Clampdown in Addis: Introduction

IN OCTOBER 1995, TESFAYE TEGEN, the editor of a weekly newspaper in Addis Ababa, made a very costly editorial decision.

U.S.-backed insurgents who had toppled Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam four years before had just held elections to legitimize their rule. Tesfaye’s* paper, Beza, ran cartoons lampooning members of the new government as a submissive soccer team dominated by a newly elected, U.S.-sponsored prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

The following week, Tesfaye didn’t let up. He ran a joke depicting the newly elected president, Negasso Gidada, as a puppet of Meles, who had been an insurgent leader. Listing the names of the favorite horses of Ethiopian rulers, past and present, the joke said Meles’ favorite horse was Negasso.

“That was not funny,” Hagos Debesse, a top Justice Ministry official, told a mission from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in May 1996. He was trying to explain why the government had responded to Tesfaye’s editorial irreverence by throwing him into jail.

But it is the situation for journalists in Ethiopia that is not funny. In fact, it verges on the tragic. Despite hopes that Ethiopia would finally throw off centuries of repression with the fall of the Derg, as Mengistu’s murderous regime was called, this isolated, mountainous African country has become one of the world’s most frequent jailers of journalists. Alarmed by this trend, CPJ sent a two-person delegation that spent two weeks last May interviewing scores of journalists, government officials, and diplomats in Addis Ababa. We wanted to find out how the new Ethiopian government’s promises of press freedom had gone wrong, to seek a way to reverse the trend, to bring attention to the situation, and to urge the country’s leaders to trust a free press.

The team consisted of Africa Program Coordinator Kakuna Kerina and myself. I had reported from Ethiopia in the 1980s for Newsday. Kakuna had spent time in Addis with her family during their political exile from Namibia. Kakuna’s documented report of our visit and of the individual cases of jailed journalists follows this introduction.

We found that, like everything else in Ethiopia, one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, the press scene is more complex and nuanced than we had anticipated:

  • From 1993 to 1995, Ethiopia imprisoned more journalists than any other country in Africa, jailing more than 50, of whom 31 were behind bars at the end of last year.
  • Even with the spectre of jail, independent journalism still flourishes in Addis Ababa, although government repression of distribution stops most papers at the city’s edge. Working with sparse budgets and outdated technology, home-grown independent journalists dedicated to telling the story turn out publications ranging from the lurid and satirical to the bland and objective. Newsboys, themselves reportedly thrown into jail on occasion, hawk these newspapers and magazines on the street corners of downtown Addis.
  • But repression is taking its toll. The guarantees of a free press proclaimed by Ethiopia’s new rulers when they marched into Addis Ababa have degenerated into suspicion and punishment. Optimistic journalists who had responded exuberantly to the promised freedoms are disillusioned, confused, and prone to censor themselves. The Ethiopian government, having belatedly realized the implications of a free press, which it had promised in order to please potential Western donors, has instituted a powerful and unpredictably enforced new press law–sometimes waiting more than half a year to prosecute journalists. Many new publications have been driven out of business by large fines and bond requirements.
  • It is unfair to put all of the blame for this sad turn of events on Ethiopia alone. It, after all, has no experience with a free press. We in the West have also let down Ethiopia’s fledgling independent journalists.

–The United States, captivated by the new government’s pledge to counter the spread of militant Islam from neighboring Sudan, has done little more than emit a few ritual clucking sounds at the repression of journalists, while continuing to give Ethiopia the second highest amount of U.S. aid allocated to sub-Saharan Africa.

–Western journalists have virtually ignored the plight of their colleagues in Addis Ababa, focusing in their rare visits to Ethiopia on the new government’s Nuremberg-style trials of leaders of the Derg.

–With a few exceptions, Western groups devoted to helping the press have devoted scant resources to Ethiopia compared with their investment of time and money in other newly freed countries, especially in Eastern Europe. Press rights groups have overlooked the problems of so-called moderate journalists, generally focusing on the most outspoken anti-government publications.

What does Ethiopia offer the United States to induce it to ignore the lack of a free press its own journalists enjoy? One clue was a visit by CIA Director John Deutsch, who had preceded us by just days, presumably with matters other than press freedom on his mind. Ethiopia belongs to a small club of countries whose strategic location on the edge of the Middle East attracts U.S. patronage and support–although the end of the Cold War has diminished their leverage. (One of those countries, Turkey, is among the few nations to jail more journalists than Ethiopia.) Located in what one State Department official calls “a bad neighborhood,” the Horn of Africa, a pro-U.S. Ethiopia gives Washington a window on Sudan and Somalia, and proximity to strategic routes between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Emperor Haile Selassie, an autocratic ruler, had welcomed U.S. military installations. But when the Derg deposed the emperor in the 1970s, Ethiopia moved into the Soviet camp. The Reagan administration struck back by encouraging insurgent movements among restive Ethiopian ethnic groups who resented a central government controlled by the Amharas, who have traditionally been in charge. Among them were the Tigreans, who dominate the present government, and the neighboring Eritreans, who seceded with the acquiescence of the new government after it took power.

Millions died from the famine of the 1980s, which was exacerbated by the civil war that had plagued the country for more than 20 years. Armed by the Soviets, the Derg repressed both its enemies and ordinary citizens. During a period called the Red Terror, many intellectuals were dragged from their homes and shot to death, their survivors forced to reimburse the government for the cost of the execution bullets to retrieve the victims’ bodies.

When the Tigrean-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) marched into Addis Ababa in 1991, they pledged that Ethiopians would finally be able to live freely. But, according to one insider, promises to comply with international pacts guaranteeing such things as press freedom were made casually just to please potential Western donors. Ethiopia was in dire need of help to rebuild after the civil war, as well as alleviate chronic food shortages and cope with an exploding population of 55 million that is expected to double by the year 2025.

Those casual pledges led to unexpected consequences.

After years of repression under Mengistu’s Marxist regime, independent journalists flooded the streets with newspapers. Reporting was minimal. Sourceless stories spoke of sensational government conspiracies and attacked the new leaders and their families. Personal scores were settled in print. It was not unlike what had occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, where rumor and gossip had often been the only source of news.

The most popular private newspaper was, and probably still is, Tobia. It was started almost immediately after the fall of the Derg by a group of former Ministry of Information officials and employees, most of them Amhara. The lively reporting of Tobia and other private papers reminded readers how boring the government-controlled press was, with its uncritical, stenographic reports of government pronouncements.

That officials of the Derg’s Information Ministry were attacking them and showing up their own journalists unsettled the new leaders. Then emissaries of well-meaning but sometimes patronizing foreign organizations began to arrive with offers of training and money to buy modern word processing and broadcasting equipment, but only if the government gave up control of such institutions as the Ethiopian News Agency. This isn’t the way things are supposed to work in Ethiopia, which has repelled colonial domination for centuries, its population isolated on mountain plateaus thousands of feet high. Foreigners are not supposed to tell Ethiopians what to do. Indeed, Ethiopian rulers have purposefully imported technology cautiously and slowly over the past century to avoid too much Western influence.

Few foreigners understand the nuances of Ethiopian culture, where language is so subtle that, unless couched properly, praise can be insulting. Most outsiders know only one side of Ethiopia–Addis Ababa, a modern city with an explosively growing mass of urban poor dominated by a mostly Amharic, educated elite. Few see the countryside, where other ethnic groups live, often the way their ancestors did a century ago, sometimes even a millennium ago.

Prime Minister Meles, Parliament Speaker Davit Yohannes, and Justice Minister Mahteme Solomon, who gave lengthy interviews to the CPJ mission, depicted themselves as beset not only by legitimate journalists but by political opponents hiding behind the press. Westerners could not understand that such publications were deliberately printing erroneous and provocative stories to drive the country into Rwanda-style ethnic anarchy, they suggested. In what would probably come as a shock to Bill Clinton, Meles called the Addis independent press “the most critical” in the world.

In October 1992, the Meles government came up with an ingenious solution that allows it to continue to claim to the West that there is no prepublication censorship in Ethiopia, while retaining the power to jail journalists it does not like. It devised a truly arbitrary press law under which scores of editors, publishers, and reporters have been hauled into jail for periods ranging from a few days of questioning to more than a year behind bars.

The law gives wide latitude to police, prosecutors, and judges to jail journalists on charges of encouraging ethnic strife or violence, or insulting the military or leaders of the country. One particularly clever Catch-22 clause of the law criminalizes erroneous stories, despite the refusal of government agencies to provide information or interviews to independent reporters, or to permit them to attend government press conferences or travel in the provinces.

CPJ labored mightily to figure out how the law is implemented. But how and why people are thrown into jail remains a somewhat mysterious process. The result is clear, however. Many journalists are driven out of business by having to pay prohibitively expensive bond to stay out of jail. The very vagueness of the law induces self-censorship.

Sections of the law that were intended to privatize the press remain unimplemented, giving the government further control. Parliament has not nominated members of the semi-autonomous boards that are supposed to take over government-controlled radio, television, newspapers, and the national news agency. But it is expected to do so when it reconvenes in October 1996, government officials insist. Implementation of a law authorizing private broadcasting, however, is likely to take at least two more years.

The government’s clampdown on the press, combined with the unwillingness of private and government journalists to put aside their differences and work together, has thwarted previous foreign-funded attempts to help Ethiopian journalists improve their craft. There are a few exceptions–some British consultants and a few isolated American diplomats are still plugging away. But the government has made it clear it intends to maintain control.

The bleak situation has obscured the encouraging appearance of several independent publications that are trying to improve reporting quality and coverage of all sides of the story. They have even published some impressive investigative pieces on official corruption.

Upon visiting Addis, CPJ discovered a growing variety of publications–in Amharic or English, which most educated people read–that are staffed by journalists who are neither pro- nor anti-government. These newly emerging, so-called moderate journalists are caught in a sort of limbo. They do not want to belong to the association of journalists working for the government press, and most do not seem comfortable with the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, which is controlled by journalists from avowedly anti-government newspapers.

Many journalists we encountered wish that foreign journalists would come to Ethiopia to teach them professional reporting, editing, and publishing techniques. But because their two journalism associations refuse to cooperate with each other, the journalists are unwittingly undermining themselves. So complete was the Derg’s elimination of a civil society that international donors cannot find a neutral Ethiopian institution to house training programs, a media center equipped with computers and a library, or the like. If only the two associations merged into one, donors could use the new group as a local partner.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has dropped ambitious plans to help Ethiopian journalists. For the past three years, AID money allocated to “democratize” Ethiopia has been diverted from media to other projects such as election reform, according to AID sources. One sad clue to the virtual U.S. abandonment of independent journalists in Ethiopia is the privately donated press library that has been gathering dust for three years on an inaccessible shelf in AID’s Addis Ababa office.

Other foreign agencies and foundations have also muted their support of a free press, in part because of government demands that it control their efforts. One of the only exceptions to the pattern is a project to modernize Ethiopian TV by the Overseas Development Administration, the British AID equivalent.

So what is the moral of this complicated story? We obviously have what can be called a failure to communicate. One could make a case that the Ethiopian government is inadvertently repelling potential support for its newly freed press by demanding too much control of foreign help–or that it is doing so deliberately. And one could make a case that Western governments, especially Washington, are inadvertently failing to push for a free press in Ethiopia out of ignorance or inefficiency–or that they are doing so deliberately because the desire for influence in the Horn of Africa exceeds their belief that others should have the same rights their own citizens enjoy.

But it is obvious that Ethiopian journalists are getting short shrift. Don’t they deserve the same support the West gives journalists in Eastern Europe? Ethiopia, after all, was also a Soviet client. Ethiopian journalists are desperate for contact with the rest of the world–to improve their techniques, to become more professional, to make their country known to the rest of the world, and to protect the belated arrival of a free press in the home of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

*On second reference Ethiopians are referred to by the first of their names