The plight of Ethiopian journalists [Archives:2007/1023/Reportage]

February 8 2007
While both local and foreign nurses duties are the same, foreign nurses receive higher salary even if they have less knowledge and experiences. YT photo by Fatima Al-Ajel
While both local and foreign nurses duties are the same, foreign nurses receive higher salary even if they have less knowledge and experiences. YT photo by Fatima Al-Ajel
Nadia Al-Sakkaf
According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Ethiopian government has incarcerated more journalists than any other country in the world. Today there are around 100 Ethiopian refugee journalists around the world, three in Yemen. Yemen Times met with one of them, Daniel Gezahegen.

“I was an editor in chief of a known newspaper in my country. I was an activist and one of the communities known people. Most of all I was a dignified freeman. Today I am an unknown refugee in a foreign country who is surviving on charity, and I don't know what happened to my wife and little girl” expressed Daneil Gezahegen sadly, while showing me an outdated photo of his daughter, the only remaining link his has with his family.

Gezahegen was the editor in chief of Mogad, an Amharic language newspaper in Addis Ababa. He was one of the many opposition journalists arrested by the Ethiopian regime in the last few years. He was arrested over six times during 2001, as he was accused of writing false and slanderous stories about the defection of the members in the Ethiopian Air Force and of defying the ruling system. He also dared to speak out on other contentious issues involving: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ministry of Defence, and influential personalities such as Bacha Deble (a General Major in the Ethiopian government).

After the elections, in the second half of 2005, Gezahegen was arrested again for a week. He was released on bail, and decided to save his life by fleeing the country with one of his fellow journalists, Tamra Serbesa. The destination for the two journalists was Yemen. During that time, the government wanted list included over a 100 journalists, 21 of whom were caught and are in prison, while the rest have been scattered around the world.

His wife and 18-month-old girl Lolowa left the capital to live with relatives in the countryside because they had no source of income, and feared becoming extended targets of the government's purge.

Struggling to survive

“Tamra had been partially paralysed because of a brutal beating in detention nine years ago at the hands of security officers. Despite that we decided it was better to risk our lives and die at sea rather than be caught by the Ethiopian authority. We were smuggled in a ship, and arrived in Aden illegally in January 2006.” Daniel Gezahegen explained.

They immediately went to the UNHCR authority in Aden and applied for refugee status. For six months, they resided in an old ruined building that used to be an Indian hotel called Sea-View. It is located near the UNHCR office in Khour Maksar in Aden.

“It was horrible; there were no windows, no doors, no nothing. We slept on newspapers and begged for food. My health was deteriorating and I used to get a lot of headaches and my mouth was continuously dry. Some people helped me get a blood test and I discovered that I had diabetes, my score was 320 and the doctor ordered me to stay away from certain foods such as carbohydrates. Little did he know that beggars were not choosers,” continued Gezahegen.

It got worse; while he and his friend were waiting for the appointment with the UNHCR, local security attacked the place in the early morning, tore-up their appointment slips and forced them out of the building. The security acted based on rumours that the place was used for gay sex and had to be vacated. During the six months prior to the police raid, Daniel came to know a few Ethiopians in Aden and another Ethiopian journalist residing in Sana'a, who had escaped from Addis Abba one year ago. Sympathetic fellow citizens offered him lodging at the roof of their home, but his health became worse and his diabetes blood test showed 420. The doctor then advised him to avoid the humid weather by the sea and go to Sana'a. In Sana'a he stayed with the journalist Girum T-haimnot and survived from day to day on petty work and charity. After relying on T-haimnot for four months, Daniel shifted his burden to another Ethiopian political refugee called Getnat with whom he is staying with at present.

“I am now waiting for the UNHCR to get back to me. I took the email of a Baptist Church in the US from a friend and emailed them about my case. They said they are ready to sponsor me only if I was granted refugee status in Yemen. It is not easy to get through to international charity organisations or to embassies. So I decided to take my story to the Yemen Times. I respect this newspaper because it promotes freedom and human rights”, he said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Yemen is looking into his case. “We have registered Mr. Daniel Gezahegen as an applicant and we are looking into his case according to UNHCR standards and procedures”, said Saado Quol, Senior Protection Officer of UNHCR – Yemen.

Refugee awareness project

Gezahegen hopes to be relocated in the USA or any other developed country. He aims to continue his work in human rights and media. “If I get the chance, I want to continue higher studies in journalism, political science, or a related field in public relations. All I want is peace and democracy for Ethiopia. How it will be achieved, I don't know, but I know that this will not happen unless there is a change in the current regime which endorses democracy and good governance. When that happens, I will be the first to go home and help rebuild a new modern Ethiopia.” Daniel went on: “I have a lot of potential and I want to use my knowledge to help my fellow country people. While I am waiting for a decision to be taken in my case, I would like to be productive and help educate the refugee community in Yemen. We are three journalists and if we have a computer with a printer we can create a periodical in the Amharic language. We can enhance awareness of HIV-AIDS, development issues, and refugee regulations. The problem is that most of the refugees who number more than 100,000 don't know English or Arabic, and so information in their own language would prove very helpful. We have the skills and the will to do this provided someone supports us.”

He believes Yemen is playing and can continue to play an important role in the African Horn countries. Because of the geographical proximity and similarities between Yemen and the African Horn countries there is much more that can be done. He concluded by saying that Yemeni people have been sympathetic and kind towards him and his friends. He commented, “They are believers and my experience of them is good.”

Many Ethiopian journalists are being held in the infamous Kality prison. The roofs of the cells are made of corrugated iron sheets, which fluctuate in temperature according to the weather, and the journalists are also exposed to contagious diseases due to rodent infestation. Between June and September 2005, at least 17 editors of private Amharic-language weeklies were arrested because of their post-election coverage. At least seven were accused of criminal offences, such as defaming the Defense Ministry and the military. Several editors were arrested more than once.

In Ethiopia, around 20 newspaper publishers and editors are still imprisoned; they are accused of “high treason” for having backed an opposition challenge to the May 2005 election results. Neither the international outcry nor the protests of its western allies have been heeded by the government of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.