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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Clash of Freedoms: Press Violations in Ethiopia and Sanctuary in the United States

August 16, 2008 (NewslettelN22) - Since 2001, more than 100 journalists have left Ethiopia. Now, amid discussion that a new media law will be another impedance to achieve press freedom, there is no sign that this trend will change.

RAP 21 interviewed prominent African news website journalist Habtamu Dugo who left Ethiopia several months ago to live in New York City. His story, unfolding alongside the new media law in his home country, is as a testimony to the hostile environment journalists in Ethiopia work in. Though since his arrival in the United States he has again raised his voice on US national radio and television shows in defence of those still in Ethiopia grappling with injustice.
RAP 21: What is the state of press freedom in Ethiopia?

Habtamu Dugo: Ever since the current Ethiopian regime ascended to power in 1991, journalists in Ethiopia have been facing tremendous threats to their lives, their professions, and to the lives of their loved ones and readers or audience. The minority Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) dominates the broadcast media, the telecommunications sector, and the whole economy of the country. Anyone not bearing ruling party cards is seen as an outsider or an enemy, making them primary targets of attacks. The venomously ethnic nature of the regime has no tolerance whatsoever for people belonging to other ethnic groups and for free expression of one’s opinion. Without linking it to the wider undemocratic and totalitarian political system that the regime has been following, it is so hard to understand the troubled Ethiopian media landscape.

For those working in the government media (TV and Radio), self-censorship and censorship imposed by politically appointed newsroom leaders, without any background in journalism or media is very, very rampant and worrisome. These unqualified newsroom leaders carry out arbitrary sacking of journalists and refer it up to the government for other harsh measures. In fact, this extends to imprisonment, torture and forced disappearances of journalists. These tactics are especially deployed on Oromo journalists from the majority group in the country. I know many senior TV/Radio/ Online journalists, who are in exile in Kenya and living in fear everyday.

Journalists are also not allowed to go into sensitive and major areas where stories are really developing. For instance, the May massacre in West Oromia State in the Western part of the country, which claimed the lives of over 400 children, men and women was not reported on. Journalists were prohibited from going into scenes of gross human rights violations such as Ogaden and Oromia. The situation is the same for foreign journalists in Ethiopia who also get harassed and detained for days or months. In the Eastern Oromia State of Ethiopia, UNICEF reports that 6 million children are threatened with starvation. The government has banned people from taking pictures and going into these areas in order to avoid its own embarrassment worldwide. This worsens the humanitarian crises as donors are blocked from getting information.

RAP 21: What is your opinion of the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Law set for the statute book?

Habtamu Dugo: The so-called new “law” is actually a resurrected version of the 1992 draft law created out of a vindictive spirit. All experts and international observers agree that the law will significantly curtail the already non-exiting press freedom in the country. As many other major laws that the EPRDF government passes, this law is primarily a response to the increasing political tensions and conflicts within Ethiopia and between Ethiopia and its neighbouring countries including Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. It was drafted out of a will to control the flow of information and news on developing crises inside and outside the country. In my view, since this law evolved from the 1992 press law and the 2003 and 2004 draft media and information laws, it is just a license to justify government assaults on media and media workers. It should also be remembered that the government is setting itself up in advance for ’victory’ in the forthcoming 2010 general elections, like what recently happened in Zimbabwe.

As many reviews of the draft laws indicate (for instance as conducted by ARTICLE 19), this old boy in a new guise was ratified, disregarding article 29 of the Ethiopian Federal Constitution and in violation of many international obligations. The law unequivocally rejects provisions of press freedom in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Ethiopia was a signatory in the 1990s. More importantly, the media and information ’law’ does not respect the will of Ethiopians.

It should send off a clear warning signal for the international community that the incumbent government and its surrogates continue to put the country at a critical crossroad. It is unconstitutional because the inception of the current law can be traced back to 1992. The Federal Constitution was enacted only in 1995, three years later. 1992 was also characterized by political dramas and tensions, where the EPRDF outlawed any major oppositions and literally squashed dissent by force.

If you would ask me, if this media and information law were a perfect law, it still would be limited to paper as EPRDF has never changed and has never implemented many high-sounding laws that it has passed, including its own Constitution. The international community must act to protect press freedom in this country by urging for political solutions. It is foolish to expect a respect for press freedom in Ethiopia where there are no solutions to the political standoff.
RAP 21: Can a set of government manoeuvres explain the high number of Ethiopian journalists who have left the country?

Habtamu Dugo: In general it is impossible to address the Ethiopia’s press standoff without first addressing the political standoffs created by the regime, which does not believe in peaceful dialogue but militancy and extremism.

Journalists are murdered, intimidated, and tortured. They receive trumped up charges such as treason and they are called ’anti people forces’ and ’anti peace and development forces’. These are often the grounds on which we are attacked. They also often receive heavy financial sanctions that force papers to shut down. Print papers and magazines, or even music cassettes are confiscated. Journalists are fired from their jobs. And when they are not, there is heavy control and surveillance on their contacts and sources. The list goes on.
RAP 21: What led you to seek refuge in the United States?

Habtamu Dugo: I have been working as a journalism educator and as an online journalist for major Horn of African news websites, including Sudan Tribune.Com and Gadaa.Com. In March this year, I was stopped on my way home in the evening in the capital city Addis Ababa because some of my articles exposed governmental abuses. Two armed men asked me to stop and they beat me with rifle buts and left me on a passage to die on the way to my home. I dragged myself in and ailed for a couple of days before deciding I should leave the country. I was going to the United States for a conference and I decided to stay there because I revealed a lot of information about the brutality of the regime and its control over information and news outlets in the country. I hid under the pen name Qeerransoo Biyyaa for years but the government discovered it. I survived that attack and a number of other ones since 2000.
RAP 21: What has your experience been like in the United States?

Habtamu Dugo: Upon my entrance to the US three months ago, people have welcomed me with a tremendous amount of warmth and I think I have met the kindest people on earth, which was beyond my expectation. I have celebrated the 4th of July here and it was spectacular. I went with my American friends to fireworks, barbecues and felt so much at home. It was a great healing process from my past persecutions in Ethiopia.

In the US, I have been given various platforms on which I discussed issues of press freedom and free speech violations in Ethiopia. I was on a radio show in Denver, Colorado. I had a few podcast interviews on crucial issues such as Internet freedom in Ethiopia, conflict and deforestation in Africa, and Chinese influence in Africa (www.ivoices.org). I appeared on Colorado KBDI public television. I have observed on several occasions that US citizens care so much about freedom expression and press freedom issues.

It was also an advantage for me as I was an English speaker and did not have to face linguistic and cultural problems. For instance, I know other exiled journalists who are treated badly in other countries like Yemen as your previous newsletter showed and are forced even to beg for food. This is totally degrading for them, whereas I have easily interacted with people and have shared my experiences with them. People said to me that ’A lot of the time we take for granted the freedoms that we have in the US and your life reminds us to cherish what we have"
The US media is also very diversified and allows plural views. One can express his political opinion freely here, without fear or facing dire consequences as I result of it. I think the US is a great nation that lives up to its name!

Last, the credit goes to the Independence Institute, a free market think tank group based in Golden, Colorado, for the interview platforms.

RAP 21: What are your general impressions of other exiled Ethiopian journalists spread across the world?

Habtamu Dugo: Most often those who are labelled as Ethiopian journalists seeking refugee status in other countries come from the Oromo people, who comprise 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population. There is no press freedom for them right now as all the print media run by Oromo journalists have been shut down and their journalists have been jailed. Their publications are confiscated and their legal personality as media companies has been scrapped. Though, once they are out of their country, these journalists face another set of challenges. Most have left their children and wives back home. They worry about them but cannot provide financially. Their status’ shift from being well-known journalists, editors, publishers, and broadcasters to being helpless and abandoned refugees. They have major psychological battles that have led some to commit suicide.

African journalists and especially the Oromo journalists are probably the most abandoned and suffering journalists both inside and outside their countries. Elsewhere, journalism is a respected profession that people want to go into, but in Ethiopia because of the high degree of risk students are avoiding the journalism departments or their parents are nervous about their children aspiring to become journalists. The situation is gloomier than what we can find in most international reports about cases of Ethiopian journalists.

While these reports are important they lack depth and the cases covered are too few because the government has also blacked out access to information.

The government is happy to see journalists leave the country and become helpless and voiceless. Moreover, most of the exiled journalists stop working towards achieving press freedom in their own country due to the widespread geographical locations they look to for sanctuary. Also they stop their work because of their low morale. I have spoken to many journalists in exile and they feel so demoralized and insignificant because they can no longer influence the political, social, and economic developments in their country.

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