Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of Ethiopian newspaper, the Awramba Times, speaks to Ron Singer about the perils of working in the media – from his arrest by the government to his struggle to get a license for a new paper – and his disappointment with US academics’ failure to support Ethiopian democracy.
Dawit Kebede (b. 1980) is editor-in-chief of the Awramba Times, a weekly newspaper in Amharic which has the second-largest circulation of any Ethiopian paper, and which is also the sole remaining dissident print newspaper inside the country. Kebede is the recipient of a 2010 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Dawit met me at my hotel, The Jerusalem, during the evening of 25 January 25 2011. I never visited his workplace, but, according to a recent video, Awramba’s ‘office‘ is a hole in the wall; the toilet, literally a hole in the floor. His staff of 12, poorly paid, some part-time, are said to perform a ‘labor of love.’
Dawit seemed very happy to talk and was very forthcoming, although his story was, to some extent, a litany of misfortune. We spoke for almost two hours. Highlights of the interview include his attitude toward the law and the detailed story of his 2005 arrest, his release 21 months later, conditional pardon, and long struggle to get a license for a new paper. Also noteworthy is his impassioned complaint against the US government and American academic ‘experts’ for their failure to support Ethiopian democracy. Kebede represents the younger generation of Ethiopian dissident journalists, so his story complements that of his older compatriot, Eskinder Nega.
JOURNALISM AND THE LAW
RON SINGER: How has the government been treating you lately?
DAWIT KEBEDE: They are not happy, especially after the announcement of the [CPJ"> award.
[He had just spent the day in the Ethiopian High Court filing a libel suit against the state-owned Addis Zemen, which wrote that the award proved he was an American agent, and was thus guilty of high treason.">
RON SINGER: ‘American agent!?’ Nonsense! You think everyone in the US even likes the CPJ?
DAWIT KEBEDE: Narrow-minded arrogance! When Addis Neger ceased publication [in November 2009">, the same accusation was against Awramba and them, that we were trying to subvert the constitutional system. Two or three times a week, they wrote against us. They might call that ‘freedom of expression,’ but criminalisation is a different thing. We wrote a response many times, but they couldn’t stop, so we took them to Court. Of course, this will not be an ultimate solution because you know how independent the Court is! The Civil Service College from which almost all judges graduate is an EPRDF [ruling party"> college. Even judges from other, private colleges are called for government training, and they have to be party members to be judges or prosecutors.
RON SINGER: Then why did you go to Court today?
DAWIT KEBEDE: Even though the result is already known, we have chosen to exercise our right based on their system. Doing this testifies that we respect the laws of the nation. It shows them we are not against those institutions.
RON SINGER: But who’s going to know about that except for people like Mohamed [Keita, of the CPJ">? Does he know you did this today?
DAWIT KEBEDE: I emailed him yesterday. Friday, they wrote that we were supporting opposition groups based in Eritrea. But in reality, our article said that it [using Eritrea as a base"> was not a good way to bring democracy to Ethiopia, because the Eritrean government violates basic human rights and uses these groups for their own benefit. So Eritrean-based opposition groups could not bring real change to Ethiopia. They said we were supporting these groups. Groups like the Oromo Liberation Front. Supporting such groups is high treason.
RON SINGER: Do you have a lawyer?
DAWIT KEBEDE: Yes. The Anti-Terrorism Law is a historic mistake.
THE 2005 ELECTIONS AND THEIR AFTERMATH
DAWIT KEBEDE: My first newspaper was called Hadar. That is our word for the first known human, Lucy. It means ‘Origin.’ My uncle was a businessman, importer-exporter, Aregawi Tsegay. I asked him to start a newspaper. He said, ‘Okay.’ My uncle was not political, a businessman. But he was not happy with what was going on here, so he was a full supporter of this independent newspaper.
We started Hadar in November 2004. Unfortunately, after the third issue, in February 2005, he passed away of bronchitis, something like that. He was 45. But I had been managing everything when he was alive. He was sick for two months. He allocated the capital to carry on.
Hadar was critical of Meles [Zenawi">. In the aftermath of the elections, I wrote an article asking why people were being killed in the streets of Addis for peacefully protesting. Article 15 of the Constitution says no one can lose their lives unless they commit a capital crime and a certain court sentences him to death. In 2005, the government also prosecuted thousands of opposition supporters and senior leaders. I was one of the fifteen editors arrested. The charges were high treason and genocide.
RON SINGER: Geno-suicide.
DAWIT KEBEDE: And subverting the constitutional system. On 1 November 2005, the Government shut down Hadar. I was put in prison, in Addis, 350 people in one hallway. Finally, in July, 2007, we signed a document for a presidential pardon. Twenty-one months like that. You have no choice but to sign. A conditional pardon, the government can revoke it anytime. We all signed the same things. The only difference was the name and the signature. I said I’m fully responsible for all the violence, all those killings. Sometimes, to get your freedom, one and one is six.
RON SINGER: After that, why didn’t you stop and run away?
DAWIT KEBEDE: Running away, I would not be satisfied. When CPJ asked for three things about me, the first is that I cannot live without the position I have now. The second is that I don’t want to run away unless it’s a question of life and death. The third is that I’m not an opposition [figure">, I’m a journalist. I would never hesitate to criticise the regime – whatever the regime – for the betterment of my nation.
Two days after my release, I went to the newspaper organisation (i.e. government) and said, ‘Okay, I’m here, and I want to reorganise my newspaper.’ Everybody was laughing. ‘Are you serious? We closed this newspaper. Okay, put your name here, we’ll call you.’ Clerks, not high-up people.
After six months, I went and asked, ‘Where is my case?’ ‘Okay, I think officials of the Ministry of Justice should comment about it, we sent the file there.’ Or sometimes, ‘Okay, our boss should see it and say something. Don’t bother, we’ll call you. ‘ And finally they called me and told me it was not allowed because officials are not happy. I said, ‘I got out by signing a pardon. That pardon allows me to exercise my democratic, constitutional rights. What’s the reason?’ ‘Our boss did not offer a reason, he told us to tell you that this is simply not allowed.’
I informed CPJ and other international rights groups. CPJ executive director Joel Simon wrote a letter to our prime minister, repeating that my pardon included the right to exercise constitutional and democratic rights, so Meles should use his administrative authority to grant this license. Four or five days later, the official who had denied the license called and said, ‘Do you have the pardon certificate? Can you bring it with a photocopy and a statement of editorial policy? ‘ I asked, ‘Why do you want to see our editorial policy? That belongs to our staff.’ He said, ‘That’s mandatory.’
I don’t know why he wanted it. As a matter pf principle, I did not want to give it to them, it’s an independent newspaper. But I brought it, and the pardon certificate signed by the president. Then, they said, ‘As it is your constitutional right, we are going to grant you a license.’ So they granted it, and I said ‘Thank you,’ and got out of that office! So Awramba started because they clearly told me that I could not operate my previous newspaper. It was blacklisted. I had to organise another publishing company and give it another name. The name didn’t matter; the principle, the policy, was the same.
A COMPLAINT ABOUT THE US
DAWIT KEBEDE: This government is one of the largest recipients of US military assistance, to fight terrorism in the Horn of Africa. This money comes from the American taxpayers, and it’s used to terrorise Ethiopia’s own people. That’s immoral. And big professors like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs support Meles. When I met William Easterly of New York University, he asked me about those guys. Those guys are living in a democratic society, the US but they are witnessing the good side of our government. It’s painful seeing their freedom when they don’t care about freedom here.
RON SINGER: And they’re very influential.
DAWIT KEBEDE: I know how prominent they are!
RON SINGER: Are they ignorant, or do they have some agenda that makes them pretend?
DAWIT KEBEDE: I don't have a moral ground to libel those high-ranking professors ‘ignorant,’ but if you asked me the reason for their adherence, only God knows their reason.
RON SINGER: Is it the same old argument, that we need all the friends we can get in this sensitive area, the Horn of Africa? That was the argument about Haile Selassie when the Russians were our enemies. We had spy satellites in Asmara, and when we put them in space, we didn’t need him anymore. Maybe, when we defeat Al Qaeda, we won’t need Meles anymore. Not anytime soon! People don’t pay enough attention to conditions on the ground.
DAWIT KEBEDE: Attention to detail. In the aftermath of 2005, nearly 800 people were killed in Addis, the capital, for peaceful protests. The Ethiopian army did that, using American vehicles, Humvees, given to this government for anti-terrorism activity in Somalia or somewhere.
RON SINGER: That’s one main purpose of my book, to get people to pay attention. Well, thank you very much.
DAWIT KEBEDE: I enjoyed talking with you.
The government’s going after Dawit Kebede for trying to subvert the Constitution is ironic, since he is a strict legalist. Government press attacks of his article about Ethiopian opposition groups that operate from Eritrea implicitly point to Ethiopia’s alarmingly broad Anti-Terrorism law, which extends even to mentioning outlawed groups by name. Kebede’s article also implicitly endorses widespread criticism of the weak, flawed opposition. The recent turn toward bellicosity in official Ethiopian policy toward Eritrea may explain why the Government chose to attack Kebede for this article.
His account of how he went about regaining his press license in 2007 also underlines his respect for law. But this respect is at least partly tactical. As he says, he ‘testifies,’ which is a way to expose the flaws in Ethiopia’s legal system. However, to a more extreme dissident, Eskinder Nega, this tactic compromises Kebede’s effectiveness.
Like many others to whom I spoke in both Ethiopia and Kenya, Dawit Kebede seems to idealise American democracy. Even his specific criticisms imply that the US remains a beacon for democratic activists. Understandably, perhaps, the needs of beleaguered Ethiopian journalists may partly blind them to the serious failings of their model.
* This interview with Dawit Kebede will be incorporated into a chapter about the press in Ethiopia in Ron Singer’s forthcoming book, ‘Uhuru Revisited’ (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.