Ethiopia: SOS Awramba Times and Fetehe
By Hindessa Abdul,
Two Ethiopian privately owned newspapers are on the verge of folding. Six months ago the ploy used to kill the private press was a price hike on printing costs. That evidently did not work. Now the government is trying to silence them by all means possible.
An orchestrated campaign against these newspapers spearheaded by the ailing Addis Zemen is well underway. Having gotten rid of all independent voices in the country, the ruling party is set to strike a blow on the last vestiges of free speech in a country.
Papers in question
Awramba Times whose co- deputy editor-in-chief is already in jail on terrorism charges has been a favorite subject of the ruling party propaganda machine. The paper which was established three years ago has been a market place of news and views. It has many columns that cater to the various kind of readership. Politics, health, entertainment, sports and so on. But their bold views have not been liked by the government. As a result, they have long become a subject of smear campaign by the government media, both print and electronics. Its publisher the award winning Dawit Kebede is in unenviable situation. As he was among the journalists detained following the controversial May 2005 elections and eventually released on “pardon”, ruling party henchmen like to remind him of his terms of release in every possible opportunity.
Fetehe is the other weekly that also has an online presence. The paper has managed to attract the attention of leading public intellectuals. Professor Mesfin Woldemarim, Professor Gebru Tareke, Dr Dagnachew Assefa, Asgede Gebre Selassie and the likes are some of the contributors. TPLF bigwig Sebhat Nega also penned an article in that paper. To his credit, many admired him for choosing to express his views in that manner. But the strong and uncompromising views and articles published in Fetehe seem to have created discomfort in the TPLF village. The paper already has been charged with countless offences. One of the paper’s contributor Reeyot Alemu is arrested since June on terrorism charges (duh what else!). The Fetehe web site was running a ticker “This website is blocked in Ethiopia.” That has since been removed.
The two papers jointly issued a statement about their predicament. They indicated they have been barred from getting information from government offices. They also didn’t shy away from making it clear they wouldn’t compromise their editorial policy because of the setbacks.
The campaign is led by the only Amharic daily in the country Addis Zemen. The government owned newspaper, published under the Ethiopian Press Agency, was supposed to serve all citizens regardless of their political views. That is in principle. But the paper has always wagged its tail to whoever calls the tunes at Arat Kilo.
In its latest article entitled “How long shall we tolerate violence- mongers”, Zemen was urging security forces to arrest the publisher of Awramba Times. “As the government is responsible for maintaining law and order in the country, they should take measures against the individual.” The paper lists a number of articles published in Awramba at different times. By deliberately distorting the points of the arguments in Awramba, Zemen wants to paint it as a mouthpiece of outlawed opposition groups.
The Amharic daily accuses Awramba of meddling in the affairs of court cases that are still in progress. If they haven’t heard it yet, it is the chief of the revolutionary democrats who told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten that the Swedish journalists are “messenger boys of a terrorist organization”. But Zemen cannot question the utterances of his holiness as his words are sacrosanct straight out of the Holy Scriptures.
While the Addis Zemen is spearheading the campaign, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Agency, the Government Communication Affairs Office, a ruling party supported “private” radio station and a newspaper are going out of their way to help the “cause”.
The Prime Minister in one of his incessant lectures to the 99.6% Parliament added his weight to the smear campaign this past week. Short of calling names he was sending a clear message to the two papers accusing them of calling their imprisoned colleagues innocent while the prosecutor has not even filed the charges. He said the government knows about the journalists’ link with terrorist organizations and the instructions they get from them. His threat did not stop there. He mentioned about the terms of release of some of them when they were sentenced to life in prison some years back. It was all clear who he was referring to. The PM’s enraged diatribe sounded more like a lecture on Journalism to unruly students. He accused the private media journalists of ignorance on the ABC of journalism. “They are vagabonds,” he concluded.
This strategy is not new though. Two years ago it worked for them with a popular weekly Addis Neger. Then also the preemptive strikes were begun through Addis Zemen in the form of opinions. That coupled with information about an imminent arrest forced the journalists to flee the country as they called it to “ensure the physical security”. After two years of existence, the once popular paper vanished just like that. The guys continued to replicate the paper online. While they still manage to scoop stories, the web edition is a far cry from the print version.
Where Addis Zemen at.
Addis Zemen which normally is forgotten in press circles seems to have itself forgotten what is going on outside of its premises. To attack the managing editor of Awramba Times, Zemen has to go all the way to Rwanda. Then it talks about a radio station called Radio mille francaise. Only Addis Zemen knows where that radio station existed. But if they are talking about Rwanda, it should be Radio Mille Collins (In French, which was the official language of the country before 1994, Radio Mille Collins simply meant Radio of a Thousand Hills).
Addis Zemen was established in 1941. It was called Addis Zemen (New Era) by Emperor Haile Selassie when he returned from exile after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia for five years. He called the paper New Era to indicate the country’s new beginning. The paper which has huge budget; a relatively better distribution chain that have been put in place over many years; a daily which gets all the news without even sending its reporters to gather news; experienced photographers who are even trusted by Arat Kilo for foreign travels and the likes. Seems all is going well for it. But the paper is deteriorating by each day. It is hard to get people who can read it. The only Amharic daily for a country of 80 million strong can hardly print 20,000 copies, if the managers ever talk about the paper’s circulation. If you heard the adage age ain’t nothing but a number, it bodes well with Addis Zemen!
But we should also remember that Addis Zemen defended the private press. That probably is a less known fact. One of the many ways the government used to crack down on the private press was by harassing newspaper vendors. Security forces were chasing and arresting those who carry private papers. So the vendors started to carry a couple of Addis Zemen on top of the private papers. Broad sheet as it is with its large A2 size, Zemen was doing a good job of covering the other papers. That way the police would think vendors were carrying government papers. Street vendors call the septuagenarian newspaper, a shield for lightening (Mebreq Mekelakeya). I will take consolation in remembering those sacrifices Zemen paid to defend the private papers.