Kassahun Addis knew he would eventually need to leave Ethiopia after spotting his own name on a government-issued press statement.
Addis, an Addis Ababa newspaper journalist who often worked with visiting foreign correspondents, was freaked out. “They said I was working with Western elements to destabilize the country,” he says. “When they name you individually, they usually end up charging you.”
Though Ethiopia has close relations with Western democracies, its press climate is repressive. In 2014 it had 17 journalists in jail, the fourth-highest number in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Only China, Iran and neighboring Eritrea had more.
Addis, now 32, could have been one of them. His news coverage of Ethiopia's military invasion of Somalia in 2006 as well as his reporting on sensitive issues like misuse of foreign aid and starvation led to government warnings. His work for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about rights abuses in the country also drew the government's ire. In 2009, he got a tip that prosecutors had requested his file from Ethiopia's communications' office and that he was to be charged within days.
Addis packed his bags and hopped on a plane to Kenya, where he lived until being granted refugee status in the United States. The transition was difficult. In Ethiopia, he had been among an elite group attending press conferences with the prime minister and sessions of parliament. His work appeared not only in some of Ethiopia's largest private newspapers but in Western outlets including Time and the Washington Post. In the U.S., he worked as a busboy at a hot dog restaurant before winning a scholarship to attend Bucknell University, where he recently graduated with a degree in political science. He now lives in New York and is studying computer programming. He spoke with Global Journalist's Batul Hassan about being forced from his home country and the challenges of starting anew.
Global Journalist: Can you describe an instance when government officials harassed you?
Kassahun Addis: Once, a Voice of America reporter came and wanted to do a report about press freedom in Ethiopia. She wanted to use me in a video feature -- a small documentary -- and she asked for an interview. … I told her, “oh, there is a lacking of press freedom in the country and there is harassment and intimidation of journalists.” This is what my colleagues would complain about.
She went back to America and the story was aired. And in it, I was saying there isn’t real press freedom and there is intimidation. I was pulled into interrogation [by the government] and I was saying, “Yeah, that’s what my colleagues and I would tell you and press freedom and human rights organizations.”
…They said, “All right, you’re not getting a permit to write and we actually want you to hand over your permit to work as a foreign correspondent.”
I was like, “You were just telling me that journalists aren’t being harassed! That no journalists are being intimidated for expressing their views. And you are doing exactly that: you are harassing me because I expressed my views, whether right or wrong, you are harassing and intimidating me. You are threatening me with revoking my license to work. This is exactly what I was talking about! You just proved me right.”
And they said, “Oh just leave the room,” and so I left.
GJ: What other kinds of reporting was the government concerned about?
Addis: After I started working with Time magazine, there was the drought in Ethiopia in 2009. It was really big and I wrote a piece and they weren’t happy. They said, why are you exposing the image of the country? I said, I’m a journalist and this is happening. It’s happening and this is the job of a journalist. But the government was worried about its image. Where I went, children were dying, they were severely malnourished — so I wrote about this, the effects of the droughts.
GJ: When did threats become more serious?
Addis: The time I started feeling really threatened was when the government an assessment. It’s a weekly government statement on policy issues, what’s going on in the country, issues they think are important for the week. And one week they issued a statement naming me. They said I was working with Western elements to destabilize the country. They named me and that freaked me out. Usually when they name you on the government media, name you individually, then bad things really follow.
GJ: Do you still have relationships with journalists in Ethiopia?
Addis: I would tell you that more than 70 percent of my journalist friends are in prison now. Actually, when I talk to them, it’s only when they leave the country for conferences, for trainings. We meet, we talk over the phone, but once they’re back in Ethiopia they don’t want to talk to me. They think it’s a dangerous thing to do. I understand.
After I came here I tried many times to start a news website, but they immediately get blocked in Ethiopia. I’ve tried to have people write for me, but even if I offer good money, nobody wants to do it. There’s the danger of associating with me or with a critical website. And actually after a while, I understood and I stopped asking and somehow gave up. You can’t just have a news website when you’re sitting very far from the place. You have to use the people and you can’t help them when they’re at risk and you’re sitting far away from the danger. That’s a moral dilemma with me, … I don’t want to put anyone’s life in danger. Maybe, probably, I could be the reason for the government to put someone in jail.
GJ: Are you still working as a journalist?
Addis: No, not really... One of the things about foreign media is that once you are out of the region, then you’re basically useless. You don’t have that advantage of having original knowledge... Maybe if you have a good personal relationship with your former editors, they may help you.
But companies like the Washington Post or Time, they don’t know. My name is on the bottom line of those papers or the byline, but the companies don’t know what I have been through. So, after you leave your home, you’re like a fish out of its natural habitat, water, and it’s a struggle to fit in a new environment. You can’t simply focus on pursuing your writing. It’s very difficult…these are private companies and I don’t think they care.
...Don’t get me wrong, most of the people, bureau chiefs at the regional level are really nice people and will go the extra mile to help you with this kind of trouble. But as far as big companies are concerned, I think nobody is holding them responsible. Otherwise, there would be ways they could help. Luckily I have good friends, good relationships with the people I was working with, so I didn’t face too much difficulty. But [other Ethiopian journalists in exile] I have worked with, they have a hard time setting up.