ETHIOPIA | Dissenting in exile

Reported by Jefferson Mok, Katherine Jacobsen, Ngozi Onouha and Alexandra Katsoulis

Ethiopian journalists hold placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi, Tuesday, May 2, 2006. Photo by: AP Photo/Sayyid Azim

By Ngozi Onouha

To live in Ethiopia today is to live largely in isolation from independent news reporting. Threats, imprisonment and shutdowns have silenced much of the country’s media, ever since a brutal, post-election crackdown in 2005 by long-time dictator Meles Zenawi.

Zenawi’s death last August has done little to ease the situation.

“The independent press in Ethiopia is on the brink of extinction, after years of repression by the government,” said Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Martin Schibbye, a Swedish journalist imprisoned in 2011 for entering Ethiopia illegally, said that when relatives came to visit other inmates in Kaliti prison, where he was held, they brought news – but not necessarily from Ethiopian media sources.

“They listen to Voice of America and read blogs,” he said. Exiled Ethiopians who blog about their country are “really, really important for creating another picture.”

Although there are bloggers writing within Ethiopia, it’s the diaspora voices that are often the most outspoken when writing about the country they call home.

“Ethiopia has, by far, one of the most vibrant cyber blogging communities out there,” said CPJ’s Keita. “Ethiopian diaspora bloggers have led the debate online, discussions that don’t take place in Ethiopia.”Bloggers like activist-turned-journalist Mohammed Ademo are among those leading debates outside of the country. Ademo is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of O-Pride, a news and politics site with content primarily for the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Four Ethiopians run the blog, which began in 2008. Ademo is the only member of the team in New York City; the others are in Minnesota, where there is a sizable diaspora community, and in Ethiopia.

Through social media, email and phone calls to contacts on the ground, the O-Pride bloggers gather material for stories on social as well as political events. Since they are often critical of the government (access to O-Pride is blocked within Ethiopia, and the site is on the government’s terrorist watch list), the team takes privacy measures to protect the identities of those who give tips to the site.

Dissenting in Exile: Ethiopia’s Diaspora Bloggers from Alexandra Katsoulis on Vimeo.

Reporting that relies on citizen journalists from within Ethiopia can be difficult to verify, acknowledged Jawar Mohammed, founder of another diaspora blog, Gulèlè Post.

“You can be misled,” he said, which is why bloggers need to look on citizen reports with some skepticism. When you “ask people to send you more proof, you can get it.”

The conversation among the diaspora bloggers can be lively, but they have little impact within Ethiopia, where Internet access is very limited (some estimates say no more than one percent of Ethiopians have access) and the most outspoken blogs are blocked. Still, the government is so sensitive to criticism that it has twice convicted Washington, D.C.-based diaspora blogger Elias Kifle in absentia, most recently under a 2009 anti-terrorism law that is also used to intimidate those who try to report independently within Ethiopia.

The most prominent domestic example is veteran journalist and Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega.  Nega, who is recognized for openly writing political pieces opposing the government, has been jailed seven times. Most recently, Nega was found guilty of terrorism and jailed after going on trial in July 2012. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence.