Regime of Fear, Silence



Press Freedom Day is one of the highly celebrated days of the year the world over. It marks the essentiality of a free press, complemented with freedom of expression, for democratic progression. Nonetheless, the state of affairs varies between countries. In Ethiopia, the state of press freedom seems to be going backwards. The good days of free expression are gone, according to this writer.


The world over, last week, Press Freedom Day was celebrated, marking the right to free expression as stipulated in the constitutions of countries where citizens exercise democracy. These days, the right to express and share one’s ideas and thoughts freely through the media and the struggle to have free access to media, whether in print or electronic forms, create conflict between those who are able to exercise that right and those who seek to do so.

Time and again, some countries are criticised for the lack of freedom in their respective countries. They tend to lower their heads in an effort to avoid mention of the subject matter. Some governments have even brought allegations of terrorism on individuals for no other reason than those individuals’ criticism of them.

Many African countries, except for countries like Namibia and a few others, are ranked towards the bottom of the list of free countries. That is not surprising. Even in Ethiopia, which claims to be one of the ancient lands that have had national flags hoisted and national anthems sung for centuries, no government has come to power by winning a truly democratic contest. But the struggle for democracy has been fought for hundreds of years. Freedom of expression had been tasted only for a brief while, probably not more than six months, during the reign of Endalkachew Mekonnen who served as Prime Minister when the military government had not yet gripped full political power.

I remember Addis Zemen, the Amharic daily newspaper, publishing more than 30,000 copies a day and selling unofficially for up to 10 Br per issue at many kiosks and publication stands in public squares. Then came the era of debates and dialogues often posted on page two of Addis Zemen and in Yezareytu Ethiopia, a weekly paper.

Another tabloid, Ye Ethiopia Dimtse (Voice of Ethiopia) was popular not only because of its cheap price but also because of the editor, Paulus Gnogno, who had a special page titled “I have one question”. The editor’s unforgettable sarcastic responses to the queries of readers was also famous.

Radio Ethiopia had also started a weekly transmission a programme by a person nicknamed, Memhier Abrarw. Asaminew Gabrewold, the popular presenter of the programme “Meritable Free Discussion” also tried hard to introduce the concept of free discussion on issues of national interests.

Addis Abeba University’s, Struggle and Democracy, took their toll for inciting political struggle and debates among intellectuals. Then came the era of exchanging views and opinions on a short lived English magazine Addis Reporter. People like Sebhat Gebreegzabheir, Assfawosen Kebede, Megersa Beri and Gedamu Abrahie were the renowned contributors.

In the Amharic dailies and weeklies, pen names such as Gezmu, Assefa Chabo, Derbachew Gemechu, Dandew Serbello, Fikru Debebe and others flourished. Books were also being published targeting the establishment, perhaps sarcastically. Alwelidim (meaning I reject being born) was one such a book by Abe Gubegna.

Well-known scholars like Asfaw Damte and Margu Bezabih were among the few that used to be popular. Bulbula The Merkato was the pseudonym of Firma Yilma, Minister of Information, while Zellele Ze Ginfle was Mersehazen Kebede, assistant editor of Addis Zemen.

Birhanu Zerihun had no equals in his proficiency of Amharic. The periods were the times when we had a taste of expressing views freely but responsibly. In this regard, one can safely say that free expression of ideas and thoughts, particularly on political issues, have gone a long way backwards since then.

People are not only unable to express their thoughts freely, particularly in terms of political views, but are also immersed in gloomy fear of being spied on and sent to jail for minor trespasses. Suppressing freedom of expression is not only restricted to expression of ideas, it is more transparent in the field of political elections. Rigging votes and discarding genuine cards using the leverage of power and deception of procedure is a frequent practice in the absence of political observers.

Press freedom is an equal and natural right of a citizen. And each legally able person who is a citizen of a country has the right to vote freely. A citizen has also the constitutional right to vote freely without having to fear being spied on by others. One may not necessarily agree with others but everyone should have the right to peacefully protest against certain thoughts or viewpoints.

Humanitarian organisations, like Reporters Without Borders, conduct annual research to rank world countries’ standing on press freedom. Our neighbour, Eritrea, seems to be among the lowest in the Press Freedom Index, while our country Ethiopia is ranked 148th of 198 nations.

As much as we claim to have progressed in other socio-economic fields, we should also make marked progress in this field. We cannot continue to blame lack of good governance for all our problems.



By Girma Feyissa


Published on May 10,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 836]


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