The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Exiled Ethiopian Journalist Betre Yacob
The Freedom Chat is a new video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.
In the Freedom Chat Transcripts, we share the entire interview with our subjects, including material not included in the video.
Ethiopia’s governmental corruption and persecution of journalists has been the subject of much international media coverage. Currently holding the 143rd position of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, the Ethiopian government is cracking down on journalists and members of opposing political parties in anticipation of the upcoming May 2015 elections. Video communication software such as Skype has been outlawed, and the government monitors Internet communications such that online privacy is nonexistent. The condition of free speech in Ethiopia is dire, with journalists consistently being threatened, harassed, and imprisoned for their writings.
Editorial intern Emily Durham spoke with Betre Yacob, an Ethiopian journalist and the former president of the government-disbanded Ethiopian Journalists Forum. Betre Yacob is currently fleeing government persecution for publishing articles exposing human rights conditions and corruption. He is the author of Nipo, Nipo Tu, a collection of nonfiction short stories, biographies, and investigative articles about the untold socio-economical situations in developing countries like Ethiopia. The phrase “Nipo, Nipo Tu” is Swahili for “I’m here, I’m here, I’m alive,” and was chosen to convey the message, “Life is worth living everywhere, worth fighting for, despite everything.” In this interview, Betre Yacob explains the current conditions concerning freedom of expression in Ethiopia: conditions which have forced him into exile.
Can you describe the current free press conditions in Ethiopia?
It’s a very challenging time in Ethiopia. Journalism is now almost a crime. Writing, expressing your views, writing about the current political and economic situations of the country is all very challenging. It costs you a lot. Especially when you write about sensitive issues like human rights, or the economic situation or politics, you face harassment, you may face jail. Many journalists have left the country—I am only one of them. I suffered because of my profession, like other journalists. I have tasted the wrath of the Ethiopian government. Journalists are not assisted by legal frameworks—it’s not just what government officials are doing, but also what legal documents in Ethiopia are intentionally orchestrated to allow the region to act against journalists. So it is one of the most challenging times in Ethiopian history for press, media, and journalists. Almost the entire free press has collapsed.
What do you believe are the most heavily censored topics in Ethiopia currently and why do you think this is?
There are some issues which are more sensitive than others. The human rights situation of the country is one of these sensitive issues. Corruption is another sensitive issue. The human rights situation in Ethiopia is worsening every day. So many atrocities are committed throughout the country. For example, if you go to the eastern part of the Somali region, there are people who are subjected to harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture, and unlawful killing. These issues are risky for journalists. Many journalists can’t say whatever they want on such issues. You can’t speak out freely.
What were the conditions under which you were forced to leave Ethiopia?
Since 2012, I have been under government surveillance, and I have been experiencing severe pressure from the government. I was told I would be killed if I continued writing. I was harassed several times. I had formed an association with my friends and was working to change social problems and fight for my rights and freedoms. In 2014, I was listed as a terrorist by government-owned medias, including Addis Zemen Newsaper. It’s quite stressful when you’re accused by a giant government media as a terrorist. I was accused of working for outlawed groups, opposition groups, human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and Article 19 to elicit violence in Ethiopia, to overthrow the current government. I was contacted directly from a higher government official that I would be jailed. I was trying to tolerate all these things. But finally, I was in Angola at a meeting organized by the African Union—I was there representing my association—and there was a serious crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, and my association was one of the targets. So, there were two reasons for my leaving: one, because of my activities as a journalist, because the government didn’t want me to keep writing and exposing the situation in Ethiopia, and two, because of my activities as president of an association working for the rights of journalists. When I was in Angola, the government was investigating all the leadership of the associations. My house was searched by policemen. It was clear that the government was waiting for me, so I didn’t have the option to go back to my country. It was my plan to go back, but I finally decided to leave my country.
Now, the crime is not only writing, but working for the rights of journalists. You cannot write, and you cannot ask for your rights to write. And everyone—not only journalists, but everyone—should have the right to form an association. The government should respect the rights of journalists, and should be responsible for protecting the rights of journalists.
Do you know any journalists who have been sent back to Ethiopia?
No, I don’t know any journalists extradited to Ethiopia, but there are journalists severely beaten and attacked in exile in neighboring countries by Ethiopian government security agents. There are, however, political activists and politicians who have been taken back to Ethiopia. For example, some months ago, one of the known political figures/human rights activists named Andargachew Tsige was arrested in Yemen by Yemeni security agents and extradited to Ethiopia. And there have been others taken back from Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti. We can see the case of Mr. Okello Ochalla, who is now suffering in the notorious Maekalawi prison in Addis Ababa after being taken from south Sudan. In 2010 and 2012, many political refugees were reportedly returned to Ethiopia unlawfully. The situation of political refugees in neighboring countries is grave. These people are under the protection of the United Nations, but they are being taken back to Ethiopia to face execution.
What topics did you write about that caused problems?
Well, I write mostly on the human rights situation of the country. Of course, sometimes I write on other social aspects, but mostly I write about human rights, and this was one of the reasons for my flee. But it was my job in Ethiopia, journalism, to collect information and express my views.
The current Ethiopian constitution currently guarantees freedom of press, mass media, and expression without censorship. Are there specific laws that go against the constitution that restrict free speech even though it’s supposedly guaranteed?
Yeah, this is one of the complex issues in Ethiopia. Our constitution allows everyone the right to express his view. But the problem is that the country has other legal frameworks, like the Anti-Terrorism Law [2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation], which has been used against journalists who dissent. This particular law totally prevents journalists, writers, and bloggers from exercising their rights which have been granted by the constitution. Expressing your views can be seen as a terrorist act according to the Anti-Terrorism Law. The current constitution in Ethiopia has been paralyzed in recent years due to this type of intentionally orchestrated legislation.
Human rights advocate Professor Mesfin Woldemariam once divided the population of Ethiopia into “those in prison, those who were in prison, and those who will be in prison.” Can you respond to this in terms of the recent crackdown on journalists and bloggers?
He’s right. The situation can be explained in his terms. As I told you, writing and expressing your views is now almost a crime in Ethiopia. Many journalists are now in jail. Many others are also waiting to be jailed, and one day they will join their colleagues. And then sometimes they self-censor. You can’t say whatever you want, whatever comes to your mind. You can’t speak out freely. People operating as journalists and writers, writing and working in Ethiopia, are not exercising the provision for self-censorship. This is the bitter reality in Ethiopia. I tried to change this reality by establishing an association with my colleagues.
Have you ever censored yourself in your own writing?
Yes, yes. It’s sometimes very challenging to figure out what you are censoring. Because you are always in the midst of government pressure, when you write sometimes you try to take sensitive issues out unintentionally. So yes, there have been some times when I’ve self-censored. I tried many times not to do this. But I remember some occasions I intentionally censored myself. I remember when I nixed some issues from my list; I didn’t touch them at all. I was afraid of touching those issues because I knew exactly what they would do in response.
Do you write about any of those issues now that you’re not in Ethiopia?
Well, now I am abroad, but my current situation is not very safe. Still I am at risk in the place where I’m living. The Ethiopian government secret agents and officials are still operating here. For the time, I’m not writing anything, but when I get to safe places, I will keep writing on those issues.
What branch of the government is responsible for enforcing censorship? Who are the censors and how do they work?
Almost all the government bodies are working in collaboration to silence journalists, bloggers, and writers, but I can mention one particular example. The Ethiopian Communication Affairs Office is one of the biggest organizations serving the Ethiopian government to silence journalists. This organization monitors what newspapers and magazines are talking about, all the basic issues in publications and other contents which are distributed online. Every time there is a sensitive issue, they always respond. They communicate with the security apparatus of the regime, they harass you, and anytime they want, they arrest you. Of course there is also one section of the government which is called the INSA [Information Network Security Agency], which monitors the online activities of Ethiopians. This organization is very good with the current technologies, and they are working to identify who is doing what, where. They know everything you are publishing, where you are publishing, and all your other online private communications. But this government organizations is really working in collaboration with other government organizations to control and manage the views and opinions circulating in Ethiopia.
There have been several allegations recently that some high-profile human rights organizations such as the Ethiopian National Journalists Union and the National Election Board of Ethiopia are actually just fronts for the ruling government which wishes to oppress human rights in Ethiopia. Can you respond to this?
Yes, I have seen it practically. For example, we established a journalists’ association with almost forty journalists in order to work for the rights of journalists and media personnel. But one of the challenges came from journalists’ associations operating in the name of journalists. These associations were acting in cooperation with government officials in order to stop us from implementing our plans. So yes, there are organizations and associations which were established to promote freedom and the rights of people, but practically are working for the government. Some of these organizations are journalists’ associations. At this time, there are journalists’ associations, but as you know journalists are fleeing the country, and many others have been jailed. And these associations aren’t saying anything; instead they are justifying the government crackdown. In the case of our association, these associations were even calling for action against us, trying to stop us from struggling for the rights of journalists and press freedom. There are frequent raids by these associations, and the government allows it. It just shows that there are human rights organizations operating in Ethiopia, but when we go deeper we see that, practically, they are working for the government.
What are the biggest problems you’ve faced?
As I told you, there are frequent harassments. I was accused of being a terrorist by different government-owned medias, and I was told that they would kill me unless I stopped my activities. And so I was living under frustration, I was asking myself what would be my destiny… My private life was really sad. My relationships with my wife, my family, my friends were not good because of such frustration. So I eventually fled.
Are you concerned that the Ethiopian government is still monitoring your activities now?
Yes, of course. I am still under government surveillance. After I left the country, security officials were asking about my whereabouts and related information. I am now talking to you after having some discussions with my colleagues about our deteriorating security situations. Some days ago an article was published by pro-government media, and I’m sure that it was written by government officials. It says that I have to be arrested and extradited to Ethiopia to be convicted. The article says this clearly. In the past few weeks, a report and a video were published by Human Rights Watch. There was also a program aired by the BBC that features me and my colleagues. And I think the government is disappointed by these activities. But I didn’t do anything wrong. I just tried to illustrate what is actually happening in Ethiopia.
Do you have any last thoughts to share?
Yes, I do have to say something very important. You now understand the problem faced by journalists is not only getting harassed, jailed, and tortured, but also the deprivation of so many rights established by the constitution. We don’t even have the right to get together and establish an association. I want to say that the Western governments should look into this problem and address it. There should be some immediate and practical action from the West. They are promoting democracy around the world, they are working for a world where the rule of law is guaranteed. So if they are truly concerned about democracy and about the rights of people, about the rights of journalists, about freedom, then they should contribute to fix what is happening in Ethiopia. It was not my wish to leave my country. I want to be with my family, I want to do my job freely. I want to have a stronger association which works for my rights and the rights of all writers and journalists, and I want to see peace in Ethiopia.