Walking the Line: Excerpts from an Interview with Amare Aregawi in Addis Ababa

Walking the Line:  Excerpts from an Interview with Amare Aregawi in Addis Ababa

Master of All He Surveys. Amare Aregawi on the roof of The Reporter bulding, Feb. 7, 2011.

Walking the Line:

Excerpts from an Interview with Amare Aregawi in Addis Ababa, February 7th, 2011.

by Ron Singer

Given the democratic uprisings currently sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, Ethiopian newspapers are currently subject to heightened scrutiny. Essentially a one-party state, Ethiopia has generated a spectrum of news outlets, at one pole of which are the monopoly government radio and TV stations and their print mouthpiece, Addis Zemen. At the other pole are a single dissident newspaper, Awramba Times, and numerous dissident blogs from the diaspora.

Somewhere in the middle are widely read publications with both print and online editions, including two weekly business papers, Capital and Fortune. But the publication with probably the largest circulation of all is The Reporter, which produces print and online editions in both Amharic (bi-weekly), and English (weekly). The Reporter is owned and edited by a fascinating man named Amare Aregawi. The paper’s motto is “Free Press, Free Speech, Free Spirit.” reliable circulation statistics for Ethiopian newspapers are very hard to come by, but if one believes an editor at The Reporter, the English edition print run is 5000, and the Amharic, 20,000. Multiply these figures by ten or twenty readers per copy, , and you will realize that 15% of the country’s literate population reads The Reporter each week (and there are many more, presumably, to whom it is read).

Amare grew up with, and was a fellow combatant of, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He is said, however, to be an enemy of Minister of Communications Bereket Simon, so his relationship with the government is complex and controversial.

This interview proved very difficult to schedule. Several phone calls having produced nothing, I finally just showed up at the newspaper on a Friday afternoon. The offices of The Reporter are in a four-story building in Medhane Alem, a neighborhood in Addis Ababa named for an imposing cathedral. After a short wait, I was told by Senior editor Melaku Demissie to come back Monday afternoon. When I returned on Monday, I was asked to wait again, because everyone was in an editorial meeting.

After about half an hour, in strode Amare Aregawi, a short, compactly built man dressed in immaculate business attire. As he would explain, he was coming not from the editorial meeting, but from Court, having just made his 414th appearance there. Although he seemed surprised to see me, he showed me into his office, where we wound up talking for an hour. Afterward, he invited me up to the roof, where I was able to enjoy panoramic views of the city, and even the presence of a circling hawk.

In the interests of balancing several other interviews that I have published with dissident Ethiopian journalists,* the following excerpts present Amare’s nuanced explanation of the causes for the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia, and his suggestions for a remedy to this, and other, problems of Ethiopian journalism.

* See, e.g., “Politics and the Press in Ethiopia: An Interview with Journalist Abiye Teklemariam,” The Faster Times, Dec. 15, 2009: http://thefastertimes.com/world/2009/12/15/politics-and-the-press-in-ethiopia-an-interview-with-journalist-abiye-teklemariam/

Four Sectors that Hamper Press Freedom in Ethiopia Today.

AA: To make things clear to you, press freedom in Ethiopia is a victim of four sectors. One is the government. At the beginning, we had a very good article in our Constitution about press freedom. That was about seventeen years ago. It’s the same, word by word, as in the U.N. Universal Human Rights Declaration.

RS: How can you do better than that?

AA: That’s fantastic. No limit, no boundary. But then the laws come … to me, the laws don’t actually reflect the Constitution. And some of the laws that do, like the Broadcasting law, which allows Ethiopians to own private television … we don’t have private television. Some laws, good, Constitution good, but the fact is, some laws act against the Constitution. The government is responsible in retreating from its own Constitution.

RS: Some of the laws contradict the Constitution: the security law, the libel law, and so on.

AA: Yes. Other African countries don’t have as good a Constitution as Ethiopia. But our practice is backward. So the government is responsible. But I would also say the media, itself, is responsible. One: corruption. Two: unethical. Three: unprofessional. Also, no associations, anarchic.

RS: Cowboys.

AA: Yes. So why do we blame the government? If the press wants change, it has to investigate and criticize itself, also.

RS: What has kept the press from unifying, adopting a code of conduct, and so on?

AA: Highly political. Some are attached to the government. Some are attached to the opposition. Very few independent ones, with less financial capacity.

RS: Can I ask you about specific journalists?

AA: No, I’m not going to talk about that. I know my newspaper is absolutely independent. But there are some [other] newspapers, like … Fortune, Capital, Addis Admass, those are the private press.

RS: Independent newspapers?

AA: I would say so. … . So the second one is the press, itself. The third is that, in Ethiopia, we don’t have an opposition that understands press freedom. You don’t see them fighting, they don’t raise the issue. What they want is a media that supports them. The day you criticize them, they are your enemies.

RS: No exceptions?

AA: There could be one exception, but …

RS: What about Bulcha? Is he an exception?

[Bulcha Demeksa is an elder statesman and opposition figure in Parliament, representing the Oromo.]

AA: No, I wouldn’t say so. I didn’t hear him fighting in the Parliament for press freedom. Or talking in any place. Or publishing. When election comes, you hear them … But I want the opposition parties to talk the full five years, not five days on the eve of the election.

RS: I read something else in the paper recently, the coverage of where, like the British House of Commons, your Parliament got to question Meles about his new five-year development plan. I don’t mean to be insulting, but it sounded like a love-in. Surely, there are parliamentarians sophisticated enough in Economics to have asked at least a few good, hard questions. Are you and Meles the only two men in the country who read The Economist? What was going on?

[Watch www.diretube.com/ethiopian.../pm-meles-addressing-the-parliament-april-05-2011-parts-1,2,3-video_13b678a1e.html - Cached]

AA: I don’t know. To be honest, when I say we have a weak opposition, that’s what I mean. In the previous government, Bulcha was Minister of Trade and Finance. And he doesn’t raise any economic issues in Parliament.

RS: Why wouldn’t he?

AA: That’s what I mean.

RS: Maybe, he’s too old.

AA: No, if he’s too old to talk about Economics, he’s too old to talk about social issues.

RS: Economics is very tiring. Are you going to write an editorial about that parliamentary questioning session?

AA: I’ve written a lot about the Parliament.

RS: But that specific one. I gather that, last year, the questions were more serious.

AA: Even before, when there were more opposition members, I never heard substantial questions raised about Economics, or about press freedom or about human rights, or about diplomacy. I always write in the newspaper, “Do your homework, research, come up with alternatives.’

RS: What about people in his party? Wouldn’t some of them want to ask hard questions?

AA: I’m not talking only about the Opposition. Even in the party, what the Prime Minster says is taken for … . Give ten minutes to somebody, I never saw anybody using that ten minutes properly. It’s not just a problem of talking in Parliament, it’s [a problem of] not having an alternative political program. If you come to power, what would you do with industry? With agriculture?

RS: I read that idea first in Paul Henze’s book. Henze uses the point as an apologia for government resistance to things like press freedom.

[Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000).]

AA: It shouldn’t be used like that. We need a democratic society to encourage people to learn.

RS: He may have made a correct observation in the service of a wrong conclusion.

AA: The weakness of the Opposition shouldn’t be an excuse for the ruling party, and the weakness of the ruling party shouldn’t be an excuse for the Opposition. Everybody should do his homework… even the media.… The fourth one is, I criticize the international media institutions. They only remember about Ethiopia when they want to write a report. Sometimes, even the angle they come to it is funny. They say the situation is growing much worse, because ten journalists are in prison. And next time, “Oh, it’s improving,” because eight of them are released.

RS: That sounds like there’s not much understanding.

AA: It’s not only the number in prison. Our government can ignore you, but push you outside the country. Or ignore you and make sure you’re not getting strong. I want those international organizations to do better research. Put up or shut up.

RS: I understand that most foreign correspondents have left the country.

AA: Some of them are here –Reuters. Anyway, I’m not talking about foreign journalists, I’m talking about foreign institutions. CPJ, Reporters without Frontiers [sic: Reporters without Borders]. The way they analyze the situation in Ethiopia is from a very narrow angle.

RS: But I’ve heard that foreign journalists have left because they find it too hard to practice here.

AA: Perhaps. But there is no law to say foreign journalists can’t work here.

RS: In practice, they found it too hard. I’ve heard that from a couple of journalists, one who retired and one who’s still working here.

AA: I don’t know. I’m not saying they’re wrong or right. And if they face problems, they are only taking their share. This is what I mean. Instead of analyzing what is wrong with the press situation in Ethiopia, these people will say, “It’s bad because I cannot talk.” To make a change … What about if nobody touched you, does that mean press freedom here is good?

A Way Forward

RS: How do you see a way past this? A way to improve journalism and to foster press freedom in Ethiopia?

AA: That’s what my organization, Horn of Africa Press Institute [HAPI], is doing.

RS: What does the organization do, exactly?

AA: We research on press freedom. We lobby on press freedom.

RS: It sounds like an NGO.

AA: It is supposed to be an NGO, but I didn’t want to make it an NGO because of some laws. So let’s make it private.

RS: Because of the legal restrictions on NGO’s from engaging in activities that can be considered political?

[“Ethiopian Parliament Adopts Repressive New NGO Law,” Amnesty International, 8 January, 2009.

http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/ethiopian-parliament-adopts-repressive-new-ngo-law-20090108]

AA: Because, if you advocate for press freedom, you’re talking about democracy. So you can say I’m out of politics, but I’m for press freedom. If it was an NGO, I’d lose my right to fight for press freedom. I’d rather forget the money and work for my commitment.

RS: What, more specifically, does the organization do?

AA: We organize meetings, we get some support services… and myself, I’m trying to write a book. If you help me, eh?

RS: Always good. Help from me? I don’t think you need my help! Maybe, my book’s chapter on Ethiopian journalism will be of some small help, but …

AA: No, no, I’ll take care of it. Things like that. One of the biggest problems in Ethiopia, which foreign countries, press, donors, intellectuals, others, forget is that we don’t have institutions, we’re not building institutions. I want the press, the courts, the police, to be institutions. We need an institutional framework for the media. Otherwise, somebody comes and says, “You cannot talk,” and you can’t. He says, “It’s sunny,” when it’s cloudy … “ I was in court today. I see many judges having 60, 70, 80 cases per day. They don’t have time to give you justice. You have to have a proper budget, enough judges. Otherwise, anyone –you, me—will make a mess. I’m talking loudly now, but put me in as a judge, and what would I do? “Adjourned for September … adjourned for October … adjourned for November.”

RS: Yeah, I have to go and read up on the law for six months.

AA: Institution-building is very important.

RS: It’s hard to get momentum here, isn’t it?

AA: Yes, that’s one of the things I criticize the government for, not focusing on institution-building. I’m trying to start a School of Journalism. I met this guy from Kentucky, and I have him my initial draft of curriculum for a degree course.

Conclusions.

I emerged from this interview with a sense that I still did not fully understand Amare Aregawi or the murky world in which Ethiopia’s paper democracy forces its journalists to operate. When I sought the guidance of my publisher, the exiled Eritrean pro-democratic activist, Kassahun Checole, he sent this illuminating reply, in an email:

Amare is an enigmatic personality. The Reporter’s investigative reports were hard-hitting and provocative. They are pointed and often directed against the ruling party. I have to wait and see how far his ‘crossing the line’ kind of reporting will go.

In the aftermath of the interview, when I moved on to Nairobi, several prominent Kenyan journalists mocked Amare’s pan-African journalistic plans as quixotic and provincial. This mockery certainly highlights how relatively undeveloped the Ethiopian press has been kept. Even so, I feel that it is best to take Amare at his word, because either some good, or at least nothing bad, could come of his proposed plans. In a broader context, institution-building is exactly what a friend, Professor Peter Lewis of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has repeatedly said to me is the linchpin for developing African democracy. Finally, when Amare was in the U.S. in June, he called with the good news that the University of Kentucky had just agreed to partner his efforts to establish an independent school of journalism in Ethiopia.

The interview with Amare Aregawi will be incorporated into Chapter Four, “Ethiopia: Journalism in a Paper Democracy,” in Ron Singer’s book, Uhuru Revisited (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).

Photo: Master of All He Surveys. Amare Aregawi on the roof of The Reporter bulding, Feb. 7, 2011.

Master of All He Surveys. Amare Aregawi on the roof of The Reporter bulding, Feb. 7, 2011.

Ron Singer’s writings on Africa have appeared in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, democracy now, The Georgia Review, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He also writes poetry, pro ...read more

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