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Intimidation or imprisonment by 'democratic instruments'

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, foreground, is holding seven journalists, most on anti-state charges. (Reuters)

Three years ago, I met Minister Bereket Simon at his office at the center of Addis Ababa. I was with my colleague Abiye Teklemariam -- who was recently charged with terrorism, treason and espionage along with five other journalists, including myself.

Our purpose in meeting Bereket was to make our position clear regarding the government's wasteful animosity toward us, and express our concerns surrounding press freedom in Ethiopia.

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The period was a tense and confrontational one for staff members of our newspaper, Addis Neger. Many observers had begun to predict the imminent closure of Addis Neger and our inevitable arrest. As became evident later, the government was suspicious of us and had already decided our fate. Of what were they suspicious? That depends on whether you want the public version of their suspicion, or the other version, relating to politics and power. The public version is a cover up for the latter version.

The biggest worry for any autocrat stems from individuals and institutions that appear to be independent and attractive to one or more sections of society. The Ethiopian government's real suspicion -- more appropriate to call it fear -- was that Addis Neger or people gathering around its ideals could be turned into a political force. This may have taken different forms, the government assumed -- including forming a new political party as a solid group; joining one of the oppositions; endorsing or actively supporting opposition parties; or challenging the legitimacy of the regime by forming critical opinions.

No intelligent leader can declare this panic in public. The creative capacity of any autocrat reveals itself in his ability to formulate a public suspicion that can conceal the primary concern, which is to stay in power.

Bereket is the right-hand man of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and has handled the government's media affairs for 20 years. In our meeting with him, we highlighted the public's fear of a sudden and blanket closure of independent newspapers, as had happened in 2005. Bereket was articulate in addressing our concern: "Have no worry about that; we won't repeat that kind of measure. Instead, the government is determined to handle both the media and journalists using democratic instruments."

By "democratic instruments," Bereket meant laws and government organs - each being an appendix of the ruling party. Instead of closing a newspaper by ordering the printing house not to print, the law made the printer responsible for the content of what he is printing. Instead of telling reporters to stop writing about a particular political group or view, such reporting is criminalized by the outlawing of the party (as well as any discussion regarding its view). The government no more issues an order to arrest activists or close an independent NGO working to empower citizens or expose human rights abuses. It simply makes life impossible for such groups by requiring them by law to cover 90% of their budget from local sources.

Thus, the public suspicion is aimed at sensitizing the public, or at least ruling party members, about the legal action the government is going to take using "democratic instruments." It is often based on fabricated or half-baked conspiracy plots. Some of the allegations against independent newspapers and journalists in Ethiopia paint them as dangerous elements posing a threat to the country: the agents of foreign forces or enemy states; operatives of the CIA; members or supporters of opposition or extremist groups; advocates of anti-ethnic or religious groups; advocates of anti-state ideas, and more.

Such allegations are used the world over to silence and intimidate independent voices. Such instruments are used to jail journalists, not just by the Ethiopian government but also by the worst offenders, the governments of Iran and China.

When my colleague Abiye and I met with Bereket, we were bold enough to explain our fundamental positions as an independent media institution and responsible journalists. He was also honest enough to admit the government's fear, saying, "You have a political agenda." What does this mean, where anything from an editorial to a cartoon can be considered political and entail an agenda?

Today, my colleague, journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, has been imprisoned since September 14 in Maekelawi Federal Detention Center. Note that the government is holding him using a "democratic instrument" called the "Anti-Terrorism Law." The same instrument put journalists Woubshet Taye and Re'eyot Alemu behind bars. The two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, are also in prison defending their professional activities, which are criminalized in Ethiopia.

December 8, 2011 12:00 AM ET | | Comments (9)

Comments

Very amateurish, confused article does more harm than good...Why do you say people are arrested for being agents of CIA, while Ethiopia actively works with CIA in the region? Stop name dropping and stick with the facts.

what can i say? its just great and I am proud of you

I could only imagine how happy you felt when you heard you were charged with terrorism. Because it gave you the publicity you would not have gotten otherwise.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” John of Kennedy
We witnessed the intensity of this fact right in our time. However big they were the dictators of northern Africa and their like fade from the frame of power as well as existence. Their power, money, network or what so every did not able to save them. As the depth of their brutality was deep and painful so was their downfall. Ones they were untouchable and friend of the big fish in the house but now the list in every aspect of life. The funny part all of them used the same kind of formula to stay on power. Stiffen their neck rather than make a “U” turn without noticing the outcome of their cruelty. Dear brothers and sisters keep fighting what we are facing in our beloved Ethiopia is the beginning of the end. What is the current government compere to Mubarak? What is Meles compere to Gadhafi?
There is no freedom that comes free. If it happens without sacrifice it is not freedom it is some kind of change and all changes never were good or positive. We do not need to go to anywhere to proof this fact we can just refer our own history – the time of “Derug”. Generation who sit and do nothing - get nothing. I know most of us love to do something and our sympathy for our country still hot; at the same time unfortunately most of us we are still ideal. Then what shall we do? The dos vary from person to person since we all have all different kinds of responsibility to accomplish. Whatever we got in our hand use it for fulfillment of justice and freedom in the country. “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those watch them without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein.
Remember whoever you are there is no purgatory in the fight for freedom. Either you are you are in the perpetrators side or at the side of justice. Do not full yourself my friend in this case there is no silence, if you are silent it is acceptance of the action of the perpetrators. “If you are neutral in situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Desmond Tutu
I hope and believe I will see you in Ethiopia after the victory!

Why go all the way to China and Iran, while they US is doing it time and again....just watch what happens to DN...why is it Al-jezeera banned from making broadcasts in US....and BTW does US allow anything allegedly related to Hamas,Al-qieda, etc NO ,then shut up don't try to live at the expense of the poor Ethiopian people ......don't give us your nonsense bullshits...you are just more than happy that they openly accused you as it facilitates your VISA and highlights your fame

Nice to shere info

Well written Mesfine. The angle of 'democratic instruments' to disentangle the authoritarian and repressive webs of the Zenawi regime is commendable. Write more pls. May your wishes come true in the new year.

Thank you Mesfin, do not mind the ill mannered thugs. The point is well made. As they used to say in our hood 22 mazoria, weyane thugs "wey ayamr, wey aymar wey ayafr"

For a starter, ignore the few paid TPLF trolls who wrote their vile attacks here(a couple of them high above on the thread).

Bravo Mesfine, a well articulated article. I have been a regular reader of Addis Neger online and used to get some cut outs of your print edition while it was in print. You guys are groundbreaking journalist who hold so much for the future of journalism in Ethiopia. Bereket and Meles tried to cut you short. They might feel victorious for now but I hope you will get back to the job you love most soon. It is a free speech era. Tomorrow is your and I am confident Addis Neger will be back in all forms and formats. Online, Print.....

Keep marching.


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