T H E  G R E A T  E S C A P E

Addis Neger’s Higera

                                                                            Genenew Assefa


The over-dramatized, seemingly sudden and seemingly daring flight of Addis Neger’ s editors and their subsequent self-serving  explanations has come as a shocker to their clients and office staff alike. The disbelief with which the news is being greeted is understandable. For the story itself instantly calls to mind certain events that militate against taking any of its plots seriously. Indeed in the light of the fact that the story conjures up discrepant and countervailing memory, one can neither accept the defectors’ justifications at face value.  Nor stomach any of their pleas for public sympathy as innocent victims of state persecution. Since, first, as we all remember, it was only recently that an Addis Neger article won a first-prize award in which government-officials had a hand in picking the winner. And, that it was also at the hands of a senior state official that the writer received the award at a televised ceremony organized for the occasion.  Second, that Addis Neger was among the select news organizations accredited to the prime minister’s bimonthly press conferences: proof of absence of official malice toward the paper.   Until the last round, the paper’s reporters effectively utilized media access to the PM and the privilege to grill the man on any subject of their choosing. And, third, that it was only weeks before they announced their ‘escape’ that the editor-in-chief himself and his deputy appeared on national television bearing testimonies contrary to their present claim.  It, therefore, takes a leap of faith to credit these men’s current line as it was only a little while ago that they eloquently expressed their appreciation of the unlimited freedom they enjoyed as editors of independent media outlet.    

 It is against this background, then, that Addis Neger’s sudden topsy-turvy saga of flight and escape sounds like an episode lifted out the popular suspense-filled TV series, Prison Break.  Perhaps after the first sneak preview, as it were, these journalists may have become aware that their story needs beefing up.  That is why they are using embellishments and concurrently issuing alarmist warnings through successive media interviews. We are told that their flight could be an augury of the final demise of serious journalism, possibly even of the free press as we know it in Ethiopia today. To their chagrin, nevertheless, the gaps in their hastily scripted story(s) of dramatic escape from near-fatal encounter appear to be unpalatable.  Even to the empty-headed Diaspora politicos that thrive on news of disaster, the editors’ story does not seem to add up.  Much less to their domestic audiences who are aware of the length young reporters go to impress Western immigration and asylum officers. Thus, it is not surprising that these journalists had readied a long list of prefabricated allegations against the government in anticipation that it might come handy after their flight. The list could grow even longer if found inadequate in terms of achieving the desired goal of indicting the state as an enemy of the free press. In the meantime, however, it is useful to focus on their three main allegations.  Zeroing on the most serious claims which these parvenu pundits of Addis Neger think would do most damage to the EPRDF has advantage. For by such a breakdown, it would be easier to indicate possible lines of rebuttal and cast serious doubt on the truth-content of their spurious allegations.    

 Allegation I) As those who followed the VOA interviews would recall, these journalists claimed to have been subjected to a threatening telephone call involving the highest security official of the country. But, according to their testimony, this threat occurred a year ago.  If so, it is hard to understand how it could have been a weighty factor in their recent decision to close shop and flee.  Had the government been as ruthless as they currently pent it to be, one would have thought that they would have fled the very next day they received the call. Knowing the power of the office from which they claim the threat came, it is surprising that they waited as long as they did to sneak out the country.  There might be one explanation for the long delay. Up until the last minute, these men may have had full confidence in the Ethiopian constitution that protects all individuals against threats or abuses of public officials.  But why, if at all, did they change their minds after all this time. Well, according to the story, all Addis Neger’s journalists felt that, despite the constitution, the government was tightening its noose around them. As their story goes, increased security telephone threats against their informants as well as persons that visited their office reached a threshold beyond which they could no longer endure.  Hence, as hunted men, they claim that they had no choice but to leave their homeland in haste.   No doubt the Ethiopian intelligence service is pretty efficient. But it is difficult to imagine how it could know the phone numbers of Addis Neger’s secret informants that leak inside scoops under complete secrecy. Or, for that matter, of the many unanimous persons’ that randomly went in and out of the paper’s office.   One has to be helplessly credulous to accept this story at least in the way it is told by the defectors.  In any event, since recently the intelligence service has pointed out that it has more serious work to do than to focus its energies on innocuous news organizations -- the less said about this matter here is the better. But one can’t help, in this regard, recalling the story of the aging American political- activist of the 1960s.  Who, in a moment of boastful mood to blow his own horn, insisted to be shown what the FBI had on him in its secrete files of serious revolutionaries that posed potential  threat. Based on the newly decreed Information Act, the man had to be given access to his file. Unfortunately, the slim one–page document only said that the man was a ‘Weakling, perhaps more dangerous to himself than to the capitalist order.’ The parallel of this story with what the Ethiopian security service said about Addis Neger may have a humbling effect on the editors who apparently take themselves too seriously.           

 Allegation II. The last straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, in terms of forcing Addis Neger’s editors to flee, is their claim to have been tipped with vital information of grave implications.  So, they claim that they took off just before being summoned to answer to charges of violations pertaining to the country’s anti-terrorist law.   Let us leave aside that these journalist forget that they left the country through an officially monitored port of exit and entry.  Long before, in fact, they decided --- after the fact that is—to justify their self-imposed exile on grounds of government media crackdown. Their claim, therefore, about escaping in the nick of time before being railroaded as terrorist group only underscores their inflated self-perception and shallow understanding of the laws in Ethiopia. For, charges of violation of the said law, or any other law for that matter, can only be brought against any suspect after formal arrest, interrogation and arraignment.   Addis Neger’s editors were neither arrested nor interrogated.   There could not, therefore, have been any secrete conspiracy to put them on trial on violation of the anti- terrorist law.  Nor could they have been charged on violation of any law in Ethiopia for mere publication and distribution of written material critical of the government. Besides, had there been a secret machination underway to level any serious charge against Addis Neger’s editors, their mere flight would not have been cause to drop the case.  As elsewhere, in Ethiopia suspects of a serious crime can be tried in abstentia. Witness the case of Mengistu Hilemraim,  Birhane Mewa, Andargachew Tsege and Birhanu Nega. No doubt, Addis Neger may have been favorable towards Ginbot 7 leaders. But not even Ginbot 7’s affiliates that are currently being tried on charges of attempt to overturn the government by violence are prosecuted on the basis the anti-terrorist law.

 The timing also amplifies Addis Neger’s manifestly paranoid and hysterical story of threats and escape. As well known, presently the most important development in Ethiopia is the signing of an election code of conduct. The crucial provisions of this code commit all signatory parties to be tolerant of divergent and contrary views.  Thus, at this juncture the ruling party and almost all opposition parties that endorsed the code are preoccupied with raising public awareness on this internationally accepted election code of conduct.  Granted, the code will not be effective before the commencement of the electioneering campaigning which is around May 2010. Nevertheless, as we are a few months away from this date, it is difficult to believe that the EPRDF would embark on a policy of muzzling the press. If the ruling party is as shrewd as the opposition and the private press thinks it is, it won’t begin clamping down on the media at this juncture when everyone is on the lookout for signs of breach the election code. Such action is not only unconstitutional. But even counterproductive as it is bound to diminish confidence in the upcoming election process before it even begun.   Again, if the EPRDF is as half cunning as its detractors portrays it to be, it will not undermine its own current effort to ensure that the next election is peaceful, democratic and acceptable to the Ethiopian people.                   

Allegation III) The supporting evidence for the allegation that the government was planning to prosecute Addis Neger’s editors on tramped up charges is perhaps the most ludicrous.  It rests on a claim that the ruling party launched an intimidating media campaign against Addis Neger. According to the argument, the media campaign was intended to psychologically desensitize the public and lessen the outcry when the government comes after the paper’s editors.  Admittedly a few articles have appeared in the main state Amharic daily --  Addis Zemen -- that took Addis Neger to task.  Surely, if the government had any secret intention of pressing charges against the defectors, it would certainly not resort to scare tactics, particularly through state media.  For the damage to the case it was allegedly building against them would have outweighed whatever benefit that may have possibly accrued from such a negative media campaign.   It is, therefore, more probable that these articles were written by private individuals that felt that somebody had to speak out against the lack of impartiality in Addis Neger’s political coverage.  Be that as it may, let us say that these biting articles that Addis Neger complains about were indeed commissioned by a government official. One would think that these journalists would appreciate criticism of words as a challenge that would bring out the best in them to sharpen their arguments in the process of advancing whatever cause they sought to champion. After all, one of the main purposes of a free press is to serve the public as an outlet for exchanging ideas. Including as a platform where advocates of competing political lines conduct polemics against each other. Thus, there is no reason why anybody has to panic and flee the country just because a few critical write-ups appeared in a government media. Besides, Addis Nger’s editors know well that that government has made it policy to selectively respond in writing against baseless allegations that tarnish the country’s image.  Recall, for instance, its recent publication that contains   a case-by-case rebuttal of Human Right Watch’s negative report on Ethiopia.  The idea behind this publication was not to incarcerate Human Right Watch researchers the day they set foot in Ethiopia. The same policy was applied in the case of International Crisis Group that put out an ideologically-motivated report denouncing the Ethiopian Federal arrangement.   At the local level too, Addis Zemen and the Ethiopian Herald had recently run several articles criticizing the private weekly the Reporter for its lose-tongued diatribes against the government and its development partners’.  But the Reporter continues to function unperturbed by any fear of legal prosecution though there is enough ground to do so given its routine violation of the provisions of the press law.   

Thus, one can only conclude from the forgoing discussion that all in all, none of Addis Neger’s   main reasons are compelling enough to justify their self-exile or sufficiently strong to warrant their litany of allegation against the government.  But their action reminds us what the late philosopher Gellner said when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.   Baffled and bewildered   that no one came to the system’s defense, he said something along this line: --- All these years we engaged in ideological struggle against communism out of respect and belief that its adherents and practitioners had genuine conviction in its principles.   Perhaps the same applies to the Addis Neger circle. Those who wrote against them may have done so out of some degree of respect that these journalists may have had some level of conviction in their work. Sufficient, at least, to withstand criticism conducted even through government media.  Had it been known that these characters were the kind that would abandon ship at the first adverse- encounter, they would have been treated with kids’ glove.

 In fact, one indicator that these journalists may have been driven by a different motive other than, as they say, government harassment is the recent writings of the most influential figure among them, Abiy Teklemariam .  On December 8, he posted a long article from London with full of raving praise to Birtukan Mideksa.  Nevertheless, the   accolades he uses are so laden with palpable libidinous overtones that it would not only make Birtukan blush with embarrassment. But also suggests that something else is at work behind the manifest urge the writer feels to put ‘the lady’ (as he refers to Birtukan) on a pedestal. One need not be a student of Freudian psychoanalysis to infer this much when one writes about an otherwise grim subject as Ethiopian politics and political figures in the following evocatively sensual manner. ‘She met me just outside of the house where I parked my car and led me to her room. She was dressed ordinarily; tight jeans and blue linen shirt. No make-up. Her hair was pulled back tightly, and her high cheek bones and soft facial features were fully exposed. Her eyes were wet and lined in re. “Sleepless nights?” I asked her. She proffered an inscrutable smile in response… She directed me to her bed and said, ‘You can sit there if you don’t mind, or I will ask them to bring a stool’. She sat on the opposite end of the bed.’’   In this age of heightened sense of feminism, some women, at any rate in the United State, could interpret the language the writer uses to praise Birtukan as a case of gendered patronization, bordering on essentializing her as an erogenous object of fantasy. At any rate, in another paragraph Abiy says : One evening, I watched here talk to a group of young activists from her party at their office…. Her clear, distinctive voice flowed at a consistent volume with varying pitch; her hands sliced angular patches through the air. There was no prepared text, rather of a politician who was living her life on a dramatic scale.  It is not clear what ‘a politician living her life on a dramatic scale’ means. Perhaps, given what happened subsequently, the writer may have meant to say ‘ a politician living dangerously.’ At any rate, ‘a stream of passionate, flowery words gushing from the lips and heart’ is not exactly a compliment that helps Birtukan’s public acceptance rating.  For a politician that employs flowery words, particularly when addressing a small circle of young activists implies that he/she is bereft of substance.  And, in our case, it is flowery words spoken with passion and ‘slicing angular patches’ that gets many young activists in trouble.  Indeed, as in the 70s, we have witnessed how in the 2005 election passion-filled flowery rhetoric enticed many youth to immerse in confrontational outbursts only to suffer heavily.   The point here is not to dwell on this matter, but to show how the Addis Neger circle is enamored to opposition figures.   In fact, the manner with  which Birtukan is portrayed in the rest of the article  reminds one of how communist parties, notably in Korea and China, used to laud their leaders as  men  endowed with attributes of infallibility.   Apparently, at present Birtukan’s great merit is serving time.  If tomorrow she is released on a second pardon plea, she will, of course, forfeit the pride of place she has among Ethiopian journalists as she has been disowned by most of her comrades. Recall how Ledetu was also lionized as Ethiopia’s Mandela – though the time he spent in jail was not quite as long as the South African giant. Witness too how Hailu Shawel, the former president of the CUD, is being depicted today, particularly by the Diaspora crackpot opposition in London and Washington. At any rate, a telling passage in the article under discussion that unequivocally tells us the defining political impulse that had Addis Neger going is the following.           

   Over the past 15 years, Ethiopians have become accustomed to politico-criminal arrests and trials. Journalists accused of threatening the national security of the country, opposition politicians put in trial for treason and attempted genocide, regime-opponent artists jailed for crimes petty and serious, and government officials charged of corruption-coincidentally, most of them after they started raising their voices against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Obviously, ‘Over the past 15 years’ means, ever since the EPRDF came to power. In other words, according to our Addis Neger writer, before 15 years ago Ethiopians were unfamiliar and unaccustomed to political arrest. But one day Meles Zenawi showed up. And, Low and Behold! political arrests reached routine levels that the Ethiopian people became accustomed to such occurrences. On account of his age this Addis Neger journalist could have been pardoned for such a preposterous statement. That, on the one hand, constitutes an affront to those who lived through the red terror years and, on the other, an insult to the intelligence of the Ethiopian people. Pardoned, therefore, he can never be. If nothing else, he cannot escape moral indictment for his sheer audacity to pose as an editor of a private newspaper that boasts of impartial reporting. And, worse still, that claims to suffer persecution on account telling the ‘truth’ that ‘Over the past 15 years, Ethiopians have become accustomed to politico-criminal arrests and trials.’’   This is not all.  There is more that exposes the defectors’ story of persecution and threats of persecution as a white lie. And that the real reason for their flight has nothing to do with press crackdown. In a response to a question posed to him by a reporter regarding what has to improve before the Addis Neger circle could return to Ethiopia, Abiy stressed how such a possibility depends on a lot of things, including:

 How the election process could go, the protection afforded to the press, the release of political detainees like Birtukan. I would also have to examine in-depth the post-2005 laws that narrow democratic space. May be this may require a change of government: Because there is no reason to believe that the EPRDF would change or reform:  The political order force people into exile.

There it is. Readers will readily notice that this response is short in details that specifically pertain to Addis Neger. But long in general and big issues of the kind that opposition political parties raise. For instance, there is no demand for dropping the charges that the government was ostensibly preparing against Addis Neger.  Nor is there any mention of cessation of intimidating media campaign and secret police harassment against the paper’s reporters and informants.  One would have thought that these concerns would appear at the top of Addis Neger’s list of preconditions for returning to Ethiopia. Apparently what Addis Neger is aiming at is change of government and not minor reforms such as termination of police harassment of the private media.

In an important sense, it is a blessing in disguise that Addis Neger ‘s editors are now openly talking about the need for change of government. For a long time the paper’s true political color was daftly concealed from the public. By a cleaver veneer of format and presentation that had all the trappings of professional journalism, Addis Neger had succeeded in appearing as broadsheet devoid of any bias towards the government.  There is no question that it was by far savvier  than most of the now defunct weeklies that for years echoed the Derge’s political line in the crudest and vulgar manner with utter disregard to even  elementary and basic conventions of journalism.  By contrast, thanks to its editors who brought their college education to the publication, Addis Neger had a flare and sophistication.  Its news coverage and analysis of events impressed readers as balanced, fact-based without any mindless over-exaggeration or naked advocacy of a particular political point of view. Admittedly, it was a refreshing departure from the stale print media that bore the public to death. Unlike its predecessors, Addis Neger avoided circulating nightmarish fabrications and routine apocalyptic forecasts of doom. As the editors were careful to employ palatable language in their criticism of the government, the paper struck many as a positive addition by the standards of our infantile private media culture.

 However, after everything is said and done, Addis Neger’s editors share one fundament feature with the rest of the private media community in Ethiopia. Their primary commitment was to politics than to the development of a vibrant free press.  The palpable common denominator among them was dogged determination to use media not for the purpose of criticizing the shortcomings of government with the intention of generating reform, change or improvement: But to undermine the political order in the name presenting to the public dissenting opinion. No doubt Addis Neger’s approach was more nuanced but not less insidious.  Contrary to its counterparts, it was not fixated on cheap propaganda that invariably relied on conspiracy theory. In contrast, Addis Neger’s de-legitimization scheme targeted selective areas generally perceived as the government’s strongest side. It is at the main pillars of the government’s source of strength and legitimacy that Addis Neger targeted its broadside couched in crafty editorials and feature articles that appeared to readers as shining examples of investigative journalism.   As readers will recall, the paper’s had made it its specialty to cast doubt on policy outcomes that otherwise are widely-accepted as the government’s undeniable achievements. Its standard procedure is invoking the authority of real or otherwise anonymous experts, specialists or professionals. For instance, recall how Addis Neger reacted when it sensed that the public would rally behind the government’s efforts to address the country’s increasing power demand. Citing an anonymous water-engineer, the paper downplayed the government’s bold and gigantic hydro-power construction projects as a sad case of resource mismanagement. Again, when the IMF and World Bank finally begun to issue reports conceding the efficiency of the government’s rural development policy, our editors were manifestly distraught. They chose to give greater coverage to food shortages in pockets rural areas with full-size pictures of famished women. They captioned these cover- pictures of hungry people as   victims of the state’s small-holding agriculture policy.

 Conversely, as recently as a few weeks past,    Addis Neger blasted a new government initiative aimed at attracting mid-eastern investment in the area of commercial agriculture in selected conducive geographic zones.  The article dismissed the policy as an unpatriotic act that can only be interpreted as disregard for indigenous businessmen. To cut a long story short, in all big policy matters that promise to give this country a big push in its war against underdevelopment, Addis Neger role has been nothing but negative.  Like many of those that bear visceral hatred to the political order, Addis Neger would like to see the country’s development endeavors fail than succeed. As such an outcome would inevitably bolster the EPRDF government’s legitimacy.  Addis Neger would probably resume publication from abroad and continue to do more of the same. As it does, its main focus would no doubt be on the upcoming election. For, as Meles has recently argued, the foreign media blitz around Addis Neger’s flight is the first installment in the coordinated effort to paint a distinctly negative picture of Ethiopia to tarnish the 2010 national elections.  Witness, Addis Neger’s solicited statement released by IPA. The director said “ The flight of the journalists at this time reinforces concerns over the government’s desire to silence critical journalism ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections and it is hard not to see a link between these two events.’  This negative speculation, based as it is, on credulous willingness to accept one side of the story not only makes many lose respect to the IPA director.  But also leads one to speculate whether this director would have had the same level of arrogance to spew such irresponsible comment had the matter involved a non-African country. At any rate, the whole hoopla surrounding Addis Neger’s flight bears out Meles’ incisive reading that there is more flak to come as the election date approaches.

December 17 2009.