Abebe Gellaw – Outmaneuvering State Control

Ethiopia is a country of 80 million people. But it is ruled by one man, Meles Zenawi.

This man is a man of great contradications. He came to power in 1991 as a freedom fighter and liberator. I was a supporter. Forgive me, for I was only a high school student.

He started his career as a bank robber, and he’s still robbing Ethiopia, after all these years.

We have one national TV, for 80 million people. Why do we need more? And of course, it should be controlled by him. And it should cover all his meetings with diplomats and important people. We don’t need more.

We have one national daily. Which covers all of his doings, and those of his cronies. And how many copies does it print? 30,000, for a country of 80 million people. It’s for his cronies! The rest of the people don’t need a daily.

We have one English daily. It’s for the local diplomats and internationals. It tells them about what Zenawi wants them to know.

We have one ISP. The internet is censored, and people are not allowed to publish online. He blocks so many websites, he blocks mine. The ones that are not blocked are sympathetic to his rule and tyranny.

And we have one national radio. It’s all about him! One is enough. They don’t need a voice, the other 80 million people of my country.

And we have one national telecom. The World Bank, the IMF, they keep pressuring him to privatize the telecom sector. And he says no, it’s a very important strategic asset. Which he can use to read, filter, and surveil the people.

And of course, Mr. Zenawi is a democrat. So we have one opposition MP. You know, the debate is fantastic.

He makes sure that the law is his. The country is his property.

We actually had the first contested election in 2005. He opened up the media outlets, a little bit. And then he lost the election. In Addis Ababa, the capital, he lost all 24 parliamentary seats. All of them. So what did he do? He stopped the count in the rest of the country, because you know it takes a lot longer to get the votes from outside the capital. And he declared himself winner of the democratic election of 2005.

And people protested, they said, ‘This is a rigged election’.

So he killed 200 people, injured about 800 more, and then jailed 40,000 people. 40,000 people were jailed. But the West didn’t hear this story. There’s a conspiracy of silence in the West. Why? Because he’s a strategic ally. He’s fighting terrorism.

But the protests were covered by one journalist, David Blair of the Daily Telegraph, who wrote: “A crackdown on this scale has not been seen in Africa for 20 years and the repression exceeds anything by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for the past decade at least. Apartheid-era South Africa’s onslaught against the black townships in the 1980s provides the only recent comparison.”

And a lot of artists, writers, thinkers: they were put in jail, and charged with treason. 27 journalists, including 5 who had never been into the country, were charged with treason, and ‘outrage against the constitution’. I don’t know what this means, because there is no constitution. The constitution is his.

So Ethiopia is now z leading exporter of journalists. According to the CPJ, it is among the worst places to be a journalist, and there are more than 79 of us living outside the country. So in 2007, we set up Ethiopian Satellite Televison, which includes in its mission statement its hope that it will contribute to the development of democracy in Ethiopia, and will stand firm in support of the UNDHR Article 19.

And this is beginning to scare them, by providing voice to the voiceless. And when we did this, even poor people began buying satellite dishes. People were excited. But then Mr. Zenawi started jamming. He went to China, and enlisted the help of the Chinese government to jam us. But we were creative. We found ways.

In order to overcome this jamming challenge, we set up shortwave radio. They’re also trying to jam that. We use social networking sites. And of course, we stream online. We use multiple platforms, including YouTube, and these have been really popular. We’ve had 6.3 million views of our more than 1,000 videos online. The mainstay of ESAT is in the diaspora community in the US and Europe.

Because of this work that we do, we’ve been accused of terrorism. One of us, a winner of the PEN award, is in jail. Charged with terrorism. And others have been sentenced to 11 years in jail. I myself have been charged with terrorism. And I’m not scared. I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, that said, ‘thanks for the honor’. Because if they’re charging us, they’re scared.

And this terrorism law is a burden on himself, not us. Wherever he goes, people protest and denounce him. Overseas, of course. That’s the only place Ethiopian people have the right to protest. Back home, they’d just shoot us.

Mr. Zenawi is supported by some of the most powerful people in the world. World leaders invited him to the G8 Summit, for example. They think of him as an ally on terrorism–meanwhile, he’s terrorizing his own people.

So the most powerful countries in the world, they need to stop supporting him. He’s not credible.

I’ve talked to a number of people, including our speaker yesterday, Irwin Cotler. And I asked him to advocate for people like us. And he said, let me think about it. And the next day, he said he would take up our case.

Some people may have sympathy for us, the exiled journalists. But we don’t need sympathy. We need support.

  • Liam Killeen

    I think it’s horrible that people are being oppressed in such a way by their own government. Their leader who should be their most zealous defender and provider who keeps them in the dark to the outside world. I would like to thank the ESAT for their work and most especially Mr. Gellaw.