Taking Chances: An Interview with Tsedale Lemma
Tsedale Lemma is editor and co-founder of Addis Standard Magazine, an English publication that reports on domestic and foreign sociopolitical and socioeconomic current affairs impacting Ethiopia. As a critical publication that challenges the official narrative put forth by Ethiopia’s authorities, they occupy a risky position in a country that persecutes its dissenting voices.
- This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
- Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.
In Ethiopia, more than a dozen journalists have been imprisoned under the 2009 anti-terrorism law. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Ethiopian Constitution, but under the anti-terrorism law, dissent is a criminal act. Ethiopia, which ranks #142 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders, is the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Chalachew Tadesse interviewed Lemma about the issues covered in the magazine and how a publication navigates the risks of being a critical voice in a country intolerant to press freedom.
The Addis Standard has given wide coverage to the three-month long Oromo protests against the government’s Addis Ababa “master plan.” Have you ever faced threats, intimidation or harassment from the regime due to your reporting?
Covering the Oromo protests was and is not an easy task both for us and for many journalists on the ground. For us, it was risky for two unrelated reasons: On the one hand, we experienced difficulty because the government security agents deployed to control the protests are not interested in the publicity of the widespread brutal crackdown the authorities employed against the protesters. On the other hand, we faced a huge challenge in earning the trust of the Oromo people who are at the center of the protest. On several occasions, the people at the center of the story couldn’t come forward to tell us their stories even when we managed to travel to some places where the protests were taking place.
Their trepidation is not without a reason. First, the media, including ours, has not earned the trust from potential sources because we were not at the forefront of telling stories of the different dynamics that often happen within the Oromo nation. For example, the media watched silently as the disproportionally epic injustices were committed against Oromo farmers even in and around the capital Addis Ababa. So, in some cases, although rare, we have even become accomplices to the commission of the injustice. Second, because of widespread state-led surveillances that made the people trust no one, securing telephone interviews in areas where our physical presence was curtailed was nearly impossible. It is one thing for the people to trust journalists from well-established international media such as the Voice of America (VOA). It is quite another thing to trust a domestic phone call that claims to be a call from a journalist who had not established that source-journalist confidentiality before.
Being an English monthly publication in circulation for five years now, which section of the population is Addis Standard’s audience? Do you reach a significant portion of Ethiopian readers?
I do believe we have a significant portion of readership constituency, particularly among students, academicians, the foreign community in Ethiopia and a large section of the Ethiopian Diaspora.
Many observers contend that journalism in Ethiopia is still in its infancy stage, with some publications resorting to rumor mongering rather than objective and credible reporting. How do you respond to that?
These allegations do not exist in a vacuum. Although the current government gave independent/private media a small share of leverage to flex itself, the industry has remained disturbingly underdeveloped. Part of the reason for that is due to the various risks associated with being independent media and private journalists. Besides, the manpower from prospective journalists, who would have otherwise helped the industry grow, decide to depart from the field as early as possible because journalism is not a safe job.
Why did you choose English as your language of publication, given that English is not widely-used in Ethiopia?
From the editorial point of view, by the time the Addis Standard launched its publication Addis Ababa — being the third or fourth most important Embassy city in the world — had no other print magazine in English with a broad coverage of both domestic and international affairs. From the political point of view, having seen the chance of survival of Amharic newspapers and magazines, English was the safest bet to stay in the market. Although conditions for independent media have improved in the last 25 years, paradoxically the government has been the major predator against independent media, particularly against those published in local languages.
Since 1991, official state censorship on the press has been forbidden. Yet there are frequent allegations of censorship or legal and political and administrative restrictions. Are these allegations true? If so, can you tell us the forms of censorship your Addis Standard passes through?
Now, there is no official censorship in Ethiopia. This has been the case since the coming to power of the current regime. The biggest censorship is therefore self-censorship, which is the worst form of censorship by itself. And although it can hardly be categorized as censorship, there are limitations in the form of finances as advertisers often opt to withdraw from contractual agreements for fear of “being associated” with critical publications such as Addis Standard.
Since Addis Standard is an English language publication in print and web forms, I believe you reach most of the foreign diplomatic community in the capital of Addis Ababa. Do you think you have successfully shared your message? And what kind of feedback have you received?
Yes, I do believe Addis Standard has successfully established itself as the most trustworthy magazine and was able to join, in just five years, what is traditionally known as “the mainstream media.” There has been so much encouraging feedback; but there are also several “discouraging” criticism. But as someone in the media, I know that journalism is not work one does to please some, displease many or vice versa. To that end, I take both feedback as opportunities our readers are using to talk back to us.
Is there a government narrative that you want to challenge and portray a counter-narrative to Ethiopians and the outside world?
The core value of Addis Standard is not to run a state conformist narrative. It is there to challenge and become the flip side of the disproportionally overwhelming state-led narrative to which Ethiopians and people who follow Ethiopia are exposed. For almost every state-driven narrative, Addis Standard provides the other side of the story. This is because at Addis Standard we believe in telling the stories that our readership constituency would not otherwise be exposed to by the overpowering narrative coming out of the media that are either state-owned, or are affiliated to the government.
As a journalist, how do you evaluate the effects of the Anti-Terrorism Law on your reporting in particular and press freedom in general?
The effects of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, not only on media known to be the critic of the system but also on any form of dissent, are crippling. As we speak, we are witnessing the long arms of the government that is exceedingly reaching the limits of crushing dissent using the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation without reproach. Oromo protesters who protested against a master plan that the government itself later ruled was unlawful are facing terrorism charges. In our prisons, we have journalists serving lengthy terms after being convicted of terrorism charges. The effect of the proclamation on the media is chilling.
How do you measure the impact your magazine is making on its audience?
There are several barometers that a media employs to measure its influences. E-mail feedbacks and social media presence is one of them. You might notice that Addis Standard’s Twitter page, for example, is followed by more people than several well-established “mainstream” media in Ethiopia. We also know that our Twitter community is not only consuming the information we put out there but also using it for several purposes. This is despite the language demand by the vast majority of our Ethiopian readership who sincerely, and rightly, wish the magazine to be published in local languages including in Afaan Oromo and in Amharic. Based on that, at Addis Standard we know that what we are doing is not only impacting our readership constituency, but also influencing a great many and setting the agenda for narratives that do not exist in other “mainstream” media.
One of Addis Standard‘s February editorials wrote: “Ethiopia should stop killing its own citizens.” Did you have credible evidence to make the serious allegation that the security forces were using lethal and excessive force to kill innocent civilians?
If you have read that editorial, it was not only denouncing the excessive use of violence by the state against innocent civilians during the recent Oromo protests, which, unlike other times, have been well documented thanks to citizens’ engagement in the social media, but also goes back to reckon the multiple times (including 1994, 1998, 2001, 2005, and 2014) as examples in which the government security apparatus have killed innocent civilians during protests. The government itself has admitted on several occasions, including the 2005 brutal crackdown that killed around 200 civilians, that civilians have been victimized by government’s security. This is out for everyone to see, unless one has a different understanding of “credible evidence.”
How do you explain the challenges of objective reporting during elections, high-profile court cases, ethnic violence or government violent crackdowns on protests under the climate of limited press freedom?
Maintaining objectivity is not an easy exercise in journalism and the challenges are multiple. But despite that, it is the one thing Addis Standard is not willing to compromise. If we have to drop on a story because there are not enough data or evidences, so be it. And there are several stories worth telling, particularly on high level corruption cases, that we simply forego because we often hit a dead end in our effort to collect credible data.
In December 2015, the government announced that the country’s independent journalists established an independent Ethiopian Media Council that could safeguard the interests of the independent media. Yet there are still allegations that the government stage-managed the council’s establishment. What is your opinion on this? And, is your magazine Addis Standard a member of the Council?
The council is still in its infant stage, and although, regrettably Addis Standard was not fortunate enough to participate in the process of the making of the council. It is something whose presence I am cautiously optimistic about.
Reports indicate that independent journalists and even foreign correspondents face frequent restrictions in covering court proceedings including trials of journalists, opposition politicians and activists. How true are these accusations? If true, to whom and how do journalists appeal to reverse such restrictions and how do officials explain it to journalists?
Covering court cases is indeed difficult not only for technical reasons. For example if journalists manage to get into court rooms, the trial proceedings are often inaudible, opening the door for inaccurate reporting wide open. It is also difficult because high profile cases, such as the ongoing trial of Bekele Gerba and the 22 Oromo Federalist Congress co-defendants, have the likelihood of happening in closed court rooms. That poses a great challenge for journalists to access information as needed.
Do writers fear contributing articles to independent publications, including yours?
Some of our regular contributors are not immune from the fear and terror we as journalists feel for publishing a given story. There is a vicious cycle of fear and uncertainty. There is nothing I can do because I know that I am not able to provide them with the protection they need to freely publish their article. So sometimes, I have to decide to let go several wonderful ideas for lack of having contributors who can freely reflect upon them.
In 2014, many publications were shut down and journalists were exiled. Some journalists are still in prison. The case of Zone 9 bloggers has been taken to court again after they were freed last year. How do you explain the state of affairs in regard to press freedom since the last press crackdown?
As I said above, unlike our GDP, independent and investigative media in Ethiopia is not an industry that is experiencing a robust growth. The reasons are several, but the government’s heavy-handed approach outweighs any reason that you can think of.
In your recent interview with the BBC a few weeks ago, you said you were living in a “perpetual twilight zone of taking chances.” Can you elaborate on it?
I was referring to the working condition in which I operate without having the guarantee on whether or not I survive the stories I publish. So, with every publication of every article, I don’t look for a guarantee to my safety or to the safety of the great, dedicated team working with me – because there is none. I simply take my chances.
What is your greatest fear as the Addis Standard’s editor-in-chief?
Fear is not in the vocabulary of a person who takes chances to work. Normally, the greatest fear of a person in my position would be the fear of losing the publication you treasure so dearly and ending up jailed. But I simply don’t like to give fear a chance to take the better me because them I would end up doing nothing.