By Zerihun Tesfaye / CPJ Guest Blogger
It was well past mid-day in Eastleigh, a shanty district on the east side of Nairobi, Kenya. The billows of dust rising from the rock-scarred road showed a government that had long lost interest in the neighborhood. A young man, struggling with horribly dry conditions, was fighting with his patrons. “Welahi, today’s khat is so small. I need more,” a Somali customer was complaining. “Pole, hakuna unvua” (“Sorry, no rain”). “Khat is getting expensive in these days,” the young man tried to convince him in Kiswahili and English. Few knew that the young peddler was once a journalist in Ethiopia. They cared neither about his profession nor the reasons he had fled his home country. For them, he was just a dealer of khat, the mildly addictive green leaf that is chewed in East Africa. It was as simple as that.
The story of this young exiled reporter, one of many I came to know during my own time in Nairobi, symbolizes the dismal conditions that exiled journalists face in East Africa. A number of my colleagues have been forgotten by their nation, their host country, and the world in general. Some have had the opportunity to speak with organizations like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees only to find they have been denied asylum. I was one of these exiled journalists, enduring an extremely depressing life for three years in Nairobi.
The authoritarian regime in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has been harshly cracking down on independent journalists. After my own departure in December 2009, numerous colleagues fled the country in the face of possible imprisonment. In all, 45 Ethiopian journalists have been forced into exile since 2008, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Human rights activists in East Africa believe that the plight of Ethiopian journalists will not disappear anytime soon.
The Ethiopian regime has been trumpeting the country’s democracy, but the people’s right to freedom of expressions remains unrealized. Newspapers are being sent into early graves, before even their first anniversaries. A newspaper’s life span is very short unless it is affiliated with the ruling party or is careful not to cross the red lines drawn by the government.
Before going into exile, I worked as a journalist for Addis Neger, one of the few critical newspapers being published at the time. The newspaper’s clout and reputation prompted officials to intimidate and blackmail its journalists. As if that was not enough, the government went further and planned to prosecute staff members under the anti-terror law.
The government has charged numerous journalists under this law, including the veteran journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, a 2012 recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Some foreign correspondents and activists were optimistic the media environment would improve after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012. But nothing has changed. Since then, a newspaper and a magazine I had worked for as a columnist were forced to shut down. More journalists are fleeing.
A few days before I left Nairobi for the United States, I met a Kenyan human rights activist to discuss the problems facing exiled Ethiopian journalists. The conversation turned quiet as she considered what my colleagues face every day in exile and what they face back home in a country where dissent is called terrorism. She told me that she was happy for me but very worried about the Ethiopian journalists still on the run. She told me, “Exile journalists need a lending hand, especially from their colleagues who know the new environment very well, ’til they can stand on their own feet. When experienced activists like you leave, the challenge will surely be harsher for those who are on their way to flee.”
It was a bitter truth. I had been serving as a host and liaison for those starting a new life in exile. My friend knew how difficult it is to find real solutions; after all, there was not much I could do but provide some information and advice. But she wanted to emphasise how exiled journalists, despite having fled their homes for some place safer, find themselves alone with little guidance in their new host country.
Now, I am in a very safe place where I enjoy the rights of freedom of expression. But I am always thinking about my friends who are still in risky places with little help, and my jailed colleagues back in Addis Ababa. I hope we all shall be free and back to our profession: journalism.
Zerihun Tesfaye is an Ethiopian journalist and human right activist living in exile. He has worked in exile as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public news organization, and as an editor of Addis Neger Online. Zerihun has also worked as a political and economic commentator for the Ethiopian weekly Amharic-language newspapers Feteh, Addis Neger, Le’elena, Addis Times, and Negadrass. Since fleeing Ethiopia in 2009, in addition to his journalism activities, Zerihun has been working on providing and translating digital security materials to journalists and human right activists in Ethiopia. He is a 2011 recipient of a Hellman/Hammett Award from Human Rights Watch.