Mesfin Negash: “We shouldn’t give the dictators what they want, which is our silence at home and abroad.”
Mesfin Negash calls himself a journalist and refuses to be tagged political, activist, or opponent. Since 2001 he has written and edited in-depth analysis, interviews, features, and essays that have criticized Ethiopia’s government as well as its opposition. In 2007 along with five colleagues, he founded the newspaper Addis Neger (New Affairs), which under his direction grew to be one of Ethiopia’s leading newspapers.
Two years after its opening, Addis Neger, as any other independent media outlet in Ethiopia, faced intimidation and harassment as a consequence of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. This law criminalizes any reporting that directly or indirectly “encourages” or provides “moral support” to “terrorist groups.” It has become the biggest threat for the country’s journalists as the government deems what is “encouraging” and labels what a “terrorist group” is.
Despite the law, Addis Neger maintained its policy of covering all the actors of its society, including the opposition, and scrutinized official documents of the ruling party and policies. That was the tipping point for the government to charge the Addis Neger staff with terrorism and force them into exile. Negash was officially charged by the government for “terrorism, treason, and espionage” in early November with another twenty-three defendants, six of them journalists.
Negash was recommended to Sampsonia Way by the staff of Committee to Protect Journalists. Now living in exile in Sweden, and after several technical problems with Skype, he talked with us about the effect of the anti-terrorism law on Ethiopian journalism, the law’s hand in the exile of Addis Neger’s staff, and denies the validity of the government’s charges against him. Negash also talked about his difficulties living and publishing in exile, and analyzes the Wikileaks cables that exposed his colleague to persecution.
Why did you decide it was time to leave Ethiopia?
Because we, the three founding editors that were still living in the country (Girma Tesfaw, Masresha Mamo and myself), confirmed that the government was preparing to charge us for promoting terrorism and supporting terrorist organizations. The government had a grudge against us and they decided to do something to silence us before the election in May 2010. We had very credible sources within the government and the diplomatic community for this information.
Before we decided to leave, the government tried to take us to court and started a smear campaign against our newspaper so that the public would associate us with so-called “terrorist organizations.” There were a series of articles and programs on government media outlets designed to sensitize the public so that when they finally arrested us it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
Can you give me an example of something that Addis Neger published that the government was not pleased with?
It was a cumulative effect, not a single article, that put us in danger. Addis Neger was more analytical than the other media outlets. We didn’t use the tabloid style of reporting. We wrote in-depth analysis, interviews and so on. Our paper focused on hardcore national issues.
We questioned the constitutionality of the laws approved by parliament that worked to weaken independent voices; the illegitimate, but calculated, confusion between party and government structures; the abuse of government policies and resources for personal and party benefit; the repression of independent political parties, citizen societies, journalists, and human rights activists. We also focused on diplomatic relations, given the fact that Ethiopia has a strategic importance for both the west and the east, including China.
We wrote heavily about the economic impact of these policies and diplomatic relations on the public and the education system. These topics were our main focus, contrary to most Ethiopian papers. We were very honest! We tried to give credit to the government when it performed something positive, but in most cases the articles were very damaging for them.
Even though the newspaper was critical of the ruling party, we were also courageous and balanced enough to give a regular column to one active member of the party. We gave him a full page every week to write whatever he liked, supporting or justifying his party and criticizing the opposition, et cetera. He was a regular contributor since the launch of our paper. Addis Neger was the first independent newspaper to bring in a member of the ruling party as a regular contributor. Because we were committed to have the ruling party’s view for the benefit of our readers, when the first contributor stopped writing we found another party member to write the column.
Another point of focus at Addis Neger was covering the most significant opposition groups at home and abroad. This includes the opposition coalition forum MEDREK and its members, Ginbot 7 and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), two of the organizations designated as terrorist by the government…
The major political opposition parties in Ethiopia.
Right. The leader of Ginbot 7, Dr. Berhanu Nega, is now in exile in the United States. We wrote a feature about his organization. To the government, we were promoting them, but we hadn’t endorsed them. Actually, we have every right to write whatever we like—it’s normal in any civilized nation for a newspaper to endorse this party or that party on its editorial page. We didn’t do that, we only covered them. We were even critical of Ginbot 7 in some of those editorials. That didn’t protect us from being associated with a “terrorist” organization and the allegations of promoting “terrorists.” The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the OLF were other groups deemed off-limits by the government. We published stories about all of these organizations, but I never considered it a crime.
We also reported on the repression and systematic infiltration of labor unions, professional associations, NGOs, and the indoctrination of students and civil servants—something that was only common in former Soviet Bloc countries. We focused on how the ruling TPLF [Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front] manipulates ethnic politics at the cost of Ethiopian nationalism. Of course, we also had a number of very critical articles against the opposition. It is there, anyone can read that.
The other very important topic, which aggravated relations with the government and our newspaper, is that we began to expose the inherent totalitarian nature of the regime. In most cases they wanted to cover it up with rhetoric. We uncovered their old documents—that in most cases are not accessible to the public—to understand how they see Ethiopian politics, society, and history. It was surprising, even for us. It became definitive that the Prime Minister and the cronies around him are not in power to bring democracy to Ethiopia. This became a kind of second-revelation for the opposition later on, and made the government very angry.
Another concern of the government was the symbolic significance of Addis Neger and its staff. Addis Neger created a solid readership among many educated young Ethiopians. The elite from different sections of society became our regular readers, informants, and supporters. We were only one embodiment of the demand for true political reform. There were readers who started regular group discussions inspired by our writings. There were incidents where members of the ruling party questioned their leaders based on what they read in our newspaper. In short, Addis Neger began to inspire people to think, discuss, debate and demand change in different forms. To be honest, this has never been our goal in doing journalism, but I am proud of it. What better gift can you give than inspiration? So the government decided to do something with us.
“We hear how Gaddafi was a dictator, how Mugabe is a dictator. The Ethiopian regime, in some instances, is worse than them!”
How you were able to get out of Ethiopia? Who helped you and where did you go? How about your family?
I can only say that I was in Uganda before I came to Sweden because that is already in public domain. I had people facilitate my safe exit from Ethiopia and travel to Uganda. I must keep their names for now. My wife and mother are still in Ethiopia.
How was your stay in Uganda before you ended up in Sweden?
During my stay in Uganda I was imprisoned and harassed by the police. It was no safer for me in Uganda than it was in Ethiopia. Since the July 2010 terrorist attack in Kampala, the situation has become very difficult for Ethiopians. At the time the Ugandans had invited the Ethiopian government into the investigation of that attack and Ethiopian security agents were in full force in Uganda. It became very simple for the Ethiopian forces to arrest, and in some cases torture, Ethiopian refugees in Uganda under the guise of “investigation” and combating “terrorism.”
IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development in the Horn of Africa] had also signed regional conventions on extradition and mutual legal assistance in line with the United Nations’ Global Terrorism Strategy. This means Uganda and Ethiopia now exchange criminals and terrorists. Given Ethiopia’s track record of charging journalists as terrorists, it was very likely that I would be sent back to Ethiopia once I was in Uganda. I was taken in many times and questioned, but none of the questions were about the July terrorist attack. The questions were about whether or not I was working as a journalist in Uganda and who gave me permission to do so. The Ugandan Law of Refugees prohibits refugees from participating in any “political activity” that affects their county of origin. The police told me during the “interrogation” that my activity as a journalist can be considered unlawful and I should stop it or face the consequences. The Ugandan police force is very corrupt and since that second arrest I was repeatedly harassed by police. There was no choice but to give them a bribe so that I didn’t have to spend the night in the police station.
Uganda was not a safe place for me to stay and continue to work as a journalist. I gave notification about these worrisome developments to the United Nations High Commission for refugees and other regulating bodies in Kampala, but they couldn’t help me in any meaningful way. When I had the chance to come to Sweden to attend an international conference on exiled media, I decided to ask for asylum here.
Does Sweden have a system in place for refugees seeking asylum? Is the Swedish community supportive of writers in your position?
So far my asylum case is not yet finalized. I have been waiting for one year. The paradox of the situation is that the Swedish government issued the first statement against the closing of Addis Neger and the editorial staff going into exile, and called for an investigation. The reality, I found after I came here, is disappointing. I cannot apply to bring my family here until my application is approved. They have put me in a remote village far from the nearest city or the capital where many Ethiopians are living. I haven’t found any system here that treats writers, journalists, and human rights activists in any different manner than other refugees. I think greater support from the Swedish community for writers and journalists only happens once you are granted asylum.
However, Swedish chapters of PEN International and RSF wrote letters of support. International and regional organizations such CPJ, HRW, IPI, Front Line, IREX and others also wrote me letters and have given me moral support since I came here.
The authorities here don’t understand the reality in Ethiopia. Either they are indifferent to the plight of Ethiopians or they are deceived by the propaganda, willingly or not. The arrest of two Swedish journalists, rather, shows them a glimpse into the true nature of the Ethiopian government’s regard for journalists and freedom of speech.
Is it possible to publish in Ethiopia while in exile?
We launched our website, www.addisnegeronline.com in May 2010 just before the election in Ethiopia. I am still writing and managing the website along with my colleagues who are in exile all over the world. We are determined not to give what the Ethiopian government wants most from us, which is our silence at home and abroad.
Despite our effort to make it a vibrant media outlet, the website was blocked in Ethiopia, and we have gotten very little support so far. Additionally, the repression at home has a direct bearing on our day-to-day journalistic activity. Our informants at home are afraid because the government is tapping phones and hacking email accounts. This constitutes some of the evidence used to charge the Ethiopian journalists who have been imprisoned recently – we have official reports indicating this.
These days it is very difficult to call someone in Ethiopia and talk freely; they are very afraid! They will say, “We are fine, we are fine. How are you? Ok, goodnight.” You can imagine the effect of these factors on our reporting from exile. We need help so that we can establish a vibrant independent media outlet that will inform Ethiopians and provide anyone abroad with credible information.
As you mentioned, the trial of Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye began several weeks ago. They were arrested in July and charged with terrorism. They entered Ethiopia illegally through the eastern Ogaden region. Prime Minister Zenawi spoke to a Norwegian newspaper recently, condemning the men as messengers for a terrorist organization. What is your response to the arrest of these men and to Zenawi’s comments?
They entered the country illegally, according to government reports. Entering a country illegally is illegal, no matter the country. The region of Ogaden is closed to all independent journalists, whether they are Ethiopian or not. However, we don’t know which side of the border they were on when they were arrested, whether it was in Somalia or Ethiopia. The journalists admitted that they crossed the border without permit, but it is difficult for me to buy this admission at face value. We must wait for their release to hear their side of the story.
This is another international incident that shows the world the true nature of the Ethiopian regime in Addis Ababa. The regime is manipulating this anti-terrorism mantra to silence dissident voices and reporting.
As for Meles Zenawi’s comment, it is normal for Ethiopians to hear such incriminating comments from him. It is Zenawi who decides the outcome of any politically significant trial in Ethiopia. This was not the first time he has done it, not the last for sure. He is above the courts and rule of law.
Swedish Journalists have rallied to demand the release of their colleagues. Did you participate in that demonstration? Have you been active with the Swedish media in any other way?
I attended the demonstration and added my voice there, demanding their release. I also worked with electronic and print journalists, explaining the reality on the ground in Ethiopia and the possible scenarios involving the fates of Persson and Schibbye.
In June, Woubeshet Taye, the deputy editor of the Amharic-language weekly Awramba Times, and Reyot Alemu, a reporter for the Amharic-language weekly Fitih, were arrested and tried under the anti-terrorism law. Eskinder Neger and Sileshi Hagos were arrested in September. Others were held: Haileyesus Worku, the editor of the state-owned Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency and one of his reporters, Abdulsemed Mohammed, were just released after being held for fifteen months. How can an Ethiopian reporter cover the activities of Ethiopia’s leading opposition figure, Berhanu Nega, or an attack by the ONLF rebels without risking prosecution and imprisonment?
I’d like to explain the intonation of the articles and the anti-terrorism law, regarding freedom of speech. In addition to the official mantra of controlling and preventing terrorism, another sub-text of this anti-terrorism law is silencing dissenting views.
By criminalizing opposition groups, they are also criminalizing any exchange of ideas about these groups. It is a double trap. On the one hand they are criminalizing being a member of said groups and their existence; on the other hand, you can’t even discuss what these organizations stand for, whether their political strategy is bad or not. This is one of the instruments that the government is using to control the flow of information within the country. If an Ethiopian reporter writes about Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, or its leaders, he is intentionally taking the risk of being associated with these organizations.
These are Cold War Communist tactics or tactics similar to those used by North Korea. They want to have full control over what the public hears and sees, and ultimately thinks. This is not limited to the media. The government, for example, distributed a guideline for public theaters to influence the content of their plays. The guideline specifically outlines what issues the plays should focus on. We published a feature story regarding this typically communist strategy.
We hear how Gaddafi was a dictator, how Mugabe is a dictator. The Ethiopian regime, in some instances, is worse than them! However, the Ethiopian dictator has one unique quality: He knows what the international community wants to hear and he uses their language. Furthermore, he must be pleased to have a stateless Somalia next door, as the West has become dependent on him to wage the so called “war on terrorism.” They close their eyes to everything happening on the ground.
In September a colleague of yours, Argaw Arshine, fled Ethiopia after Wikileaks released a 2009 U.S. Embassy post that indicated him and an unnamed government official of providing information to the staff at your paper. This incident is what propelled you to close Addis Neger and leave Ethiopia. Have you had contact with him since he left Ethiopia and if so, where is he now?
I do have information about Arshines’ present condition, but I must keep it to myself. It is complicated.
When this information was released Arshine was repeatedly interrogated and forced by police to name his contact in the government. The government claims that questioning of this kind is illegal and he had no reason to flee, but clearly he felt some imminent threat or he wouldn’t have left the country. Is he safe?
He is very safe in an undisclosed location. While still in Ethiopia, he was summoned by the commander of the federal police and was given twenty-four hours to release the name of his government informant. If he had released that person’s name, that person would be in great danger. The government would be very harsh on them to teach a lesson to other potential whistle blowers.
If Arshine had stayed in Ethiopia and refused to give the name, he would have been charged with spying on the government, which is a sentence of potentially ten years or more, not to mention the possibility of being tortured.
Wikileaks has gone on the defense and feigned responsibility for leaking Argaw Ashine’s name. They want the focus to be put back on the repressive Zenawi regime. This has spurred a debate about Wikileaks’ responsibility versus people’s right to information and government transparency. Do you think Wikileaks should be held accountable for failing to protect the names of individuals?
I believe both sides should take their share of the responsibility. The regime in Ethiopia wants to control every source of information. What matters for the government is not whether the report is true or not, but who leaked it.
Wikileaks wants to transfer the blame to The Guardian or the nature of the regime in Ethiopia. No, not at all! One can argue that, in this case, Ashine was acting as a whistle blower, not as a journalist. Therefore Wikileaks is exposing whistle blowers, which is very dangerous; it’s very easy to prosecute whistle blowers in many countries. Thus it is very regrettable that Wikileaks published the cable without editing Ashine’s name. He left his family, his life, his career in Ethiopia and had to start over from zero. He didn’t even have enough time to prepare. After Wikileaks published the cables, Ashine had to be out of the country within a week. After two days he was summoned by the federal police, interrogated, and given an ultimatum. I wonder how the people at Wikileaks can excuse themselves so easily.
We are hoping for a positive outcome for you and your family, and the continuation of your writing.
Thank you. As I said before, we shouldn’t give the dictators what they want, which is our silence whether at home or abroad. Therefore, I will continue writing and inspiring people as much as possible.