I am one of many exiled Ethiopian journalists living in our neighboring country, Kenya. Although I have now lived here for more than three and a half years, I have still not found a way of continuing my freelance reporting on events in Ethiopia. I know that I am not the only one experiencing these problems. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) database, 57 journalists have fled Ethiopia since 2010, most of whom are living exiled in Kenya or western countries. Only a few have been able to continue their journalistic work, and even still under limited circumstances. Others have not been able to write articles or continuing reporting due to the unfavorable situations they are in. These difficulties inspired me to write this article in hopes of highlighting the problems.
This has, however, turned out to be more difficult than I expected. Even this article gave me a difficult experience on reporting from exile. On April 7, 2016, I posted the following message to my Facebook wall:
“[I am] writing an article on the challenges of continuing journalistic work while being in exile. Kindly, share me your experience on the comment box or just inbox me from wherever you are, it might worth telling the world what you are just going through. Thanks in Advance!”
But, I found myself grappling to find sources. Very few exiled journalists were interested in giving short comments on the matter; others chose not to answer because of personal reasons or, more pressingly, security concerns. I eventually managed to communicate with a few journalists who were willing to share their experiences of life in exile.
Fellow journalist Habtamu Siyum has been in exile since mid-2014. He mentions some of these security concerns.
– [I am] always under fear. I am not far enough from the government who forced me to be in exile. So, to report some sensitive issues or to write some bold articles, I first always check if I am safe. This makes the issues I want to write about very limited. The other point I want to raise as a disadvantage is that I spend too much time and money to verify a story or to get any document I want to use in my reports. It is not easy to get first-hand information and decisive documents, since the surveillance applied by the Ethiopian government always makes the people who want to participate in my work unreasonably suspicious.
Another exiled journalist, who has more than 20 years of reporting experience, also gives examples of security issues as a major obstacle to continued reporting.
– There is surveillance from the government intelligence bodies whenever we are actively reporting from exile. But most importantly, I fear for the safety and security of my family back home in Ethiopia, because, whenever I write some strong article from here, they face intimidations from the government security officials as a reprisal which is keeping me away from continuing my journalistic work.
Habtamu also describes being discouraged by ‘some people’ whenever he writes an article and posts it online.
– Whenever I write an article I get threats and tons of comments filled with insult, especially from the people who I believe are equipped by the Ethiopian government to discourage any reports that defy the reports by the government.
Reporting from exile affecting journalistic quality
Security concerns are not the only challenge exiled Ethiopian journalists face when trying to continue reporting on matters concerning the country and the people. The situation also affects the quality of the journalistic work. Dr. Terje Skjerdal, professor at the NLA University College in Norway, who has written many articles on Ethiopian press freedom, explains the problem to me like this:
– There are many ethical factors, and one of them is simply the challenge of doing fact-checking when not present in the country. A journalist should always try to be close to the events he/she is reporting about, and being away is a potential source of distortion.
Terje says the greatest disadvantage is obviously that the journalists are not longer closely in touch with the daily situation in Ethiopia.
– Some exiled journalists have been away for many years. I know writers in the US who have not been back to Ethiopia for almost two decades. They have not seen the massive construction revolution in Addis Ababa, for example. However, there are exiled journalists who keep in touch with their network on a daily, if not hourly basis. The Internet represents nothing less of a revolution for exiled journalists.
Habtamu shares Terje’s concerns. His words are as follows:
– To write an article that echoes the heartbeat of the people, you should be very close to the people. Also to measure the impact of an incident or scenario closely, it is better to be inside the country. But when the system is not conducive for journalists, it is not questionable that working as an exile journalist is the only alternative instead of quitting the job.
Pros and cons of reporting from exile
The exiled journalists find their own ways of facing the challenges, so that they will be able to continue reporting. Habtamu, however, has a way of trying to alleviate the information gap in his articles.
– Spending extra money for the internet and social media research, creating a safe and better way of getting information and documents, and reviewing issues that are widely reported by mainstream medias are some of the ways I usually apply to mitigate the problem.
Terje also said,
– I observe that several diaspora* journalists have excellent contacts on the ground in Ethiopia. That is one of the most important measures in order to mitigate the flaws in diaspora reporting.
According to him, there are also advantages of reporting outside of the country one has fled from. For journalists working from Ethiopia, the government’s blocking of critical websites is a major problem. The exiled journalists can, however, access these blocked sites and therefore gain a better and more sophisticated online experience. However, Terje argues that many of the exiled diaspora media sources are somehow one-sided.
– [I am] always under fear. I am not far enough from the government who forced me to be in exile.
– One of the greatest strengths is the commitment that many diaspora websites display. I have been impressed to see some of them reporting year after year on their home country despite not being back for so long. The greatest weakness of many diaspora channels is the one-sidedness that many of them display. They seem more interested in propagating one view than to invite to a fair and open debate. However, I must quickly add that the quality differs a lot. Some diaspora sites are really informational and useful even if they have an outspoken political stand, he says.
The one-sidedness is something I myself have felt about my own articles. One of the reasons for the one-sidedness is the difficulty to communicate with the bodies of the Ethiopian government. Their unwillingness to comment and their unwillingness to be available and participate is a reason that the articles might look somehow one-sided.
Terje suggests some advice on how to continue reporting from exile, even if the situation is tough:
– My advice to exiled journalists who are running a diaspora outlet is that they should take their editorial duty seriously. They should keep a critical eye on what is being published, and not simply publish something because it supports their view. Perhaps they need to actively moderate the online debate to avoid instances of mudslinging. They should not be afraid to write about political issues, but they should do so critically and constructively. Also, bringing in a cartoon or other humorous content also helps.
Having difficulties writing stories about internal issues from abroad is not the only problem for exiled Ethiopian journalists. There is also a big challenge in finding proper media outlets which could publish the stories in order to reach out to local citizens. Most of the exiled journalists publish their stories on websites, but these websites are blocked in Ethiopia. Others post their stories on social media, but that makes the readership very limited as the number of internet users in the country is extremely low. It is fair to say that it is difficult for local citizens to know what is discussed online, outside of the country. Because of this, it sometimes feels like the effort of the exiled journalists is in vain. However, the diaspora community and others are interested in reading the stories written by their fellow exiled and about their situations.
* Diaspora: People who have left their homeland and now live scattered across the globe.