The journalist as terrorist: an Ethiopian story

The Ethiopian government led by prime minister Meles Zenawi uses charges of terrorism to silence and intimidate its domestic critics. The political technique is now being extended by accusing independent journalists of conspiracy. One of his targets, Abiye Teklemariam Megenta, responds.

I couldn't say that nothing prepared me for the morning of 8 November 2011. Over the past year, Ethiopians have become accustomed to our country's prime minister's ex-cathedra declarations that most of his opponents and dissidents are "terrorists" who belong in prison - and are saved from only by his benignity and patience. Meles Zenawi's declarations, to be fair to him, were also given a legal basis in 2009, when the Ethiopian parliament passed a law that criminalises almost all acts of dissent as terrorism. If that law had been implemented to its fullest extent, no critic of Zenawi would have been left standing. It is that stifling.

But even Zenawi's kindness has its limits. Since June 2011, terrorism trials have increased steadily. Human Rights Watch reports that in these five months, the Ethiopian government has charged at least thirty-three people under the 2009 proclamation. Even during the Ethiopian new year, which falls in September, Ethiopian dissidents were given no respite from these attacks.

The world barely noticed these politico-criminal dramas in one of the west's closest African allies - until the unfortunate arrest and trial of two Swedish journalists. Good news? Well, a useful rule of thumb is that if the Ethiopian government treats foreigners from donor countries badly, it treats locals even worse. And the calculated anti-west outbursts of Ethiopian officials, which are usually interpreted by some hapless foreign journalists and diplomats in Addis Ababa as a general hostility to westerners, are less than they seem: reminiscent of Hamid Karzai's grandstanding. To paraphrase the senior United States military commander Peter Fuller, who resigned following his criticism of Afghan leaders, Ethiopian officials have a fit when they want to replace cod with swordfish in the menu.

But with all this in mind, the charges were still upsetting. They allege, first, that I have promoted the views of diverse Ethiopian "terrorist groups", both on the online newspaper I co-founded and on some (unnamed) social-media networks. In fact, these groups have only one thing in common, namely the overthrow of Meles Zenawi's rule and the establishment of a democratic system in Ethiopia. My "promotion" of them in various reports consisted in nothing more than quoting their statements: the sort of thing that journalists do every day, and for which many journalists in Ethiopia are already in jail.

The second, graver, charge alleges that I am a member of a conspiracy network that has caused or tried to cause acts of terrorism in Ethiopia with the help of foreign governments. So bereft of details is the accusation that it might as well have been copied from a Muammar Gaddafi speech. Indeed, to the misfortune of his victims, Zenawi shares with Gaddafi (at least in the penultimate phase of the latter's career) the experience of being feted by many of these foreign governments as a transformative leader and worthy ally.

Behind the image

Meles Zenawi’s greatest trick has been to convince a lot of people in the west that he is an intelligent and prudent leader. The basis for such an image is ever-shifting. In the 1990s, it was based on his ability to stabilise a war-ravaged country. When the Ethiopia-Eritrea war undermined his claim to be a peacemaker, he adopted the guise of a pro-western and pro-democracy reformer, advising Tony Blair on how to nurture civil society and free media in Africa and using Bushisms such as "enemy of freedom" to attack "jihadists". During the Iraq war, he quickly joined the "coalition of the willing". Yet his status among some prominent members of the anti-war intelligentsia was unaffected; leading American economists Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Dani Rodrik were among the regular travellers to Addis Ababa.

It took the controversial elections of 2005, and the brutal crackdown of dissent that followed, to begin to erode the illusion of Meles Zenawi's democratic credentials. Yet even from the ashes of that debacle a new image emerged: of the leader as a technocratic, if dictatorial, leader who had been able to crack the code of east Asia's rise and download it into an Ethiopian hardware. This latest identity cohered well with the emerging discourse about the gap between responsible and responsive government, and the paralysis of decision-making in democracies. It was also fuelled by the World Bank’s unquestioning endorsement - against the well-founded scepticism of some economists - of Ethiopia's official, spectacular growth numbers. There is not even a single independent institution in Ethiopia able to assess and verify the government's claims.

It is not difficult to comprehend why many intellectuals and policymakers in the west find Meles Zenawi alluring. He is an articulate and fluent man known to to read the books of scholars he is about to meet and convey the impression that he finds their work profound. This eloquent mirroring of the ideas of visitors, including wonkish politicians and policy-makers, is a sure route to the latter's servility. Some of this effect is owed to a contrast made by western observers between Zenawi and other African leaders, which leads to the conclusion that he is "different": the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.

A matter of justice

There is nothing intrinsically deplorable about admiring the intellect of a tyrant. The grievous mistake is to let such a judgment cloud the imperative of evaluating fairly the regime's nature and designing policy on the ground of solid evidence. If the mountain of well-documented reports of international human-rights groups and the experiences of people like me are to be believed, Zenawi’s Ethiopia has become one of the most despotic places in the world. Dissent is criminalised. Most members of the non-state media have either left the country or are locked in the country's abusive prisons. Opposition parties operate in an extremely constrained political space.

The tactics of divide and rule, co-option and repression have eviscerated Ethiopia's social trust, destroyed political institutions and decimated independent voices - and it seems that Zenawi is intent on intensifying such tactics rather than reversing them. The economy is beset by very high inflation, high unemployment and a foreign-exchange crunch; the private sector, dominated by rentier cronies of the prime minister's ruling party, is one of the least competitive and the most stagnant in Africa. There is precious little here that justifies the respect that the architect of this system is internationally accorded.

As I await my extradition hearing, Meles Zenawi continues to hobnob with the world's most powerful politicians in meetings which are organised to solve our planet's major problems. Neither his very long tyrannical rule nor my life as a liberal journalist with an unwavering commitment to justice and non-violent struggle suggests that we deserve our respective places. Real life can indeed be stranger than fiction.