Focusing on the Media of the Ethiopian Diaspora

by Ginnie Seger

It’s a familiar setting: an office full of eager journalists editing video and reviewing drafts while a busy producer oversees the activities of the day.  But what you might not expect is that many of these journalists are living in exile and their editor has been charged with terrorism in their homeland of Ethiopia. Abebe Gellaw, the producer of Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), fled Ethiopia in 1998 to escape a tyrannical news environment. Gellaw continued to work as a journalist, exposing human rights violations and government practices.

“Terrorism is a very elastic term in Ethiopia, because the president wants to label everyone a terrorist. If you try to write something that is critical of the government policies, you are labeled as a terrorist,” Gellaw said.

This is one example of many Ethiopians living in the diaspora. While most of the population’s story is not as extreme, many Ethiopians have left their native land to escape tyrannical rule. According to the Ethiopian Embassy, Washington, D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa. They estimate the number is more than 200,000.   This has led to the creation of news organizations catering to an Ethiopian audience. The news organization Ethiopian Satellite Television, uses broadcast, print, and online media to report not only what is happening within the diaspora, but also to counter state-owned media in Ethiopia.

“In Ethiopia we are not allowed to practice journalism freely, so we report on issues that are not normally covered by traditional media organizations, because of fear,” Gellaw said. “We give voice to the oppressed.”

Prime Minister Meles Zanawi, who has been in power since 1991, has enacted restrictive measures against freedom of speech and journalists, under an Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the proclamation gave the government power “to imprison for as long as 20 years whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates statements deemed encouraging, supporting, or advancing terrorists acts.  It also grants the national security agency exclusive discretion to carry out warrantless interception of communications.”  As a result, Ethiopia has the highest number of journalists living in exile in the world. Most journalists flee to escape imprisonment from the government.

Gellaw was imprisoned for the first time in 1993 after writing an article criticizing the government for firing professors at Addis Ababa University. International rights groups, such as Amnesty International, lobbied for his release, and after two months Gellaw was set free.

“I was released on bail and on the condition that I would stop writing critical articles and stay away from political activities, but I was not that type of person to get intimidated that easily, so I continued with my writing,” Gellaw said.

Eventually Gellaw fled Ethiopia in 1998, but he continues to work as a journalist and collaborates with both exiled journalists and journalists in Ethiopia at Ethiopian Satellite Network.

“We exiled journalists in the U.S. and Europe, came together and said we have to do something. We started our own media organization, which tries to reverse the information gap. Our plan is to make this the Ethiopian Al-Jazeera. We want to be a true media organization for Ethiopia; we want to be voice for the voiceless,” Gellaw said.

The Ethiopian Satellite Network launched in June 2010, and aired in Ethiopia until August, when the Ethiopian government began blocking the network. “Anyone with a satellite dish could receive news and information, that they never heard of before. The government is very scared of our small operation because it has created a big impact, because this government is based on lies,” Gellaw said.

The Ethiopian Satellite Network continues to broadcast in the U.S. and relies on the Ethiopian diaspora community to transmit messages back to Ethiopia.

The flow of information back to countries of origin is disrupting traditional media, and posing a challenge to regimes. In the article “Re-viewing the ‘National’ in International Communication: Through the Lens of the Diaspora,” communications scholar, Karim H. Karim writes: “The study of international communications cannot disregard the growing strength of diasporic information flows and their impact on the system of nation-state. Contemporary technologies of travel and communications have vastly enhanced the agency of diasporic actors in international communications.”

While the Ethiopian Satellite Network focuses mostly on coverage of news happening in the Ethiopia, other news organizations tailor their coverage for the diaspora community in Washington, D.C. One example of this is the newspaper Zethiopia. Launched in 2002, the bi-monthly newspaper provides news in English and Amharic, and is distributed in local Ethiopian restaurants, churches, and businesses.

The editor of Zethiopia, Dereje Desta, worked as a journalist in Ethiopia but, after several of the newspapers he worked for shut-down due to government pressure, he immigrated to the U.S.

“I decided when I came to the United States that I would start a newspaper, the reason I am doing this is because I am a journalist. I will always be a journalist, it is in my blood,” he said.

Like Ethiopian Satellite Television, Zethiopia, reports on news events from the home country, local events, and pop culture. A recent front-page story reported on an episode of The Simpsons that featured the characters of the show eating in an Ethiopian restaurant.

Zethiopia is a free publication, and relies on advertisers alone to fund its publication, but remains popular within the diaspora because traditional media rarely cover stories about Ethiopia.

“I can see the gap. There was a demonstration, after the highly contested elections in 2005. Ethiopians were against the government, because the government hijacked the elections. Ethiopians were angry and they demonstrated in D.C.; thousands participated, but there was not a single media coverage,” Desta said.

For members of the Ethiopian diaspora, news organizations such as Zethiopia and Ethiopian Satellite Television, help sustain ties to Ethiopia, but also create new ones in the local D.C. diaspora community.

Meron Berhanu grew up in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and moved to the U.S. to complete her education in 2003. She is currently a master’s candidate at George Washington University, studying international education. Upon graduation Berhanu, will return to Ethiopia to work in field of development. She uses Ethiopian media to stay connected to issues in her homeland and connect to other Ethiopian professionals in D.C.

“Living in D.C. you don’t feel disconnected; the diaspora is thriving here. I hope Ethiopian media grows, because it provides a forum for people to express their identities, thoughts, and culture,” Berhanu said.

While the Ethiopian diaspora of Washington D.C. continues to grow, news organizations will continue their coverage of local events, while also attempting to provide accurate news for the Ethiopian population. As coverage continues, the consequences for journalists will also increase.

On November 11, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Gellaw, and five other Ethiopian journalists were charged with terrorism by an Ethiopian federal court. This means that if Gellaw returns to his homeland, he would be arrested immediately.  Despite these serious accusations, Gellaw is not fazed by this charge.

“This means I have graduated in the government’s eyes,” Gellaw said, “If I go back to Ethiopia there must be freedom. I should be able to walk in the streets freely without any intimidation, without being spied on, I want freedom more than anything else.”

(The logo is from Ethiopian Satellite Television and is freely shared on the network’s Facebook page; it is used here under Fair Use guidelines.  To see a sample of programming from Ethiopian Satellite Television featuring Abebe Gellaw as host, please check below.)

About gseger

Ginnie Seger is a Masters Candidate in the International Media program at American University. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in broadcast journalism. During her undergraduate education, she studied abroad in both Ghana and China. Ginnie worked for WCVE PBS Richmond, as a production technician in the Virginia House of Representatives. After completing her degree in 2008, she joined the Peace Corps where she served in Kenya as a deaf education volunteer until 2011. While in the Peace Corps, she worked to create a strategic health campaign for the Kenyan deaf population. In the future she hopes to work for a non-profit organization, and is interested in the use of social media and technology in the developing world.
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3 Responses to Focusing on the Media of the Ethiopian Diaspora

  1. Just a few corrections on your rather interesting albeit no so well researched story. As a simple google search could reveal, Abebe Gellaw was a former government journalist who only left Ethiopia for a journalism training. Yes his many writings on his blogsite prove his an anti-government activism. His activism as such only came about once he found his way abroad. How could the government have given him a job as a journalist (August 1996-September 1998) on their national daily English newspaper , The Ethiopian Herald ? Does it not strike you as strangely interesting someone who claims to have been hounded out of the country was in fact a government employee who served on the government’s own newspaper ? You clearly haven’t done your checks thoroughly , or have you ?

    I suggest you check out the Guardian story on the following link :
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/jun/17/furthereducation.collegevoices

    and his searchable CV on the web :
    http://iis-db.stanford.edu/staff/4024/Abebe_Gellaw-CV.pdf

    Dereje Desta was a reporter on The Ethiopian Reporter , a newspaper owned and run by a former ruling party official largely regarded in Ethiopia as non-critical if not entirely pro-government. Though it’s hard to say what the exact circumstances of his departure from Ethiopia are , it is unlikely Dereje would have been forced out of the country because his views were critical of the government.

    One other point… suggesting ESAT is an independent news broadcaster set up by exiled journalists is total fiction. ESAT was set up and funded by a whole spectrum of politically-affiliated groups and individuals opposed to the Ethiopian government. Irrespective of what the mission statement says on its website , ESAT’s transmission is heavily weighed down by an overdose of anti-government coverage carefully staged by political organisations operating abroad- mainly in the USA.

    All programmes whether news or views are geared towards enhancing and promoting the political objectives of exiled political parties. The most important one among them being the Berhanu Nega-led Ginbot 7 Movement for Democracy and Justice.

    Last September a senior ESAT executive living in the Netherlands resigned his post citing excessive political pressure from opposition political parties which according to him have made it impossible for free and fair journalism to flourish. The former executive (Kefale Mamo ) complained that ESAT was now routinely being used as a platform for opposition political groups rather than being an independent source of facts and other information direly missing from the scene inside Ethiopia. Kefale’s resignation letter is available to download from http://www.ethiopiafirst.com.

    A closer scrutiny of programme contents on ESAT confirms the same simple fact i.e. that this is a news medium which has no editorial independence and is incessantly obsessed with anti-government negative stories. Almost all stories and interviews are fixated on government flaws. That was of course no problem if only the same standards applied on all players in Ethiopian affairs.

    Despite claims of a free public interest journalism , what the emergence of ESAT has achieved is the polarisation of news and views in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. ESAT is to the opposition in exile what the state media are to the government of Ethiopia. None can claim to stand on a higher moral ground which can qualify them as trustworthy sources of information.

    Now , I don’t wish to denigrate the entirety of your story above but it seems you have covered a subject with which you are clearly not so familiar. You could have done with a bit of journalistic scepticism and a good thorough checking of all these claims.

  2. gseger says:

    Points of clarification for your comment:
    1. The Guardian article which you point out, perfectly demonstrates the hostile media environment in which Gellaw left:
    “It became difficult for journalists to earn a living; most ended up working in restaurants and factories.We struggled on, but were harassed. I received death threats every day, saying I would be shot if I carried on writing. I was followed everywhere.”
    While an offer of a traineeship allowed Gellaw to seek asylum in the U.K.,his previous arrest and continued harassment led to that decision. It is inaccurate to say he left only for training considering these other factors. In addition, his reason for leaving as directly stated by Gellaw himself, was to flee a hostile media environment. His contentious relationship with the government is further corroborated by the Committee to Protect Journalist which states that Gellaw is charged with terrorism, albeit after he left country.
    http://www.cpj.org/2011/11/ethiopia-charges-six-journalists-with-terrorism.php

    2. I state in my article that Desta left Ethiopia after “several newspapers he worked for shut-down due to government pressure.” Desta did work for a government newspaper but, lost that job and began working for private newspapers consequently, all those newspapers were shut down. Never do I state that Desta was “forced out of the country because his views were critical of the government,” as you write in your comment above. The two are very different reasons, and should not be confused.

    3. It is obvious that you have a very strong opinion of ESAT, but it is important to note that this article’s only claim is that ESAT counters to state-owned media, a statement I believe you would find accurate.

    I think it is important to keep in mind that this story is not about Gellaw or ESAT, alone. It seems you wished to read a story that examines ESAT as a media organization, or Gellaw as a journalist, unfortunately that is not the focus of this article. I believe your comment reflects the great diversity in thoughts and opinions of Ethiopian diaspora media (in fact your comment on ESAT alone can be an article in and of itself). While the criticism of ESAT is relevant, and could be further explored if the article was solely about them but, it is not. It is possible to write an entire book analyzing each Ethiopian diaspora news organization, or journalists of the diaspora, but I am restricted to a certain word count and wanted to focus on an brief overview of these 2 organizations, and their impact.

  3. tadeos says:

    I don’t think you can use some well known general facts to bury the inaccuracies in your story. Whether or not the media climate in Ethiopia is a highly restricted one is not the question here. That is the subject of a long running debate among Ethiopians and foreign observers and has been so for the last 20 years. The comments in the Guardian story too are just a part of that debate and are no proof of whether the individual you have cited in your story left the country because of the continued harassment he suffered.

    I directed you to the Guardian story because it clearly demonstrates that Gellaw arrived in the UK for continued professional development but subsequently sought to stay there because he did not wish to return up on completing the training. Now that is not the same as stating he fled his country because he was constantly harassed and intimidated for expressing critical views.

    To the best of my knowledge, articles critical of the ruling party or the government are not published on state media. Gellaw states in his CV he actually served (prior to leaving the country) in the official government newspaper published in English. How do you reconcile his reputation as a persistent government critic with his self-confessed fact of serving in the government’s own newspaper ? The Ethiopian Herald which Gellaw says he used to write on is a government mouthpiece as I am sure he would admit to you.

    It’s true the government has listed Gellaw’s name as a terrorist which on the face of it sounds pretty alarming when you consider the fact that the individual concerned is only an opposition activist whose only crime is to write articles and stories opposing the state. But even that list only came about in the latter end of 2011 NOT 1998. The anti terror law itself was passed in July 2009.

    Is it any wonder the government see him as their enemy given his role as an anti-government propaganda lieutenant affiliated with outlawed dissident political parties ? Not sure what his role might have been while he was serving the government as a journalist but clearly what he is doing now is not independent truth-seeking, truth-seeking journalism but biased, one-sided , vindictive public relations exercises admittedly skewed in favour of a single spectrum in Ethiopian politics. That may be journalism of a sort but not most people’s idea of truth telling critical journalism.

    On Desta , I will only say this : Your story all along describes him, just as it does Gellaw, as a persecuted journalist who practises journalism abroad because he could not in his own country. Now where’s the confusion ? Who’s confused ? Interesting too you could not comment on whether he too served on a newspaper not often cited for its criticism of the government.

    I admire your interest in international media matters but I think this experience shows that it can often be a tricky subject. My hope is that you will take a lesson or two from this and perhaps avoid making some pretty glaring errors like those I have tried to draw your attention to.

    Of course, you may beg to differ .

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