behind the news

Zenawi’s legacy and the future of free press in Ethiopia

The architect of press-squelching laws is gone, but his policies seem to be thriving
August 25, 2012

Ethiopia’s new rulers waited just one day after the death of dictator Meles Zenawi was announced to confirm that little change is likely for the country’s beleaguered independent journalists.

They sent that message by arresting Temesgen Desalegn, editor of the now-defunct Feteh newspaper, one of the last critical media voices in the country. Earlier, when Zenawi was alive but apparently ailing in secrecy in Belgium, the government gagged Desalegn’s newspaper for daring to report on the prime minister’s two-month absence from the limelight. Desalegn’s arrest Thursday was not reported by the state-run media, devoted to broadcasting a week-long campaign to lionize the fallen leader.

That left it to exiled media to report the news through social networks. “For those who still care about the dignity of the living, today as people mourn [Zenawi’s] death, the regime that he authored sent another journalist to jail,” wrote exiled, UK-based journalist Abiye Teklemariam on Facebook.

Desalegn’s arrest came a day after press freedom advocates called on Ethiopia’s newly minted acting Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn (no relation to Temesgen), to open the free press environment. “[Desalegn] has an opportunity to break with this fear and embrace openness to the press,” wrote Mohamed Keita, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “He can start with the unconditional release of at least eight journalists now behind bars, among them the independent blogger, Eskinder Nega, who is serving an 18-year term on baseless terrorism charges.”

Zenawi, a former freedom fighter who rebelled against another dictatorship, left a tainted legacy. A close ally of the West, especially the United States, in the global war on terror, he was charming in international circles. He was a fixture at G20 and other global economic gatherings. He wooed foreign journalists at bimonthly press conferences.

His security forces also harassed local reporters. After the post-election riot in 2005, when police killed over 200 protesters, Zenawi jailed critical journalists along with opposition leaders. Leading up to the 2010 election, the fourth Zenawi held and won, his regime instituted draconian laws that made it a crime to criticize government policy, further squeezing out the press in Ethiopia.

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“Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging Prime Minister in Africa but I always felt that when I talked to Ethiopians about him, it seemed like I was speaking about a different person,” said Richard Dowden, a former journalist who now directs the Royal African Society. “It was as if he had two personalities,” he said, one for Ethiopians, the other for Westerners.

Zenawi’s cruelty to his own people and media was not unknown to the US. The US State Department documented human rights violations and restrictions on free press in annual reports, and Zenawi blocked the US government-funded Voice of America broadcasts. But he was a reliable ally who was willing to fight Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia on America’s behalf, and he allowed the US to set up a drone launch center inside Ethiopia.

US officials responded to news of his death accordingly.

“I am grateful for Prime Minister Meles’s service for peace and security in Africa, his contributions to the African Union, and his voice for Africa on the world stage,” President Barack Obama said in his condolence letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sits on the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees VOA’s operations, admired and remembered Zenawi as “an important and influential voice in Africa.”

Feteh editor Desalegn’s arrest caps a grim summer that saw many international and Ethiopian websites blocked by authorities. He was charged with attempting to incite youth rebellion, defamation, and agitating the public through false reports, and returns to court to face those charges in September.

With his newspaper shuttered, Desalegn turned to his Facebook wall to post his final thoughts before being sent to Kaliti prison Thursday afternoon, after he was denied bail. ”Since the charges against me were severe, [the state media’s report of the charges] was a way of telling to leave the country. Yet, whatever the outcome, since I do not have another country, tomorrow, I will appear before Ethiopia’s 16th circuit criminal court,” wrote Desalegn on August 15.

“Just in case these are my final words; I am at peace knowing it is a sacrifice that I have to make for my country…I am hopeful that Feteh’s strong spirit will live on through my colleagues.”

By arresting Desalegn this week, Zenawi’s successors seem intent on continuing down the path he charted—one where the free press and journalists were seen as enemies of the state.

Mohammed Ademo is a journalist at Al Jazeera America. He’s also the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia. He can be reached on Twitter @OPride.