31 May 2019

My experience reporting in Ethiopia: from the democratization process to the drought crisis

                                                       By Margherita Cargasacchi 

Addis Ababa is a colorful city sinking beneath the mountains into a valley of high-rise buildings under construction, clashing with slums and children grazing goats and lambs while cars wallpapered with pictures of the Virgin Mary roar around and pop up from everywhere. In the ochre and dusty city of Addis the crazy chaos seems to have its own meaningful order of things.
There is a positive energy in this city which overwhelms you with its warm colors - red, yellow, orange and pink stand out in every street - along with Christian and Muslim morning prayers and the aroma of freshly ground coffee. Three weeks after my return from Ethiopia, I can say that being there was an incredible work and life experience for me.


I travelled to Ethiopia with the organization I work for, the International Observatory of Human Rights, on 27th April to tell the story of a country which is undertaking a huge democratization process. We were all very glad that we were able to participate somehow in this change: my colleagues and I finally managed to tell a positive human rights story.  For journalists, human rights stories are rarely happy ones. Only a year ago, Ethiopia was one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world. It was only when Dr. Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, that democratic reforms were issued, journalists were released from prison, private media were able to operate in the country and “thorny” websites were unblocked.

Democratic change within a country always takes time, so before leaving England I was a bit skeptical. Once in Ethiopia, I found the strength of its people who are trying to do good and better for their country. Although the government still has many challenges to face - ethnic division is just one of them - I could feel a new positive vibe. While covering the giant steps that Abiy’s administration has made, for IOHR TV, we met Ethiopian journalists, bloggers and people who lived in exile for many years, like EILCO’s founders. Despite what they went through, they now want to share their own experience and make this democratic change not only possible, but also felt by the rest of the population. The most powerful freeze-frame I’ve brought back home is the emotions in the eyes of people like Bekele Woyecha and journalist Woubshet Taye when meeting the Prime Minister at the World Press Freedom Day dinner gala. I can’t even imagine how it must have felt when the new Prime Minister of your homeland, a country you were not allowed to enter for many years, tells you: “Welcome home. We need you”.

As a journalist myself, it was a privilege to meet someone like Woubshet Taye, who unjustly spent seven years in jail for his critical coverage of the government. When I asked him who he is today, he said that he is nobody, just someone who is trying to do his job. His answer really made me realize that freedom of expression in the Western world is often taken for granted by journalists themselves. We need to do more to support the challenges and struggles that our colleagues face in developing countries and dictatorships. Campaigns to protect journalists worldwide are, in fact, a quite recent phenomenon. Pressure means a lot for them. Look at the case of Reuters' journalists in Myanmar. The international pressure was significant in this case. Back in Addis we interviewed the brother of Reuters' journalist Wa Lone, who was imprisoned in Myanmar. A few days after World Press Freedom Day in Ethiopia, Wa Lone and his colleague Kyaw Soo Oe were released.

When I arrived in the country, the Ethiopians I met were so thrilled about the new political situation that for a moment I thought that they were overlooking the gaps that still had to be filled, but I was wrong. The people I met are attentive critical thinkers. Between exploring the city, tasting Tej and seeing amazing dancers at the restaurant - Yod Abyssinia, I also had the chance to meet the students and the head of the university of journalism at the Addis Ababa University. They are all very aware about what needs to be done and how journalism could blossom in the country: students recognise that access to state owned information and unemployment are still challenging issues; Amanuel Abdissa, of the school of journalism, told me that a quantitative growth of media has taken place versus a qualitative one and that investigative journalism is still hard to do; blogger Befekadu Hailu, who was jailed four times, told me that a new law passed by the Parliament will decrease income of broadcasters by 45% and that the new government instituted an Advisory Council to reform the justice system and look at repressive laws that are still practiced.

After seeing how Ethiopians and the diaspora like EILCO are trying to create change, I would like to do some voluntary work and be involved in journalism training projects.


I didn’t just have the opportunity to report in the fourth largest city in Africa, Addis Ababa, but I was able to put myself to the test in a different environment. We travelled with Oxfam to the north of the country, Mekele, to cover how the drought crisis and climate change are impacting the lives of small communities there. When crossing the lands of the north of Ethiopia in an off-road vehicle, people and children on the streets were looking at us astonished. It was probably one of the first times that they saw white people. “Faringi, Faringi”, “foreigner, foreigner”, children shouted as watchmen whenever we got out of the car, then asking us to donate some pens.

In the Tigray region, Oxfam launched a project dedicated to landless youth and women to give them a good life alternative: beekeeping. This business perfectly fits into the very arid landscape they live in. There, cattle don’t have any grass to munch. Moreover, Ethiopia is famous for its special white honey, so beekeeping is definitely a good opportunity for them. I was struck, not just by the change this project brought to people’s quality of life, but also by how it empowered them and positively influenced the idea of themselves.

Teferi Kassa, a 22-year-old man, is very proud of himself today. He tried many times to immigrate illegally to Saudi Arabia to escape the hard life of his village. In the end, he decided to stay in Ethiopia as Oxfam trained him to become a beekeeper. He now manages many bee colonies and sells his delicious white honey to the local market. With the money he has earned, he bought a pool that he rents to this village. He then invests the money back into his beekeeping business.

In his small village, everybody now sees him as a successful entrepreneur. He now feels fulfilled, but others like him didn’t have the same chance. 15 young men from the same district escaped the warm land of Africa and drowned trying to find hope in Europe. My country, Italy, is witnessing this humanitarian crisis. After meeting young people there, its new stance on migration makes me question even more about the role of ‘bridge counties’ like mine and about how EU countries need to work together to face this issue. Just this week The Economist dedicated a lot of space to the bond climate-migration stating that “Moving is a rational way to adapt to a changing environment”.

However, when I met the second beekeeper and her husband, I realized that they didn’t understand why their two sons and daughters went illegally to Saudi Arabia. It was moving to talk to them about how new generations’ goals and ideas have changed, compared to the values and culture of elders. On the wall of their house, a poster written in Tigrigna says: “It’s only when you are far away from each other that you really miss someone”.

28 May 2019

Invest in the future today –Take Ethiopian youth and women on board

As Ethiopia goes through changes, there is a need to invest in the Ethiopian youth and women. A need to invest in the future generations and reap the fruits together. A need to encourage Ethiopian young people and women to be active citizens that speak loud and clear; to make sure Ethiopian youth and women are fully empowered and actively engaged in local, regional and national democracy.

Need assessment

Ethiopian young people and women live in a country with institutions that lack democratic culture, principles and accountability.  Our young people and women had been part of what George Soros in his essay Open Society Needs Defending  refers as a closed society. These young people and women now live in an open society - Ethiopia.

60% of Ethiopians are below 25 years of age. These people live in different parts of the country and make a majority. They are keen to see a better Ethiopia. They want to see their voices heard and included. They want to be part of the change process. Yet we often see silence. We see silent majority. Yes a few do speak loud; louder than many others. But that is not enough. There is a need to get the balance right. A need to bring the silent majority on board.

Although we have seen a transformation of the gender balance at governmental and institutional level, with many prominent women and young leaders being appointed to positions of power and responsibility, we still have a long way to go. The impacts of these appointments will be minimal unless they are matched by changes in the grassroots of the Ethiopian people – the wider society. It is, therefore, vital we pave ways for young people and women to be part of this change making process as we cannot sustain the change without them; or change and progress remain dreams!

What can be done

It is vital to design projects that will highlight the challenges facing the silent majority, at times anxious middle, and what it takes to overcome these challenges. We need projects that aim at encouraging Ethiopian youth and women to actively engage in what matters to them and the wider public. Project that aim at equipping Ethiopian youth and women with some of the basic skills and processes to build and rebuild their confidence and help them take control of their destiny. Projects that support Ethiopian youths to be part of the wider collective voice that works towards a stronger, inclusive, open and tolerant society.  Projects that work to see how empowered Ethiopian youth and women could hold the state and the market to account. Projects that can explore and engage Ethiopian youth and women leaders from higher education, civil society and faith institutions and prepare them for actions.  Community Organising could be used as one of the tools. These projects could be grassroot based and do as much awareness work as possible so that the wider community engages in what matters most for itself.


The need for the project arises from the fact that many young people and women want to see change happen but do not take part in the change making process for a number of reasons. Hence the project should aim at tackling the challenges through training, capacity building, community organising, confidence building and reviving. The current leadership in Ethiopia have done their part to promote youth and women in leadership roles in governmental institutions. However, they have called upon non-governmental and civic organisations to provide the changes that are required in the grassroots of Ethiopian society. Hence there is a need for civic insitutions to step in and take charge. A need for young people taking charge and leading. This is both important and urgent as we cannot afford to spend more time. It is now and only now.  

9 May 2019

Press Freedom in Ethiopia – hopes and fears

A year from today, there were still journalists in prisons in Ethiopia. A year after there is none. The changes in Ethiopia are unprecedented. To the surprise of the world, Ethiopia brought together people from around the globe for the 2019 World Press Freedom Day that took place from 1-3 May 2019, in Addis Ababa. It was good to be part of the celebrations in Addis.

I grew up in Ethiopia listening mostly to government owned media outlets and reading the likes of Addis Zemen and the Ethiopian Herald. During my days as a student at the Addis Ababa University in late 80s and early 90s, I started to develop interest to write about human rights and the need for freedom of speech and expression. That wasn’t easy then as the country was under the tight leadership of Mengistu Hailemariam, who had no place and patience for dissenting voices. Hence whenever we had the courage to express ourselves freely, we knew what the consequence could be.   I still remember the days we spent in prison in Sendafa for demanding changes and protesting. Yet despite the challenges, we had to keep going; remain focused and positive.

TPLF led EPRDF and press

Tweet by Bekele Woyecha
With the change of regime in 1991, a few free press outlets started to come out. For some time, they had the courage to be robust and critical. They also paved ways for airing differing views and opinions.  It didn’t, however, last long. Once again there was no place for critical journalism and dissenting voices. Hence most of the free press suffered from brutal crackdown. After some challenges, free press started to flourish in 2004 in the run up to the General Election that was meant to be a game changer for Ethiopia for a better. Yet the press once again suffered massive crackdown and journalists, blogger, activists and political thinkers were thrown into jails with bogus charges. The kangaroo courts set up by the then regime sentenced many innocent journalists and bloggers to prisons. Still others were in prisons without charges. That was the darkest part of Ethiopia’s press history. The outcry from Ethiopians never stopped. Those in the diaspora kept pressing, writing and informing the world. Those inside the country kept the fight although they knew what the cost of their actions would be. Blogger Befekadu Hailu for instance had been thrown to jail 4 times, but he was never afraid to voice his concerns whenever he was free. We never stopped demanding for their release as well. So good to have met this great son of ours when I was in Addis recently and learn from him. He keeps in inspiring me and many others.

Woubshet Taye meets PM Abiy Ahmed

It was also great to have met another wonderful son of Ethiopia, Woubshet Taye, who spent years in prisons in Ethiopia for doing what is honourabe things to do - stick to ethical journalism despite the challenges. Pround of you, Woubshet. 
Dr. Abiy Ahmed and press

With the coming to power of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister, Ethiopia opened its doors. Once again there is space for dissenting voices and critical journalism. Political prisoners, journalists, bloggers, activists and all political thinkers who were detained were finally released.  As the Diaspora was encouraged to return home by the PM, there was massive influx. Websites and blogs previously blocked were reopened. Media outlets like ESAT and OMN were allowed to operate in Ethiopia. That was a game changer. But how long will that continue? How much prepared are we to be critical of ourselves in a very responsible way?  As much as we want to see critical, robust and ethical journalism, how much ready are we to take responsibilities for our actions/inactions? There is a lot to ponder on to address the above and many more questions.  Our country and indeed our world need action more today than ever. Action to make the press freer and responsible.

The era of social media, fake news, disinformation, misinformation, defamations, etc

Following the changes in Ethiopia, we have seen growth in the use of social media outlets, especially Facebook. This media outlet has been widely used in Ethiopia and around the world. Unfortunately, the social media is also used to share Fake News, Misinformation, Disinformation and Defamations. This makes many of us concerned as many people could be misled and become targets of these unwanted news and opinions. Hence there is a need for action. A need for education, a need for fact checking practices; a need for responsible journalism and social media usage; a need for ethics; collective need and plans for a better Ethiopia. We should remember that there is no one who is more Ethiopian than others. We all have stake in Ethiopia irrespective of time and place of birth. We all have some contributions to make. We all have duties and responsibilities to assume and discharge.

Keep going, remain focused and positive

Sometimes our actions may not satisfy everybody. Be it. Sometimes we may be angry about an issue.  Good to have that cold anger, but it is not enough to be angry about an issue. What matters most is what we are doing to address the anger in a constructive way. The actions/inactions matter most.

One might think one is an optimist, but still others will tell one that one is not optimistic enough because they want one to see the world only from their angles. For them it is all about getting what they want now and only now. Whatever the consequences, get it now. This has dangers. It brings polarisation and consequently unhealthy competition. This unhealthy competition could go into attacking freedom of speech and expression, which we cherish now. The competition could go into unwanted arguments, hate and finally the narrowing of the space for decent debates. This worries me a lot. I’m keen to see Press Freedom flourish; Freedom of Speech unrestricted as long as it is in the boundary of legal frameworks, social norms and ethnics. I may not enjoy every speech and expression, but I can’t prohibit every speech for reasons that I don’t like it. Sometimes, some of the writings may offend me, but I also remember that I have the right to be offended. It is all about striking the balance and living well together. Yes, it is vital to keep going; remain focused and with positive attitudes. After all we are in this world only once and only for a very short time. We can only have time for LOVE. Because love matters most and it is natural

I for once am for a decent, fact based and logical debates. A debate of the 21st century!

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