News / Africa

Ethiopian Journalists Flee as Others Tried for Terror

Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011.
Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011.

Two newspaper columnists known for sharp criticisms of Ethiopia's government are reported to have fled into exile, just as other journalists being tried on charges of treason and espionage.

Ethiopia's journalist community was abuzz Tuesday with word that "Abe Tokichaw" has become the latest government critic to flee the country. The pen name, which in the Oromo language means "Abe the one and only," is the moniker of writer Abebe Tola, who gained notoriety for political satire that pokes fun at Ethiopia's ruling party and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

His irreverent columns have appeared in two privately owned newspapers, Feteh (Justice) and the Awramba Times, both known for their anti-government editorial line.

Abebe was last seen by colleagues a few days ago at the trial of Awramba Times Deputy Editor Woubshet Taye, and Feteh columnist Reeyot Alemu, both of whom were arrested in July on terrorism-related charges. At the time, a government spokesman said the arrests had nothing to do with their professional activities.

Abebe is reported to have fled in the company of Tesfaye Degu, who writes a column for the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party newspaper.

A topic of discussion

The number of government critics in exile was the topic of discussion Tuesday at the terrorism trial of 24 others, including at least six journalists and a number of opposition political figures.

All but one of the journalists are living abroad and working with opposition media. The only journalist in the defendant's box: Eskinder Nega, who continued to blog after four newspapers that he and his wife operated were shut down following the disputed 2005 elections.

Political figures standing trial include Andualem Arage and Natnael Mekonnen, two rising stars in the UDJ, the largest party in the main opposition coalition Medrek. The UDJ chairman, former Ethiopian president Negaso Gidada, said the espionage and treason charges they face sound like the legitimate activities of any political organizer.

"Andualem and Natnael are official leaders of UDJ, and whatever they speak is for UDJ," said Gidada. "Unless [the prosecutors] have very different evidence, the accusations they brought against them should be in fact directed against UDJ. Public relations, youth organizing - they are supposed to do these things, and saying that Andualem and Natnael are accused of these things is really funny."

The exiled journalists being tried in absentia include senior editors of Addis Neger, a newspaper that closed down in the face of government pressure in 2009. The paper has continued its critical editorial line in an online edition.

Several other journalists have since gone into exile, including Argaw Ashine. Argaw was named in a WikiLeaks cable as having warned the Addis Neger staff that they were the target of a government investigation.

All 24 defendants on trial Tuesday are accused of belonging to the outlawed Ginbot 7 party led by Berhanu Nega and Andargachew Tsige. Ginbot 7 is the Ethiopian calendar date of Ethiopia's disputed 2005 elections, in which Berhanu was elected mayor of Addis Ababa.

Andargachew, described in the charge as the founder of Ginbot 7, is accused of working with Ethiopia's arch enemy Eritrea to organize a terrorist plot aimed at assassinating senior public officials and attacking sensitive government institutions.

Both Andargachew and Berhanu were tried in absentia in the same court on similar charges last year. Both were sentenced to death.

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