Famously repressive in its treatment of media freedom and freedom of expression, Ethiopia continues to manipulate vague and extremely restrictive laws to prosecute journalists and suppress the flow of information throughout the country.
A high profile example of this is case of journalist Temesghen Desalegn, who was imprisoned and charged with inciting violence over reports related to the death of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi in his newspaper, Feteh in July 2012. After being released and fined 50,000 Ethiopian Birr (around $2,700) Temesghen has once again been brought before the Ethiopian courts, facing charges of defamation and incitement to public violence and disorder.
DCMF met with Mastewal Birhanu Memo, 27, general manager of Feteh, journalist and colleague of Temesghen, who had recently fled Addis Ababa and embarked upon like in exile in Nairobi.
Mastewal was facing prosecution under the same case as Temesghen, facing a heavy jail sentence if found guilty. With little faith in the Ethiopian justice system, he felt that he had no choice but to leave his country.
“I spoke to Temesghen on April 2,” said Mastewal, adding “he was shocked when I told him that I was going to leave and he tried to convince me to stay.”
“Temesghen is a person of courage and commitment and he is working under fierce pressures and threats and stress – even his doctor has warned him to rest, but he refuses to rest and gives everything to his work,” he said.
“He is ready to accept any measures from the government,” he added.
Constant surveillance, constant control
And the government’s track record is not particularly encouraging. As well as the numerous difficulties which Temesghen has faced, Mastewal also mentioned the case of the female journalist, Reeyot Alemu who has been serving a five-year prison sentence since June 2011. Suffering from a number of medical issues, the winner of the 2013 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, is reportedly not receiving the treatment she requires. Her case provides a clear example of the government’s use of the Anti-terrorism law to control and oppress the media.
Fellow journalist, Araya Getachew Alayu fled Ethiopia with Mastewal and had also spent less than a week in his new country. He highlighted the courts’ use of personal information and excessive surveillance of journalists as another threat to media freedom in Ethiopia.
“I was in court when they charged Reeyot and everyone in court heard her personal phone conversations including with other journalists,” he explained, adding “it was so shocking – they had all the personal information and emails, even though they had nothing to do with work.”
“The thing is, if you communicate with journalists in Ethiopia, every conversation is recorded.”
“It is painful to wake up every day and think of our friends in jail – they are being treated very badly and they are suffering, it is so difficult,” he noted.
The Anti-terrorism and media laws in Ethiopia mean that communication with any international organisations can be manipulated and used against a journalist as proof of espionage, leading to many journalists ending up in jail.
“The Anti-terrorism law in Ethiopia is very vague and they don’t need any kind of evidence – if they suspect you are involved in violent activists against the government, they can prosecute you under this law,” noted their countryman and fellow exiled journalist, Fasil Burda, adding “that is very discouraging for the press.”
“Democracy…can be delayed but not defeated”
Another particularly prominent journalist to have experienced severe repression in Ethiopia is Eskinder Nega, who was handed an 18-year jail sentence in 2012 under the controversial Anti-terrorism law.
Nega recently wrote a letter from his jail cell in Kality prison, in which he emphasised his commitment to fighting for democracy in Ethiopia, and his hopes for the future of his country.
Individuals can be penalised, made to suffer [oh, how I miss my child] and even killed. But democracy is a destiny of humanity which can not be averted. It can be delayed but not defeated.
The letter highlights the government’s control over the legal system in Ethiopia:
The government has been able to lie in a court of law effortlessly as a function of the moral paucity of our politics. All the great crimes of history, lest we forget, have their genesis in the moral wilderness of their times.
And signs off by recognising the impact of such repression on people all over the world:
Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine de te fabula narratur. “Change only the name and this story is also about you.” Where ever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too.
I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!
"Noone ever wants to leave their country"
Although the death of Prime Minister Zenawi brought about relative hope that press freedom might open up in Ethiopia, there does not seem to have been any positive change in the government’s attitude towards the media.
“It is difficult to compare the days before Meles and after his death,” said Mastewal, explaining that while the regime was extremely restrictive, the political divisions which have emerged since the former Prime Minister’s death have led to further instability and a sense of unease within the country.
Whatever the result of his court case and despite the ordeal which he has already faced, Mastewal is unwavering in his commitment to journalism and remains steadfast in his belief that what himself, Temesghen and their colleagues did at Feteh was the right thing to do.
He explained that he has absolutely no regrets for the work they carried out at the newspaper, and expressed his pride at having played in his part in the ever-intensifying battle for media freedom in Ethiopia.
“Journalism is what is inside me – there is nothing else I could do,” he added.
This is the unfortunate reality of working as a journalist in Ethiopia. Mastewal was fully aware that his work may have resulted in him facing the same sort of punishment as his former colleagues Temesghen, Alemu and Nega. As a 27-year-old, with a burning desire to develop professionally it is hardly surprising that he chose to seek life in exile.
“If things could get better then I would be ready to go back and work with my colleagues. Noone ever wants to leave their country,” he said, adding “but I do not think things will get any better for a long time.”