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.)