Dawit Solomon, exiled journalist: “I feel like I am losing everything, including my name”

1st November 2015  By Fasil Girma
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ይህን ጽሑፍ በአማርኛ እዚህ ያገኙታል።

Sewalem Taye, 24 years old, is an Ethiopian exiled journalist living in the neighboring country of Kenya. It has been nine months since he escaped his homeland and began a new life. In Ethiopia, he was forced to flee during his career as a media professional. After five years of facing multi-faceted challenges, he could no longer manage working under the repression.

– The Ethiopian government looks after each and every vibrant private press and silences them systematically. There is no free flow of information in the country, Sewalem says.

Sewalem began his career as a journalist in a famous newspaper called Fiteh, meaning “justice”. In August 2012, Fiteh printed an article about the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – a month before the government’s official announcement of his death. The authorities of the Ethiopian government and ruling party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) set more than 35,000 of these copies of Fiteh on fire before they could be distributed. This marked the end of the newspaper. October 2014, almost three years after Fiteh’s closure, its managing editor Temesgen Desalegn was sentenced to three years in prison on defamation charges. He is now serving his sentence.

Just because of my articles I was beaten up, arrested different times, given many kinds of warnings, and was forced to stop doing my job.

After the closing of Fiteh, Sewalem and his colleagues started publishing three other papers. When the EPRDF closed one, they started another one. This, however, was no simple task. Sewalem and his staff members sacrificed a lot during this period.

– Surveillance by the government security authorities on us was a day to day experience. It was clearly visible. Phone calls and texts with warnings to stop our activities were common. We got beaten up by unknown persons who obviously were security authorities. My friends and I had to stop by in the notorious detention center, Meakelawi, for two and three nights once in a while. There was a swarm of politically motivated prosecutions opening against us by the public prosecutor, Sewalem says.

Dawit Solomon, 38 years old, is also living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife and two children. He was in the media business in Ethiopia for more than ten years, and like Sewalem, lives in fear of prosecution and arrest if he goes back home. Explaining the major challenges of working in the press, Dawit says:

– There is a lack of professionalism in the field of media in Ethiopia. The government brought in to force strange laws like the Anti-Terrorism proclamation, which is intended to intimidate free press and freedom of expression. Different small groups with different interests affect the press negatively. Rich people, government officials and the police directly interfere in the media for their own interests.

– Just because of my articles I was beaten up, arrested different times, given many kinds of warnings, and was forced to stop doing my job.

 

Lack of Press Freedom in Ethiopia

Along with Sewalem and Dawit, there are more than 30 exiled Ethiopian journalists and publishers living in Kenya. Most of them came to Nairobi from Addis Ababa in 2014. It was during this time the elections were approaching, and the current Ethiopian government intensified the pressure against the private press. Their aim was to silence any critical voice so the ruling party could win the election for the fifth time.

According to a recent report by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ethiopia is among the top four of the most censored countries in the world. The report states that “as Ethiopia prepared for its May 2015 elections, the state systematically cracked down on the country’s remaining independent publications through the arrests of journalists and intimidation of printing and distribution companies.”

Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 world Press Freedom Index by the Reporters without Borders. The index is an annual ranking of countries’ press freedom records, reflecting the degree of freedom of news organizations, journalists, bloggers and others in each country. The countries in the bottom of the list does not perform well regarding press freedom. The report states that “The Ethiopian government stepped up its persecution of journalists in 2014. Physical and verbal threats, arbitrary criminal proceedings and jail sentences were all used to silence the media in the run-up to the elections scheduled for May 2015. It seemed to work. More than six newspapers closed in 2014 and Reporters without Borders registered more than 30 cases of journalists fleeing abroad. Ethiopia nonetheless continues to be one of Africa’s leading recipients of international aid.”

The election was completed on May 24, 2015. According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia’s (NEBE) announcement, the ruling party, EPRDF, and its allied parties won 100% of all the 547 parliamentary seats – without a single representative member of any opposing party.  The ruling party formed a “new” government cabinet consisting of most of the previously ruling officials.

 

Journalists in Kenya Continues Facing Difficult Challenges

Just behind Syria, Ethiopia has the highest number of exiled journalists in the world, many of them living in Kenya or western countries. Even after running away from unjust arrest and prosecution, the journalists living in Kenya continue to face other difficult challenges.

Many of these exiled still face significant security threats from both the Kenyan police as well as Ethiopian intelligence officers, whose presence is extensive in Kenyas’ Ethiopian communities. The Kenyan police harass these exiled journalists for not having the proper documents to move around freely in Nairobi. The lives and freedom of these refugees are highly restricted as they are forced to stay indoors both day and night.

Twenty-eight year-old exiled journalist, Tesfaye Gosaye (his name is changed due to security reasons), recounts the challenges he has met as an exiled in Kenya:

– I came with my wife and a three-year-old daughter six months ago. I have a language barrier and I am in a completely different cultural society from where I am used to be. My daughter is not able to communicate with any of the kids here at all, as she only speaks Amharic. No one here is speaking any similar language. She misses her friends back in Addis Ababa and keeps asking me and my wife to take her back to her friends. I cannot even afford to send her to school. Moving around freely in the town is impossible.

On one occasion, Tesfaye had to sell his and his wife’s marriage rings to pay for house rent as there is no steady income to cover his family’s expenses in exile.

I believe in miracles and I hope that with the help of some kind of external or internal force, there has to come a change.

Almost all of the exiled journalists in Kenya are undergoing an United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) procedure to be resettled in a third country, most likely to the USA or European countries. However, each situation and individual presented to the UNHCR is taken on a case-by-case basis and it is unpredictable how long it will take to finally be resettled.

In spite of the rough and unending legal battles, the biggest challenge for Dawit’s life in exile is feelings of anguish for everything he left behind.

– I miss my country. Not just the topography, but all that my country has. I feel like a fish out of the sea. I feel like I am losing everything, including my name. When I was registered here at the UNHCR, they gave me a case number; just a number. I used to have a name back home. My dream was in Ethiopia, I am a citizen. Now, I am losing everything.

– There are many friends of mine, fellow journalists, who are still paying sacrifices in Ethiopia for the good of the press. Many of the journalists are arrested. I regret and feel ashamed that I left them behind and run away out of the country in fear for my life.

Sewalem has similar feelings as Dawit.

– I had no plan to leave; it was a last minute decision. At first, I was just concerned about being able to come out of the country and escape any possible arrest. Then I started feeling betrayal to my profession and my fellow friends, who are still there; some in prison, others under tough situation of possible arrest.

Despite the difficult situations these journalists are living in, they are trying to help each other out whenever someone encounters some kind of struggle. They contribute when someone wants to have a wedding or when someone needs help to pay rent. They help each other to adapt to the life of refugees. They also assist one another to get in touch with key persons and organizations for support.

The exiled in Kenya are facing new and difficult challenges, but there are still overwhelming concerns regarding the overall situation of the press and freedom of expression in Ethiopia.

– One cannot just hope for good out of nothing. There has to be some base to hope for some positive change. I have seen nothing on the ground to hope for change in Ethiopia regarding freedom of the press. However, I believe in miracles and I hope that with the help of some kind of external or internal force, there has to come a change, Dawit says.

 




Fasil Girma
Fasil Girma is an Ethiopian media professional and press freedom advocate. Fasil has more than six years of work experience on both public and private media in Ethiopia. He is currently living in exile in Nairobi, Kenya while freelancing for different media outlets, and advocating for press freedom and the release of imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia.







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