We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Conversations about Ethiopian politics are often complicated by internal and external factors. The country is a strong U.S. ally in a tumultuous region, but after what critics termed a “very tightly controlled” election in 2010, several opposition leaders and journalists have been jailed. Still, activists in Ethiopia feel it’s important for their voices to be heard at home and abroad. Kojo sat down with three pro-democracy bloggers during his recent visit to Ethiopia.
- Soliyana Shimeles blogger, Zone9
- Abel Wabella blogger, Zone9
- Befekadu Hailu blogger, Zone9
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we remember musician and activist Pete Seeger. But first, voices of dissent in Ethiopia. It's America's strongest ally in East Africa, playing a crucial role in regional conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. Ethiopia is also America's largest aid recipient in Africa, taking in nearly $400 million in 2012. Then there are the 250,000 Ethiopian residents living in this region.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo it's fair to say that conversations we have here in Washington about Ethiopia are inherently and intensely local. Earlier this month, I spent nine days exploring the country with the international humanitarian agency, CARE, accompanied by two of the show's producers. While much of the focus was on poverty and food aid, we thought it was important to have on-the-record conversations about politics. It turns out, that's not so easy. The government commands an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, after what critics say was a very tightly controlled election in 2010.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISince then, several opposition leaders have been jailed as have been a number of journalists. And aid groups have clear orders to stay out of politics. But we wanted to bring you voices that are less often heard. So today we bring you a conversation with a trio of opposition bloggers we met in Addis Ababa. Soliyana Shimeles, Befekadu Hailu, and Abel Wabella, who write for the website Zone9. Here is their story, starting with the origins of their blog.
MS. SOLIYANA SHIMELESWe started it, like we used to have different kinds of voices in social media -- to have different voices, but it was not much organized, so we don't like. We come up with some kind of organized or network blogging, if you could have our voices together so that we can make it like more convincing and more -- we can address so many people, more people. So we started it before, when we were in around (unintelligible).
NNAMDIAnd when you say, so we could bring our voices together, exactly whose voices are you talking about, the voices of people who are interested in democracy?
SHIMELESYeah, the voice of people who are interested in democracy, freedom of expression, and most of us who come up with this network or blog are kind of individual activists who's working to think about democracy, human rights, freedom of expression. So, it was like, if you could bring this together, we can address so many people together.
NNAMDIHow did you get involved?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1I have my own blog and I used to do activism on social media. So then we talked about it and came up with the same blog on which nine of us write, so that our, you know, dispersed voices or even audiences come together to make our influence wider than before.
NNAMDIHow did you get involved?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2Before joining our group in Zone9, I had been blogging by myself. I was alone. I was mentioning some facts. Some journalists tried to sympathize the government. So I said, I start to blog to say (unintelligible). So at that time when I explain myself in the social media, I have got many friends who has not exactly the same, but positive impact for the democratization of (unintelligible) so I joined that group.
NNAMDIWhat are your concerns about democracy and freedom of expression under the current government?
SHIMELESThe first question is the situation of freedom of expression is detouring from time to time, since 2005, we have so many medias. And we know the post-2005 controversy and all those things happening was very shocking. And, after that, we came up with the other election of 2010 and that election was completely different from the 2005 one. It was quiet and silent and, at the same time, we are keeping -- losing so many media, including the very informational ones that (unintelligible). And so we were really frustrated at the time, when we started this blog test.
SHIMELESThings are getting very worse and we should come up with something at least to keep our inspiration. So I think our first concern is the situation of freedom of expression is deteriorating from time to time, and that indirectly affected all of our democracy, the rights, the civil rights situations in the country.
NNAMDIDo you think that the reason that the election in 2010 was so quiet was because of a lack of freedom of expression, was because so much media had been closed down?
SHIMELESI think it had a significant impact, yeah -- the closing of media and the situation of the press really affected the result of the 2010 election. There are so many components, but basically I think that part also contributed a lot. Yes.
NNAMDIWhat is the manner in which, in your opinion, the government goes about stifling freedom of expression? And you can offer as many facts as you choose.
SHIMELESYeah, I think it's very difficult to put it in such a way. But basically since -- in the last 22 years, I think it's around 76 medias were lost?
#2It's actually more than that, but the ones who were operating (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIIn the last 22 years, you're saying you've lost some 76 media outlets?
SHIMELESYeah, media outlets, yeah. Now we only have like a couple of magazines, maybe, and a couple of newspapers. And now, currently, again election is coming and the situation is getting very worse. And in the last few weeks we have been listening to different kinds of acts that those magazines and newspapers are voices of the extreme political activists, so therefore they should behave and something like that. So, in the coming one year in front of this, we are going to have another election. And we're afraid it's going to be similar to 2010, so that very quiet, (unintelligible) things going to be like this.
SHIMELESThings are going to keep like this, not the way they used to.
NNAMDINow, your blog has been banned. It's not available here...
NNAMDI...in Ethiopia. When did that happen?
SHIMELESIt happened after we opened our first blog, after two weeks. We opened up the first blog, so we started like keeping, having another side, saying migrating all the data we used to have in the first one. But we can't do that every time. We tried seven or eight times. Then after we get tired, because it's a click away to do that and it's going to be very difficult for us to migrate all the fights, all the communication, from one side to another side.
SHIMELESSo we just try to use (unintelligible) instead of using the straight media, trying to tweet the ideas and trying to bring all the contents of our blogs to the -- our Facebook page. But the other difficulty was that the Facebook page was so filtered, so we can access Facebook, but you can't access our page specifically. So what we strived to do was, we tried to change the url so that people can access it. And we tried to change the blog (word?) by replacing the other one. But it's very difficult to access our sites here. But we can't do anything more than that.
NNAMDIBut the government obviously knows that you're still doing the blog. The government obviously knows that you're still posting on Facebook. Does that cause you to fear -- to have any fear at all about this?
#1One of the struggles we are trying to do is challenging the fear in itself. There are always rumors from insiders that we are going to be jailed the next time we are writing something, or we are coming of these -- some sort of campaigns that we have (unintelligible). So fear is always there. But you can't help challenging it, because, you know, quitting cannot be the solution. We have seen that.
NNAMDII guess spokespersons for the government would argue that, well, it's not as bad as it was under the Derg. It's much better now. What would you say?
#2They tried to do something. (unintelligible) whatever, but they tried to do something. But you don't need to compare are they worse or not. (unintelligible). We cannot run, before fourth year signal. Anyone can be any, then athlete can beat (unintelligible) on this time. So their performance is (unintelligible) all major standard city index.
#1One of the questions that we have raised on the social media on the campaigns we have launched is that respect to the Constitution. It is equitable for the government. And we said that because the Constitution actually gives the opportunity for people to enjoy democracy. But practically, that is not applicable. So, yes, this region has made progress, at least in writing those rights in the Constitution. But it's not practical. That's our question, especially in the years after the 2005 elections, then things got worse. So we are asking to get our rights that are written in the Constitution.
NNAMDIThe government would also make the argument that the economy is improving under its leadership and that, if there is too much democracy, then we spend all of our time fighting and arguing and we make no progress. How would you respond?
SHIMELESYes, the economy's progressing. And I think that's a response we hear from every government. I mean, every government should run the economy. Every government should do under democracy. Every government should do on the civil and political rights. And the other argument, but the other argument of like spending much time on democracy, the democratic debates and something like that is kind of funny, because, I mean, everybody is not going to do that. People have the right to access the information. People have the right to access -- to talk about any civil and political rights.
SHIMELESAnd, if they do have the access, they're not going to have such a serious debate, because they already know it. But the problem is you don't know it. Now, you don't have information, therefore you would spend much of your time to have information to argue with the people through research. You have to have such information. I think the discussion by itself bring this kind of more discussions, spending more time on such issues.
SHIMELESBut if things are already available there, if information is already there, and if the space to have information, to access information and to talk and to discuss is already there, I think that's when we'll start to focus on their own things and their own commitment to that. I think the debate is also important. But your debate is going to be like the debate that will contribute to your own cause, your own contributions.
SHIMELESBut this time, I think one of the effects of having such (unintelligible) is that you spend much of your time in talking about your rights and talking about your freedom and talking about your democracy. So you'll spend much of your time here and you will not have to read, time to contribute on what you exactly -- what could all and what you exactly learned or something like that.
NNAMDIWhat gets publicized most in the United States is when journalists are arrested and jailed, but not much else. We don't hear much else about how democracy might be undermined here in Ethiopia. What would you like people listening to you in the United States to know, in addition to the fact that there are journalists who have been jailed?
#1People's participation in civil activities has dramatically decreased. But nobody writes that, because, you know, my participation and failure to participate is not something visible. It is something that I decide personally. So a journalist or a newspaper cannot make a story out of that. But we are living it, you know?
#1Sometimes you feel that you are excluded from public services and even, you know, you don't participate because you know the democracy, the kind of democracy practiced in Ethiopia, which is revolutionary, doesn't allow you to give your opinions, unless and otherwise working towards what is said by the incumbent -- so, you know, the lack of or the failure to participate. And people are migrating like hell. I don't know, why are all these people leaving their country behind? Every friend of mine wants to leave at every chance he or she gets.
#1That is the lack of democracy that is driving my friends out of the country. They are giving up in the democracy. They are giving up in the election that is coming. They know that changes are not going to be made. They know that they don't have a voice to contribute for the development, you know? It cannot be in their way. It only will be performed in the way that the government wants.
NNAMDIWhat are the consequences of openly opposing the government?
#2They have to (unintelligible) scare people through exile. Otherwise you are (word?) systematically out of, from the system of, all or portions of the country. You will not get education, unfortunately, you will not get public service. Everything systematically will be (unintelligible) on your country.
NNAMDIHave the government -- outside of not making your blog available in Ethiopia, how has the government attempted to retaliate against you for the work that you do?
SHIMELESIntimidations from different individuals, actually. That's -- they will act like it's based on their individual capacity, but we know that they have some other intention behind, and (unintelligible) from time to time. It's increasing in the last few months. That's I think because the election is coming. And that somehow affected what we are doing currently now. And I think that happened after the campaigns that we did on the demonstration that (unintelligible) that was our (word?) campaign. And after that I think things are getting very serious. And we know that. We're kind of feeling the heat that things are getting very tight on us.
NNAMDIWhen you say they started getting very serious, what do you mean by that? What did they start doing?
SHIMELESThe intimidation increases from time to time, people who are going to try something for you to stop -- to quit what you are doing is increasing. And they are (word?) us like communicating other people around telling them that talking with online, having an interaction (unintelligible) kind of having something -- like something criminal. So they will try to give them a different signal around that you guys should take care kind of signals, you guys should take care and you guys should somehow refrain from what you are doing.
NNAMDIDo you feel that the government is spying on you?
#1Actually, I'm pretty sure about that.
#1Surveillance. It is usually through our server activities that we affect them, I mean, or influence against -- I mean, we put (unintelligible) against them through the cyber so they do that through their technologies. And I'm pretty sure about that. There are a lot of information that I have. I don't actually tell you everything because there might be people involved in telling me that. That's -- I'm kind of raw about that.
#1I mean, (unintelligible) even the blockage of our blog indicates that every time we have created any blog it will be blocked a few hours after the new blog has created.
NNAMDIKnowing that the government does not approve of what you're doing, what inspires you to continue doing it?
#2You know, we live in a repression. We have (unintelligible) of oppression. So it isn't something, an ideology, you learn in the school. It's a day-to-day life we're living, plus we'll pay a visit to (unintelligible) political prisoners. They pay a lot to have their own families, their own life. But (unintelligible) are in prison. So to spare us, we'll go (unintelligible) they're gonna spare us, but they say, (unintelligible) be brave.
NNAMDIThis is a government that came into power and came into office against a very repressive regime. Are you therefore surprised that this government is engaging in what you call the suppression of freedom of expression? Does that surprise you?
SHIMELESYes, of course, obviously. I mean, on the first five, maybe six years, up to ten years, the situation was very much better than now, on the first few years of (unintelligible) things were very good. And we had so many publications, at least we do have a very good constitution which is one of the best constitutions in the (word?). So it granted all the basic rights, democratic and freedom of expression and other related rights and (unintelligible). And I think it was really promising the first few years and now, it's very surprising that things are getting back to the last -- before the regime came (unintelligible) went back again 22 years.
NNAMDIThis is a government that has assisted the United States and other powers in Somalia. This is a government that is involved in peace talks in South Sudan. This is a government that is the headquarters of the African Union. Do you think that because of these international commitments, if you will, the government gets a pass on what you say is its repression?
NNAMDIIs the government getting good public relations because of these things as a result of which the rest of the world is not looking very closely at what this government does internally? That we are so focused on what this government is doing in the region and on the continent that we're not looking at what it's doing internally?
#1Yeah. The same was true for previous regimes. However, the previous regimes, specifically (unintelligible) regime was not as friendly as this one to the U.S. It was friendly to many and it was still good for African countries, you know. So (unintelligible) leaders usually are friends of anyone who is an outsider. But internally, they do oppressions. Every one of them oppress their people. So they make sure that no voices that affects their relation with foreigners or foreign countries has come out from the country.
#1So the foreign countries, usually they are allies -- the strongest allies like U.S. don't really care about what is happening inside. Because, you know, they are friendly and they do whatever is good for foreign countries of course. I somehow support these -- I mean, foreign relation is good. But they also have to be democratic and friendly to their own people.
SHIMELESAnd I think the stability, the (unintelligible) stable country in the Horn of Africa contributes a lot for the support from the international community. But what's not noted well is that the internal situations, internal repression, what might in the near future create an unstable country in the Horn of Africa, which is (unintelligible). Therefore, I think, considering the internal situations, the internal civil -- civil and political rights and the democratic situation is really important because it might in the near future affect -- bring a rather unstable country and which would indirectly affect the support from the international community.
SHIMELESBut that's one thing that was missed by the international community. The international communities have worked to defend government. It gives different kinds of fundings, like, it pays one of the number one countries who are receiving different fundings from the U.S. and the other international communities. But all the supports came because (unintelligible) stable country and it's a stable ally to the Horn of Africa. But in the near future, in the coming few years, if the internal oppression is keeping back (unintelligible) by itself might come one of the unstable countries around here. And that's why we need to focus on the internal (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWe'll continue our conversation with pro-democracy bloggers in Ethiopia after a break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with bloggers we met with in Adis Ababa. Soliyana Shimeles, Befekadu Hailu and Abel Wabella who write for the website Zone9. Well, we talked about journalists, but in 2005 there was a vibrant and vocal opposition, in 2010 much less so. What, in your view, did the government do to I guess suppress its parliamentary opposition?
#2They really want (unintelligible).
#2He tries -- he's a good person. He tried to do a lot, but one person is not -- only one. He doesn't have much in (unintelligible).
SHIMELESYeah, I think the changes after 2005 (unintelligible) was to sign the proclamation. (unintelligible) was very vibrant before 2005. They do have their own in the 2005 election. They had this kind of network, the civil society, before 2005 election kind of network, who had been very active in monitoring the elections, talking about elections and also mobilizing voters around -- before the 2005 election. So after 2005 election, I think in 2009, there was a draft of the (word?) proclamation, which denies the access to the (unintelligible) to get more than 10 percent of their fundings should not come from foreign sources.
SHIMELESIf they're working on human rights, water rights, (unintelligible) and a capacity for journalists and any other things that are related with human rights and democracy. And I think that all started to be implemented since January 2010 and that was significantly affected (unintelligible) society, which was (unintelligible) 2010 election. And the second one is, I think, the antiterrorism law, which was also enacted in 2009 and started to be implemented in 2010.
SHIMELESThe antiterrorism law do have this kind of very ambiguous words and ambiguous clauses, which could be used like widened and narrowed to the different context that the government wants it there for. It will make anybody potentially a terrorist and it's really easy for anyone to be labeled as terrorist or not, and it doesn't depend on the law, but it depends on the interpretation of the law. And that creates a significant fear on the journalists and the freedom of expression experienced the same also, somewhat less in society and the individual (unintelligible).
SHIMELESAnd I think the other one is there were some media (unintelligible) enacted after 2005 election, which limits the right of the ownership of the media owners. For example, you can't have any (unintelligible) at the same time. You can't have two media houses at the same time. You've got to only have one media house and it also limits the rights of the owners on having a different media outlet and something like that, and significantly also affects the outlets of the media (unintelligible) there had been so many publications forced to go out from the publication, we can't remember that after 2005, the only media who had been very vibrant was (unintelligible) which only stayed about two years.
SHIMELESAnd they were forced to flee from the country to exile because they had the information that they are gonna be charged as terrorism. Therefore after losing (unintelligible) we only have two newspapers and we lost them before the election, too. I think all of these measures, like the laws, the repression and having this (unintelligible) of those who limits the international (unintelligible). And this all (word?) brings the 2010 election which is (unintelligible).
#1Yeah, also the participation has been decreasing because since 2005 people somehow gave up that elections can make changes. So those -- the number of those people who were registered to vote in 2010 was very low. And the ones who after registered to -- got to vote, we are even low. So that significantly affected the results of the election. And many of those voted were friends and members of the winning party, so it succeeded somehow.
#1And there was a rumor since, you know, the 2005 election ended badly. People were afraid that the government comes for revenge if you voted for a different party. It's not going to give the power anyway. So it's better to keep the status quo as it is and be safe.
NNAMDIAgain, the government would make the argument that we live in a very dangerous zone. There's al-Shahab right next door to us. There is terrorism that's taking place in Kenya. And therefore we need an anti-terrorism law that makes sure that that kind of thing doesn't happen here. And so far we have been successful. How would you say that that antiterrorism law limits freedom of expression for people who simply want to oppose policies of the government, and for people who are in no way linked to terrorism?
#2For example, giving an interview for a media is -- will make you (unintelligible) a terrorist. We are very courageous to be here.
SHIMELESYeah, of course.
#2For example, one of the famous political prisoners in (unintelligible) after admitting (unintelligible) Amnesty International, so meeting with somebody else will make you a terrorist. Even if you drink a coffee with somebody who is a suspect of terrorism, you are also a terrorist. So it's open for interpretation. It will put everybody else (unintelligible) if the government wants to make you -- to silence you, they'll label you as a terrorist. That's happening on (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWhat I'm hearing here is that if and when this interview airs in Washington, D.C., that could make things more dangerous and more difficult for you. Why then are you doing this interview?
#1As activists here we are struggling -- I mean, we are challenging the factors. For example, here our government has to make or to seem lawful acts as criminal acts. So we have to challenge it by risking our own safety. That's what we do. Many journalists who are in prison now know we're not (word?), the government comes after them for writing some of the things that are (unintelligible). They knew it in advance and they're now in jails.
#1Well, I'm not suggesting that the government has to come and jail us so I can be silent. But, you know, we have to tell our countrymen and even the world people that we have to challenge the facts. Otherwise things get worse.
SHIMELESGiving interview is like a -- and actually that will -- that sometimes will make you automatically criminal (unintelligible). But I think by doing things (unintelligible) that's how we do the activism. Our campaign was respect the constitution. What we are trying to say was like the law gives us all the rights and we should exercise them. So if you are not doing it, who's going to do that? And we are preaching all those things.
NNAMDISo what you see yourselves doing here is merely exercising your rights under the Ethiopian constitution.
SHIMELESYeah, under the constitution. So it will have its own risks. I mean, writing a blog will have its own risks, doing the campaign will have its own risks, and we're doing that because it was (word?). So we'll keep on doing bigger things. And we hope that is what will inspire some other people seeing the country (unintelligible) freedom.
#2Plus we have been writing on (unintelligible) to encourage us to ask for your rights. If you fail to do that, why would you do, it will be morally unacceptable if we fail to do that.
NNAMDIWhat I also hear you saying is that the government here seems to be enjoying a great deal of international support, but is denying international support to 10 percent, to any organization that is not a government organization. If in fact the government continues to get this kind of international support and continues to act in the way you say it is acting, what is your fear for the future of Ethiopia?
SHIMELESThe silence will increase, obviously. I mean, we're keeping silent for the last, like, eight years, since 2005. Everybody's silent. The civil society side of the media is getting very silent. Individuals activists are getting silent. Therefore I think in the coming years, we might not even get individuals talking about the government policy and talking about anything which the government did. And my fear is that everything will keep silent. And we might even have some other coming generation who's really afraid of talking what's wrong in the neighborhood and in the world.
NNAMDIWell, we live in Washington, D.C., a region that has a very large number of Ethiopians who live there. And when we do radio shows on Ethiopia or any international issue, we get a lot of calls and emails from people who are strongly opposed to the government here. How important is that kind of support to you?
#1I personally want their oppositions (unintelligible) but it's really important, since some of the critical ideas they are raising are somewhat we can't raise here for our own safety. Their voices are very important, but we want also -- desire to do that in a researched manner because they sometimes go way out of line.
SHIMELESWe know that there are so many efforts in the Diaspora in support of the critics and in the activism in the country that -- that would be really nice and that will also contribute a lot if you get some strategized.
NNAMDIHow about your own overseas travel? Is that restricted in any way?
NNAMDIHave you traveled overseas in recent years?
SHIMELESYeah, we did.
NNAMDIAnd you got out and back into the country without much of a problem?
SHIMELESYeah, so far we are good. But we travel, two different reasons, personal reasons, and to meeting different individuals and groups for our own sake and sometimes as a group, but so far we're doing it.
NNAMDIWhat is your best hope for the future of your country?
#2I hope (unintelligible) our generation through no silence, we have a country which give (unintelligible) all citizens, but if (unintelligible) is still in power, there is no (unintelligible).
SHIMELESI think the end of the silence is a very good hope.
NNAMDIThe end of the silence?
SHIMELESYeah, that would be…
NNAMDIThat would be your wish for the future of Ethiopia?
NNAMDIWell, thank you all for…
NNAMDI…visiting with us today. And hopefully we'll be hearing a lot more from you in the future.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, remembering Pete Seeger. We'll be talking with folk musician Tom Paxton. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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