Ethiopia: Press freedom, the law and democracy

Published on Pambazuka News, by Ron Singer, June 23, 2011.

Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of Ethiopian newspaper, the Awramba Times, speaks to Ron Singer about the perils of working in the media – from his arrest by the government to his struggle to get a license for a new paper – and his disappointment with US academics’ failure to support Ethiopian democracy.

Dawit Kebede (b. 1980) is editor-in-chief of the Awramba Times, a weekly newspaper in Amharic which has the second-largest circulation of any Ethiopian paper, and which is also the sole remaining dissident print newspaper inside the country. Kebede is the recipient of a 2010 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

Dawit met me at my hotel, The Jerusalem, during the evening of 25 January 25 2011. I never visited his workplace, but, according to a recent video, Awramba’s ‘office‘ is a hole in the wall; the toilet, literally a hole in the floor. His staff of 12, poorly paid, some part-time, are said to perform a ‘labor of love.’

Dawit seemed very happy to talk and was very forthcoming, although his story was, to some extent, a litany of misfortune. We spoke for almost two hours. Highlights of the interview include his attitude toward the law and the detailed story of his 2005 arrest, his release 21 months later, conditional pardon, and long struggle to get a license for a new paper. Also noteworthy is his impassioned complaint against the US government and American academic ‘experts’ for their failure to support Ethiopian democracy. Kebede represents the younger generation of Ethiopian dissident journalists, so his story complements that of his older compatriot, Eskinder Nega.



The government’s going after Dawit Kebede for trying to subvert the Constitution is ironic, since he is a strict legalist. Government press attacks of his article about Ethiopian opposition groups that operate from Eritrea implicitly point to Ethiopia’s alarmingly broad Anti-Terrorism law, which extends even to mentioning outlawed groups by name. Kebede’s article also implicitly endorses widespread criticism of the weak, flawed opposition. The recent turn toward bellicosity in official Ethiopian policy toward Eritrea may explain why the Government chose to attack Kebede for this article.

His account of how he went about regaining his press license in 2007 also underlines his respect for law. But this respect is at least partly tactical. As he says, he ‘testifies,’ which is a way to expose the flaws in Ethiopia’s legal system. However, to a more extreme dissident, Eskinder Nega, this tactic compromises Kebede’s effectiveness.

Like many others to whom I spoke in both Ethiopia and Kenya, Dawit Kebede seems to idealise American democracy. Even his specific criticisms imply that the US remains a beacon for democratic activists. Understandably, perhaps, the needs of beleaguered Ethiopian journalists may partly blind them to the serious failings of their model. (full long text).

* This interview with Dawit Kebede will be incorporated into a chapter about the press in Ethiopia in Ron Singer’s forthcoming book, ‘Uhuru Revisited’ (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press).

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