By Feysel Amin and Bethelhem Sisay
Since the introduction of modern journalism during the time of Emperor Haile Selassie, it has been common to consider journalists as adversaries to government.
Journalists around the world have been taking risks to the point of sacrificing their lives while exercising press freedom and fighting for democracy and justice.
Africa, with its volatile political scenario, has been one of the worst places for journalists and press freedom. Journalists of the content have been intimidated, persecuted, arrested and killed.
According to the Committee to Protect journalists (CPJ) Prison Census 2017 report sub Saharan countries had at least 39 journalists in prison, while North African countries had 27.
After the coming to power of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, thousands of political prisoners and well known critical journalists including Eskinder Nega, Temesgen Dessalegn, Woubshet Taye, Zelalem Workagegnehu, Darsema Sori, Khalid Mohammed, and others were released. The charges against diaspora-based media outlets considered to be a threat for the country’s peace and stability were dismissed.
Getachew Worku, one of the journalists who were labeled as the enemy of state, is thankful for being able to see the major changes regarding press freedom in the country, although he still has worries if the changes could be sustained and bear fruit.
“Freedom of speech is a natural right,” says Getachew. “It is a right no one can give or deny any human being and governments need to place great value in allowing and protecting it. It is a right that should be ensured and respected if a country is to develop and build democracy.”
Getachew says he has great passion for his profession and when the opportunity presented itself for him to study journalism, he did not hesitate for a second to grab it.
“Journalism is my passion and was my dream job. I was studying banking and finance at Addis Ababa University before I got the opportunity to change my field of study to Journalism and Communications,” he says.
Getachew and his colleagues jointly established a private newspaper, Ethio-Mehidar, during a period when the Ethiopian political situation was extremely unfriendly to journalists. It was the time when journalists were forced to leave the country and the time when there was only one local source of information for citizens, which was the state media.
This group of journalists established a vibrant political newspaper which gave “voice to the voiceless”, and tried to engage in “a watchdog model of journalism”.
The newspaper and its journalists faced multiple challenges from different directions. Publishers refused to publish the paper fearing for their own safety and their businesses. The government intimidated them and in the end put them in prison.
Getachew was jailed for a year for ‘defaming’ senior members of the clergy at St. Mary’s Patriarchal Monastery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Church initiated the case following the publication of an article claiming corruption among its senior members of the clergy.
Just like Getachew, Abel Wabella, the Managing Director at Gobena Street Digital Media Platform, was originally a Mechanical Engineer and worked for The Ethiopian Airlines before becoming a self-taught blogger and journalist.
Abel Wabella was one of the detainees that worked with Zone 9, a collective blog that used to cover societal and political issues aiming at promoting and fostering political debates, human rights and government accountability. Late in 2014, members of Zone 9 were charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009.
“We were jailed for three years,” he says. “It was extremely painful. It was such a hard time for me as a young person because it robbed me of my valuable time which I could have used for contributing much to my community.”
Getachew is currently working for online media, Ethio-online, as an editor-in-chief.
Getachew is the eldest in his family. Ethio-mihdar operated under his brother’s, Gezahegn worku, licens. Gezahegn was an employee of Ethiopian Airlines and was later fired from the organization for borrowing money to render financial support for the newspaper.
And another brother Fikadu Worku was also fire d from Ministry of Transport. His elderly parents also went through extreme financial and psychological pressure as a result of the whole situation.
Ephrem Beyene, Getachew’s colleague and co-founder of the newspaper, is another journalist who fell victim of extreme measures against the press at a time when press freedom was considered a crime. He now is faced with a lifetime injury that, according to his medical reports, could force him to stay in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
It all began when he went to Hawassa to report on corruption and mal-administration at Hawassa University. He knew he was working on a very sensitive story and yet he pressed on. While he was in the city gathering information, he was deliberately attacked by what appeared to be an accident. He was hit by unknown attackers with a three wheeled vehicle (Bajaj) and broke his spinal cord.
Ephrem has no regrets for what had happened to him.