Ethiopia; When Reporting becomes terrorism

By Tesfalem Waldyes

KAMPALA: Three years ago, a sealed yellow envelope reached to the news desk of the now-defunct Addis Neger newspaper, where I was working as an editor. That envelope contained a leaked document. The first page of the document echoed the bold words that has become synonymous with the Ethiopian politics these days – “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation”.

I recalled the disbelief on the faces of the editors after thoroughly reading the draft proclamation. Some contents of the bill were vague and open to interpretation. The definition of the terrorism and terrorist acts was also “extremely broad and ambiguous”.  On contrary to the norm, the bill was shifting the burden of proof onto suspects unlike in other matters in criminal justice.  It also allowed surveillance and interception of communications without a court warrant.

What shocked us most was the article that stifled freedom of speech and expression. The bill stated,  “whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts are punishable with rigorous imprisonment.”

We were discussing that the bill with such ambiguous terms will give a license to the government to silence critical and dissent voice.  We were definitely sure that the proclamation would worsen the self-censorship in Ethiopian private press.

In subsequent months, Addis Neger was running news, analytical feature stories and editorials about the bill. The writers and editors of the paper argued that the bill would gravely contribute to the narrowed political sphere in Ethiopia. The government’s response was defensive.

Since day one, it tried to stop critics of the proclamation. After the leaked bill published on Addis Neger, a senior official from the Ministry of Justice called our reporter into his office and grilled him about our source. The official also sent a warning message to the editors through the reporter.

The paper continued writing about the bill but ironically enough it became one of the first victims of the law. All founders and editors of the newspaper left the country after they learnt that the government was preparing criminal charges against them based on the new anti-terrorism law.

The government denied the claim but later it begun the massive arrests in the name of fighting terrorism. According to Amnesty International, since March 2011 at least 107 Ethiopian opposition politicians and journalists have been arrested and charged with various offences, under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Criminal Code, for what should be legitimate activities and criticism of government.

The massive crackdown had gone with little international highlight until Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, were arrested in the volatile Somali region of Ethiopia. The government charged them with supporting a rebel group, Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and entering Ethiopia illegally. I first did not think that their case would go as far as convicted them of supporting terrorism and sentencing them to 11 years’ imprisonment.

On previous similar cases the government’s highest punishment was expelling of the accused journalists. The government had for instance arrested New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman, his wife and colleague, in the Ogaden region in May 2007.

After they expelled the Gettleman , the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Gettleman and his colleagues were crossing the border into Somalia and then returned to Ethiopia clandestinely. “The Ministry finds it intolerable that Mr. Gettleman is prepared to try to make terrorists appear to look like rebels with a cause, to make heroes out of a terrorist group,” the Ministry press release stated.

In June 2011, a Voice of America journalist was expelled from Ethiopia after reporting on clashes between the government and the ONLF. The government became more brutal when it comes to the Swedes. The two Swedish journalists admitted their offense of crossing the country illegally and apologized when they appeared before the court.

And they should be expelled for this offence. The guilty verdict and 11 years imprisonment sentence is not fair. I witnessed their trial in November 2011. I heard the witnesses, have seen the video evidences and heard the litigation. The testimonies of the witnesses during cross-examination were confusing. The video evidences screened in the court only showed the preparation and journey of the two journalists in to the Somali region. I had expected the judge to drop the testimonies and the so-called evidences.

The trial of the Swedish and Ethiopian journalists did not bring justice rather it had a chilling effect for many journalists and the rights to freedom of speech and expression for Ethiopian people. Fear and self-censorship is rife among Ethiopian journalists. Many journalist friends of mine are frustrated. They don’t see any future on their profession. Some contemplated to live in exile. The few that I spoke to expected to be arrested at anytime soon. No one is sure who will be next on the list.

“Since the enactment of the anti terrorism law, Ethiopian journalists like me I am sure face a dilemma on what to report and what not to report and what would be seen as “promotion of terrorism” and what may be allowed,” Kirubel Taddesse, an assistant editor in Capital Newspaper, one of the English business weeklies in Addis Ababa, wrote recently.

Journalists are scared even to mention their names when they are being interviewed about the law. “Ever since the anti-terror law came to effect, I have become too careful not to write on issues that might upset the government,” a correspondent based in the capital Addis Ababa who declined to be named told Reuters. “In effect, it has made me avoid writing on certain issues.”

As the editors of Addis Neger newspaper  had feared, the government has used the Anti –terrorism law to gag the reporting of stories critical to lives of Ethiopians and the future of the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 10 journalists have been charged under the anti-terrorism law in the past few months and another Amharic weekly newspaper, Awramba Times, shutdown after its owner and managing editor exiled for fear of arrest.  The law has for sure worsened the situation of rights of expression in Ethiopia.

Tesfalem Waldyes is the Editor-in-Chief of Habeshawi Kana a bi-monthly Amharic newspaper that primarily targets Ethiopian and Eritrean refugee communities in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan.

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