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Dawit Kebede: Ethiopian government, its own only “independent” critic

b_400_300_16777215_00_images_dawitkebede.jpgby Mohammed Ademo

On Nov. 23, 2010 when accepting the International Press Freedom Award, the editor in chief of then Ethiopia’s only dissenting newspaper, Awramba Times, Dawit Kebede told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “Unless it becomes a question of life and death, I will never be leaving Ethiopia.”

On Nov. 21, 2011 exactly a year after CPJ honored him at the Waldorf-Astoria dinner for continuing to practice under pressure, Kebede fled to join the growing number of exiled Ethiopian journalists.

Until his abrupt departure few weeks ago, Kebede was the managing editor and publisher of Awramba Times, Ethiopia's leading independent Amharic-language weekly, known for its critical analysis of local politics.

Those analyses have landed him in jail several times before. But Kebede has fought both the temptation and the pressure to quit. After all, being a journalist, he says, has been a life-long dream of the 31-year-old dissident. But a culmination of events brought his decade long career that survived torture and imprisonment to an abrupt halt, even if temporarily.

Few days before he ran for his life, Kebede says an informant from the Pardon office within the Ministry of Justice tipped him off that his 2007 conditional pardon was about to be revoked. The informant urged Kebede to leave the country within 48 hours or he’d risk another arrest.

“They are going to arrest you on Monday,” sources warned Kebede. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Kebede from the safety of his hotel room in Washington D.C. few days after he arrived. “So I called my other contacts who confirmed the plan to arrest me.”

Kebede, who is the oldest of three, was born in Adwa, coincidentally the same town Ethiopia’s Prime Minister of 21 years hails from. Kebede’s family moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, when he was three years old.

His interest in journalism dates back to childhood. “My father liked listening to the Voice of America, and German’s Deutsche Welle radio services. I would often ask questions about how they got their voices inside the machine,” Kebede recalled. “My father would say to me - don’t disturb - if you work hard, you can be like them.”

A telltale advice Kebede’s father would later regret. Growing up, Kebede replayed those words taking his father’s advice to heart. He worked hard and finished at the top of his class earning a GPA of 3.8 on his high school exit exam. Then he faced a difficult choice. His family wanted him to study medicine or law. To his father’s utter disappointment, Kebede’s heart was fixated on what was seen as a less glamorous and not so prestigious journalism profession.

Kebede’s problem was not obeying his family’s wishes. Those days, no public four-year university, which he could have attended freely, offered journalism as a stand-alone major. He had to settle for a private for profit two-year college. This entailed paying his way through the school, working part-time, when he could have just as easily gone to a publicly funded 4-year university if he had succumbed to his father’s desires.

At that point, Kebede was already writing for various newspapers as a freelancer. When he signed up for the journalism program at Unity College (now known as Unity University), he also joined the college newspaper - The Voice of Unity. At the paper, he enjoyed interviewing people and reporting about life and events at the school. But his interests were not satiated by the trite coverage of college life the paper offered.

“I approached the editors with ideas how to make the paper mainstream,” said Kebede. “They didn’t agree.” During his second year at Unity, Kebede was promoted as the newspaper’s main editor.

After graduating from Unity, he briefly worked at The Habash Journal, a health journal run by the now defunct Save Habasha Organization. When disagreement on the board led to the paper’s eventual demise, Kebede decided to establish his own independent newspaper.

First he needed a name. He went to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism seeking a name of a place, prominent enough in the country’s history but not promoted enough. “I wanted to shed light on a less known but important site,” he said. He found Hadar, the birthplace of the famous Lucy, the oldest human skeleton ever discovered.

He promptly filed the required paperwork for accreditation with Ministry of Information, and Trade. Hadar began its publication in Nov. 2004 with initial 2000 copies a week. Given its distinct coverage and analysis of the country’s politics, Hadar became popular almost over night.

“Most papers back then were run by few people and they offered little critical analysis,” Kebede recalled. “We hired reporters, freelancers and reached-out to experts to lend us their expertise.”

By 2005, leading up to the most-controversial election in the country’s history, Hadar was printing close to 65,000 copies per week. On Jun. 8, 2005, Kebede wrote an editorial criticising the government’s heavy-handed response to protesters. His editorial quoted Article 15 of the Ethiopian constitution that read, “No one shall be deprived of life except by reason of his conviction in accordance with the law for a serious crime committed by him.”

The editorial concluded, the killing of innocent-unarmed civilians on the streets of Addis Ababa was unconstitutional and the culprits must face justice. Someone in the government was listening. Kebede was immediately arrested along with eight other editors from different newspapers and scores of opposition leaders. He was first held at Maikalawi prison in solitary confinement and later transferred to Kaliti where he spent 21 months crammed inside a warehouse with over 350 other political prisoners.

“When you are held in a solitary confinement, you understand the value of human interaction,” said Kebede looking back at his darkest days at Ethiopia’s notorious gulag.

After almost two years, the prosecutor before Ethiopia’s Kangaroo court brought the Jun.8 editorial Kebede penned as incriminating evidence against him. He was offered a conditional pardon in exchange for pleading guilty to inciting violence and other trumped up charges. “After two years, you want to get out of prison,” Kebede said speaking in Amharic. “To get your freedom, sometimes one plus one becomes six.”

But Kebede was determined and undeterred. His pardon, as negotiated by panel of elders, came on Saturday setting him free. The next Monday, he was at the Ministry of Information seeking license to start working again. “They laughed at me and asked if I was serious,” recalled Kebede. They promised to check with the bureau of pardons and ministry of justice and get back to him.

For the next six months, they gave him a run-around until they finally told him; “you are black-listed for misusing your journalistic prerogatives.” The denial of license was not to keep Kebede away from practicing the profession he loved, journalism.

“There was no such thing as a ‘black-list’ and my pardon didn’t stipulate that,” said Kebede. He decided to fight their decision by going public with his ordeals, giving interviews to local papers about how he was denied a license to practice. A journalism watchdog, CPJ, came to his aide. The director of CPJ wrote to the Ethiopian Prime Minister asking to intervene.

When the pressure became insurmountable, the ministry told Kebede to bring the pardon certificate and his paper’s editorial policy. “The editorial policy is my internal guideline, why should I show it to the ministry of information?” Kebede recalled with grin.

“I needed the license so I gave them the editorial policy.” They told him he couldn't use Hadar, the name of his revered and widely popular newspaper. Kebede didn’t argue. He chose another name, this time too, with the same intention as the first one, to promote a less-known community in Northern Ethiopia called Awra Amba, an isolated yet egalitarian society where men and women’s roles are reversed - men cook, women plow, and religion has no place.

He began publishing Awramba Times with “memos from prison” narrating his time with opposition leaders in jail and the role of mediators in their release. Knowing that the newspaper was completely unknown, Kebede took time to promote it before he started publishing. He placed ads in other newspapers and hired youngsters to distribute fliers around town. Confident that his paper was widely awaited, Kebede printed 8000 copies of the first edition.

The next day, he was arrested, this time accused of posting fliers over the names of ruling party candidates running for Addis Ababa city council. “After one night, they released me with bail, ” said Kebede. But it didn’t stop there. He was constantly summoned, questioned and faced criminal complaint almost every time his paper saw publication. “I remember receiving four criminal complaints in three weeks, one for every weekly publication,” he said. But he stood his ground. Meanwhile, his perseverance was also getting noticed elsewhere.

While some in the country, including the government run Addis Zemen, questioned whether he was an undercover CIA, OLF agent, or secretly Eritrean, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists has voted to honor him. Noting his determination to stay in the country and continue practicing, even the opposition floated a notion that he maybe a TPLF agent.

CPJ’s announcement was met with immediate denunciation from the Ethiopian government because the authorities believed, “The award shouldn't come to Ethiopia, a country with ‘robust’ press freedom.” But it did anyways.

According to CPJ, Ethiopia ranks high in the list of worst jailers for journalists along with neighboring Eritrea. In recent months, Ethiopia had stepped up intimidation and imprisonment of journalists using its sweeping anti-terrorism law. Introduced in 2009, Ethiopia’s vague and broad anti-terrorism law carries a prison term of 10 to 20 years for publishing contents that the government thinks, “induce readers into acts of terrorism,” according to the Human Rights Watch.

On Dec. 21, Ethiopia’s kangaroo court convicted two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, “for rendering support to a terrorist organization”, the ONLF. “Currently, 29 Ethiopian journalists, opposition members, and others are on trial under the anti-terrorism law,” the HRW said.

For now Kebede’s and his paper, Awramba Times’, fate hangs in balance. He hopes to continue publishing, at least online. But the precedent for diaspora based Ethiopian newspapers is grim. For example, Addis Neger, once a leading paper in the country, tried to continue its publication via Addis Neger online. Their experiment didn’t get much traction. “If I decide to continue publishing, it won’t be on a part-time basis,” said Kebede who remains optimistic.

At the moment, with all independent journalists jailed, killed or exiled, the Ethiopian government remains an undisputed independent critic of itself, Kebede said.

"I'm sad that it came to this but I am optimistic about the future."

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*Ademo is a New York based freelance journalist; follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his public updates on Facebook.