* Opposition activists have diverse opinions.
After two years in self-imposed exile, journalist Dawit Kebede returned home last Saturday, thereby stirring a political debate.
Prior to his flee to the United States, Dawit Kebede has been Managing editor of Awramba Times, an Amharic weekly, that he established in 2008, shortly after his release on pardon from his incarceration in relation with the 2005 post-election street violence.
Dawit received the “International Press Freedom Award” of CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) in November 2010 for running the only independent media outlet in Ethiopia that dares question authorities.
Exactly a year later, Awramba Times went out of print as Dawit Kebede, who was in the United States on a tourist visa, announced his decision to seek political asylum claiming to have learnt the government plans to imprison him.
Dawit Kebede corroborated his claim citing a piece published on the state-owned Amharic daily, Addis Zemen, which accused him of links with terrorist groups and called on the government “to revoke his pardon”. Government officials, however, denied any plan to prosecute and insisted that the piece on Addis Zemen was merely an opinion piece.
“Dawit Kebede has endured all of the Ethiopian government’s tactics to silence independent voices, from official intimidation and state-sponsored smear campaigns to the jailing of his staff”.
“Dictators without power”
In early 2012, Dawit launched AwrambaTimes website which became popular fast, not least because of the endorsement by diaspora opposition political heavy-weights.
However, Dawit soon fell out of favor with the diaspora right-wing and entered into a protracted tit-for-tat with opposition sites and personalities. The exchanges turned ugly when, as usual, they pulled the ethnicity card to claim Dawit has always been a “government agent”.
A few months ago, the opposition site Zehabesha claimed Dawit had been to the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, which is considered a taboo by the diaspora opposition. At the time, in response to an email inquiry by this blog, Dawit denied the claim by producing a copy of his flight booking which appears to show he left Washington to Arizona two days prior to the date of the alleged meeting.
Dawit retaliated by publishing pieces critical to key diaspora opposition players, including leaked recordings in which Berhanu Nega(PhD) discusses the $500,000 fund he received from Eritrea to finance Ginbot 7’s “military activities”, the online tv ESAT and “domestic peaceful struggles and diplomatic activities”.
Last Friday, Dawit announced his decision to handover his asylum papers and return home, in a video interview with opposition figure Yared Tibebu.
Responding to Yared’s questions, Dawit claimed that he had reasonable grounds to flee but, in hindsight, they were not insurmountable and he should have stayed at home. Adding that, his passion for journalism and the inability to advance the profession from afar are the decisive factors in his decision to return to Ethiopia.
In a phone conversation with this blog, Dawit conceded the quarrel with the diaspora opposition was an input into his overall assessment, though it was not the direct cause of his decision to return.
Dawit characterised his detractors in diaspora as “few right-wing extremists” and “dictators without governmental power”, in an interview with a local newpaper.
In an entry on Awramba Times, Dawit summed up his observation of the past two years as:
“There is no difference between oppositions and the government as long as freedom of expression is concerned.
Intolerance and systematic offenses against journalists or freedom of expression are the common natures of Ethiopian political forces, whether they are oppositions or the ruling party”.
“A major blow to CPJ”
On arrival at Bole international airport on Saturday, Daiwt was grilled for hours by immigration officers, according to a local newspaper. However, in a phone interview with this blog, Dawit downplayed the matter, without providing details, noting that it was not a big deal given the circumstances under which he left and returned to Ethiopia.
Government officials are unwilling to give a statement on the matter, insisting that they have nothing to add to what they said two years ago. “This is a non-issue, he left and returned because he wanted to”, a senior official told this blog off-the-record.
The official was quick to underline that:
“this is a major blow to CPJ, a classic case that demonstrates their unsubstantiated and ideologically biased take on Ethiopia. They beat the drum without any attempt at verification.”
He sarcastically added an Amharic adage “ke-balebetu yaweke buda newe” (which is to mean that Dawit knows the reality better than CPJ).
The Ethiopian National Journalists Union(ENJU) shares a similar view of CPJ. In an interview with Addis Zemen last month, ENJU’s vice President Anteneh Abraham characterized CPJ as an organization actively working with an explicit intent to bring regime-change in Ethiopia. Anteneh accused CPJ of encouraging journalists to flee and of the hardship they suffer as a result.
CPJ’s website did not post any news or press statement regarding Dawit’s return home. However, they obliged me with an email comment on the matter.
Responding to an my queries on whether Dawit Kebede’s return is a setback to the advocacy works for press freedom in Ethiopia and whether there will be changes in their position on similar cases(cases where journos flee merely on perceived threat); CPJ officials replied:
“Dawit Kebede was among a handful of journalists, such as Eskinder Nega, who refused exile after their release from prison in 2007 and persisted in reporting about the realities of life in Ethiopia under systematic intimidation. Dawit has shown a consistent commitment and passion for journalism, and we know he went into exile in 2011 reluctantly, a few months after his deputy editor, Woubshet Taye, was arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges. His willingness to report both sides of the story has resulted in him being criticized by both the government and the opposition.
Dawit has justified his decision to return to Ethiopia, citing the frustrations of life in exile and the value of being able to report on Ethiopian events first hand, rather than from a distance. We wish Dawit Kebede well on his return and hope that he will be able to practice his craft without intimidation and without compromising the independent journalism that earned him the respect of his peers. We continue to condemn Ethiopia’s detention of journalists including Woubshet Taye, Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega under laws that are reminiscent of apartheid-repression and that undermine Africa’s development in the 21st century.”
Reaction from the opposition camp
Immediately after Dawit’s announcement, several opposition sites and politicians disputed Dawit’s reasons for return and insist that it was a confirmation of his links with the government in Addis Ababa.
A similar opinion is shared by the political satirist Abebe Tola (better known as Abe Tokichaw), who was a columnist of Awramba Times newspaper before his self-exile in 2009 claiming government harassment.
In an emailed statement to this blog, from his residence in London, Abe Tokichaw said:
“In my opinion, Dawit had received real threat from the EPRDF government. That is why he fled from his country.
I suspect that, after he fled, for some reason he negotiated with the government and went back to his country. This is not unprecedented, for instance artist Solomon Tekalegne and Niway Debebe did the same thing. So, I don’t expect any opinion change in “western rights groups” and others human right activist.”
Journalist Abiye Teklemariam, however, chose to give Dawit Kebede the benefit of the doubts. (Abiye was executive editor of the the now-defunct Amharic weekly Addis Neger newspaper and later tried in absentia and sentenced to seven years imprisonment on changes of providing moral support for terrorist groups.)
In an email interview with this blog, from Oxford University, Abiye made the following remarks regarding the Dawit Kebede saga:
Abiye: “Dawit Kebede has been at the forefront of fighting for democracy and press freedom in Ethiopia for a while. He has demonstrated his commitment to these values by taking enormous risks to his life, property and liberty. Ethiopia doesn’t have a strong free speech constituency and if Dawit decided to abandon his leading role, it would be an enormous loss to this small, weak constituency. But we should be careful not to interpret his move to his homeland as an abandonment of his commitment. I found nothing to suggest such in his interview with Yared Tibebu or his public proclamations before that. There are people who fight for freedom of speech inside Ethiopia. Dawit, it seems to me, is rejoining them. There is no conceivable reason to consider that as a setback.”
Daniel: In light of the fact that Dawit Kebede fled due to perceived threat and now returned on upon a reconsideration of his original reasons for flee were unwarranted. Can we expect changes among western rights-groups in their position on similar cases(cases where journos flee based on perceived threat)?
Abiye: “I don’t think Dawit said that the fear, objectively assessed, was unwarranted. His was a subjective reflection and reconsideration of the level of risk he could take and the way of dealing threats when they arose. The task of free speech advocacy groups is to objectively investigate and assess the level of threats to free speech both at macro and micro level. There is no doubt that Ethiopia is one of the worst places for journalism and Dawit had faced threats while working as a journalist. That he believed he could have dealt with those threats differently or he felt that deep commitment to the cause demanded him to face even grave dangers rather than flee shouldn’t be their concern. Their assessment and positions shouldn’t be dependent on the vagaries of personal decisions and reflections.”
Daniel: If you could somehow feel assured that the Ethiopian government would not enforce the harsh criminal sentencing against you, would you make a trip to Ethiopia regardless the smear-campaign it will entail?
Abiye: “I must admit that like your average human being smear campaigns would deter me from doing things that I wanted to do. They could sometimes be more lethal than government harassment as they affect your standing in and relationship with the community within which you pursue your life’s goals and happiness. Having said that, I would like to believe that if there were compelling reasons to do something, I would try hard to overcome the anxieties and negative fantasies that fear of smear campaign usually induce.”