle when making allegations against an individual. It is not surprising at all if indeed, because the paper's aim was likely to mis-inform not engage in a professional, fair and balanced journalism. If Mr. Ayele was given an opportunity to give his side, the TRUTH behind Mr Mr Leggese’s Biratu resignation would have come out, which is Politics of EXTREMISM - his inability to work effectively with the ruling party because of his politics of Extremism and blind HATE, opposing EVERYTHING proposed or done by the ruling party regardless of the MERIT!

LET US GIVE CHANCE FOR ETHIOPIA(MELES).EVERYBODY NEVER POINT HIS/HER FINGER UPON.ETHIOPIAN ISSUES ONLY BY ETIOPIANS.MANY OF US DON'T HAVE CURRENT INFORMATION ABOUT THE COUNTRY.GO AND SEE PRACTICALY WHAT ARE GOING ON

CPJ is a mouth piece of the white world staffed with people who has not got a clue about Africa and Africans. If they sep out of the unwritten code of conduct prepared by their masters the funding will dry quicker than African deserts. For that matter the white mans so called Free Press are free for dictators to do the nasty work of capitalist and right wing neocons roaming and pillaging the world over. So Melles is in thier group so can not see and critic on him except massaged critisem till he strays fro the prepared goverinig book.

Dear Mohamed it is a good article.But why you are promoting EPRDF's newspaper always.Those newspapers like Sendek,Awrambatimes,Reporter,Fortune,Goggle and others are all owned by woyaness.Every news againest these newspapers are just promoting to cheat people.Journalists like Mesfin Abrham,Girma ,Fasil,Addis,Aseged .....and many others left Ethiopia for their threat.And Zenawi is recist dectator.By the way all journalists exiled are ......


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