By Jawar Siraj Mohammed
In the summer of 2008, I picked up a couple of newspapers when I returned to Finfinne. Among them was the Addis Neger. The quality of the paper; its fairness, the depth of research and the balance of views expressed blew me off as I flipped through the pages. From Dilla to Moyale, Ciro to Awaday, people took turns to read a week old copy of Addis Neger left in our car.
The now infamous post 2005 election crackdown wiped out all independent papers in the country. As such, I did not expect to see a paper of such great quality. I feared that Addis Neger wouldn’t last long under a regime that is considered among the leading enemies of free press in the world. This week what I feared happened. After months of incessant harassment and intimidation, the young groups of journalists were forced to close down the paper and flee the country.
In an interview they gave to VOA’s Amharic service, the journalists alleged that they withstood months of harassment and intimidation but had to leave the country when they heard that the regime was about to charge them under auspices of the new “anti-terrorism law” that carries severe penalties. In the last several months, they were subjected to around-the-clock surveillances by the security service making their job extremely difficult. Since their every move was being monitored, they simply could not conduct confidential interviews and anyone seen talking to them or visiting their offices will immediately be captured and harassed.
In the same week, the regime has also re-charged four other newspapers which were banned following the 2005 election. It is to be remembered that the journalists were charged with treason and fined heavily but later pardoned by the rubberstamp “president”. At the time, their “amnesty” was announced by the “gracious” Prime Minster, Meles Zenawi. Now three years later, the regime denies, ever pardoning them and has ordered the kangaroo court to freeze and liquidate all properties owned the accused publishing houses.
The answer is short. Another round of sham election is fast approaching. By his own admission, Meles Zenawi has learned “important lessons” from the 2005 election. One crucial lesson is, if a free and fair election was to be allowed at the presence of a vibrant independent media, Ethiopia will not be home to despotic dictators. Moreover, independent media has always been the primary enemy of tyrants as the press exposes lies, corruptions and weaknesses within the system.
Even in the absence of an independent electoral commission and a strong opposition, the presence of a free press has significant impact on preventing the regime from cheating, misleading the public and gaining legitimacy. So why let the “enemy combatant” journalists loose during the upcoming election, while he can cook up false charges and persecute them using the phony “anti-terrorism law” or just order the judges to impose hefty fines and drive the publishing houses out of business?
Plagiarized Tactics from Lee Kuan Yew and Vladimir Putin’s Cook Book?
What makes modern tyrants different from their predecessors is their ability and cooperation to learn from each other. Meles is not inventing all the tactics that he uses to repress the press, suppress the opposition and dissent in the country. He has been copying tactics from other dictators and improvising it to fit local realities. The current tactics at work in Ethiopia to harass journalists were originally developed by Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and were further perfected by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Lee figured out that he did not need to kill his opponents – like the neighboring Suharto of Indonesia or Khmer Rouge of Cambodia – while he can easily maintain an iron grip over the island by using the “law”. By passing legislations such as the “anti-defamation” Act, he simply let his prosecutors and even personal lawyers go after anyone who dared to criticize him or his regime. For a single speech or piece of writing; journalists and opposition leaders faced multiple charges such as libel, allegation, indecency, slander and etc. It became quite common to see a journalist charged with more than ten counts of crime for a single piece of writing.
The logic is here simple. By raking up multiple charges on a single individual or an organization; you can bankrupt it either due to the very high legal cost or through hefty fines by the puppet courts. Most journalists and opposition groups facing such persecutions either give up and surrender to self-censorship or leave the country. It worked for Lee, after all his party has been in power since the inception of the country, his family runs several of the major companies, while his son is the current Prime Minister – the opposition is weak and very few journalists dare to criticize the regime or the ruling family. It is obvious that, Meles has plagiarized Lee’s tactics and has been perfecting it in the last few years.
Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yelsin, allowed free press. When their policies failed to bring about immediate improvements for ordinary Russians, they came under heavy criticism from the media. Particularly during Yelsin’s administration, the media exposed the conflicted situation in Chechnya and public opinion about the war turned against the regime. Coming to power, Putin saw the media as a major threat to his reign, and if he was to govern the country as he wished, the media had to be removed from the equation.
He crafted tactics that allowed his cronies to buy almost all the major media outlets through a hostile takeover. Soon enough, the popular anti-regime comedy shows such as the “Puppet” known for satiric portrayals of politicians – similar to the Saturday Night Live in America – were taken off the air and replaced by images of the strong, decisive and determined Vladimir Putin. Within few years, Putin became the most popular leader since the Bolsheviks. He was so effective that he had a youth cult group called “Nashi” that goes around to harass and bully Putin’s opponents.
Our “strong man” in Finfinne did not miss the opportunity to imitate Putin. After the 2005 election, he managed to shutdown all independent press and replaced it with his own version of “private press.” Supposedly, there are even “private” FM radio stations in Ethiopia but it is impossible to tell whether you are listening to an independent programming or a state owned station. Even Walta Information and Radio Fana, founded and run by the ruling party, are said to be “privately owned share companies”, yet their content is the exact same thing as the officially state owned Addis Zemen or Ethiopian Radio. Seeing thousands’ of youth wearing a T-shirt with Mele’s boldface at the recently held third youth indoctrination conference, Meles and his allies might believe that Putin’s tactics are working for them.
In a very strange twist of events, Meles’s supporters are vying for the newspaper not to be closed and the publication will continue. It is believed that the regime may try to resume the printing of Addis Neger after transferring ownership to its supporters, who will in turn claim to be partners with former colleagues that fled the country. Putin’s plagiarized tactics of buying out the media in order to turn it into a mouthpiece is in the process of being perfected in Ethiopia. The regime has already been successful in “transforming” strong oppositions into loyal puppets opposing the opposition, by bribing few individuals.
Improvising from Russia’s Kremlin, Meles has also created news papers run by the intelligence services, such as the “Ethio Channel” which are fully dedicated to defaming and intimidating opposition figures and journalists. So far, Meles seems to have been successful in copying and implementing these tactics as several opposition figures and journalists have either fled the country or resorted to self censorship. Whether he will succeed like Lee and Putin in the long-run depends on the determination and effectiveness of the press, the democratic movement and the larger civil society. If democracy and freedom is to win in Ethiopia, these wicked political games need to be challenged and we ought to deny victory to tyranny.
Resistance, Resilience and Long Term Commitment is the way
I have this quote posted in my room.
We will remain here and fight for freedom of expression to the very last…We will not leave. I am sure the Ethiopian government would be happy to see us leave, to see us go into exile like the rest, but that is exactly what we will not do.
These are the words of Eskinder Nega, as reported by VOA’s Peter Heinlein two years ago, regarding the government’s refusal to issue them a permit to practice journalism in Ethiopia. Eskinder was one of several journalists who were jailed for a year and half following the 2005 election. His wife and fellow journalist, Serkalem Fasil, gave birth in prison. Their publishing house is also one of the four that the government has just re-charged in order to totally annihilate the courageous journalists.
I have no moral authority to judge Ethiopian journalists and opposition leaders that fled the country to escape from intimidation and harassment. But I think Eskinder is precisely right that freedom of expression and the larger democratic struggle cannot be won if we all run away as the regime augments its authoritarianism. A senior official with links to the ruling party once told me that it’s the primary objective of the TPLF regime to drive its critics out of the country. Sarcastically, he told me that “the government would even pay hard-nosed critics to leave the country, once out of the county they would cry fool for a while to the international media, but once that dies down, we will be at peace”. Accordingly, the regime uses intimidation, harassment and threats to irritate and scare its critics. The situation would gradually escalate and the target would be told through “credible sources”, about an imminent imprisonment or a threat to his/ her life. To escape the said danger, the critic would flee the country. One enemy down for the regime!
The regime has been using these tactics since it came to power, and it seems to be working thus far. Defeating these tactics requires reversing it. That is to refuse to budge to threats or intimidation and remaining in the country no matter how difficult the situation might be. I understand it’s hypocritical to ask people to live under constant intimidation and threats, but before deciding to advocate for democratic rights within authoritarian system, one should be very clear from the outset about the dangers and prepare him/herself for the sacrifice. Journalism within the independent press and involvement in opposition politics should not be considered professions and activities that can be done while leading a normal life.
One cannot be a true and independent journalist unless he/she accepts and internalizes the dangers and risks that come with the profession under a rigid system, such as the one in Ethiopia. You cannot be an effective reformist or a human rights advocate unless you fully prepare yourself and willing to deal with the punishment that will inevitably come down from the system you aim to change. Tactics like the wise Oromo saying “Qabbanooftu harkaa, hoo’itu fal’ana” – using your hand when the food is cold and switching to the fork when it’s hot , do not work under authoritarian systems where interests and securities of the powerful are at stake.
Changing the system, winning freedom and defending human rights require a long term commitment and preparedness to suffer the consequences of advocacy. If one has such commitment and determination, no matter how long it takes and how painful the struggle may be, ultimately a willful resistance and resilience will erode the system and force it to crumble. As in most cases, the campaigner might not be around to see the end and enjoy the fruits, but the values of freedom and liberty will be victorious over the acts and forces of tyranny.
I say, welcome to the world of exile to Addis Neger journalists. I thank you for your superb service to the Ethiopian people in the last few years and your readers will truly miss your master journalism. Your departure along with the closure of Addis Neger is yet another blow to the dying press and a significant loss for democratic struggle in Ethiopia. After all, tyranny and free press hardly co-habit in harmony. One is the enemy of the other. At any cost, free press has to survive to expedite the death of tyranny that aspires to silence the whole nation.
*The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Around the Web:
Independent Newspaper Addis Neger Closes and its Editors Flee Ethiopia,International Press Institute (press release)
Ethiopian Newspaper Shuts Down, Editors Flee Voice of America
In Ethiopia, an independent voice is silenced Globe and Mail
Ethiopian editors close paper and flee guardian.co.uk