A Conversation with Two Ethiopian Writers in Exile

20 June 2015

New reports this week highlighted that the international community is currently experiencing the single largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to the UNHCR, at least 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013 – be that internally or seeking refuge abroad – due to conflict, crises or persecution.

PEN International and its partners have seen a corresponding rise in requests for assistance from writers in exile or seeking to leave their countries. Such assistance can vary from short-term grants – provided through the Foundation PEN Emergency Fund – support to asylum claims, or for relocation through placements provided by our Centers or the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Over half of these requests for assistance come from writers in the Middle East, notably Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya, many of whom are languishing without status and in severe economic hardship and insecurity. In 2013, four million of a total 16.7 million refugees globally were Syrian.

As individuals flee their homes, the overwhelming majority seek refuge in neighboring countries that, due to a lack of solidarity and support among the international community, are now at breaking point. Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Ethiopia and Kenya are among the top 10 countries hosting the most refugees. According to the UNHCR, by 2014 this same top 10 accommodated 58 percent of all individual refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate. Almost all of the top 40 host countries for refugees in 2013 were developing countries; more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is estimated to be home to some 3 million refugees. By the end of June 2014, Kenya was host to 537,000 of them – a figure which roughly equates to 13 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants – the majority from neighbouring South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. In August 2014, Kakuma camp, in Turkana County, announced that it was no longer able to accommodate any new arrivals, leading the UNHCR to seek new land on which to expand. In April of this year, the Kenyan authorities announced the imminent closure of Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp, established in 1991 and home to some 350,000 Somali refugees – following a fatal attack on Garissa University College by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab.

As a select group of nations are overburdened, how do the refugees residing there fare? Emma Wadsworth-Jones from PEN International spoke to Betre Yacob Getahun and Zerihun Mulugeta, two Ethiopian journalists living as refugees in Kenya, to get a first-hand perspective of what forced these writers to flee their countries and of their lives as writers in exile. 

Both Getahun and Mulugeta recall the narrowing space for freedom of expression in Ethiopia. As Getahun explains,

The government works day and night to silence journalists, bloggers and those who express their views, and to shut down those remaining private media outlets. It continues to persecute, intimidate, and arrest journalists and bloggers on false charges… writing the truth or speaking one’s own mind has become a crime in Ethiopia; and independent reporting is seen as an act of terrorism.” 

Indeed, Mulugeta emphasizes that:

Freedom of expression and terrorism are now defined as two sides of the same coin. Terrorism is a new political approach to crush freedom of expression. I myself am a good example; I was accused of being a terrorist. In Ethiopia, being a free journalist means that, in one way or another, you are an adversary of the regime. In Ethiopia, free journalists have only three options; jail, exile or working as part of the regime’s propaganda machine.”

Since 2009, the Ethiopian state has increasingly utilized its Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 to arbitrarily arrest, prosecute and detain independent journalists and opposition activists. Actions classified as ‘terrorist’ by the law would often not even be considered crimes outside of Ethiopia. In 2014 alone, PEN International monitored 21 cases in Ethiopia, 14 of whom are print journalists or bloggers that are currently held for supposed terrorism offences.

Knowing full well the dangers faced by journalists and human rights defenders in Ethiopia, and the lack of support available to them in the form of local networks on the ground, both Getahun and Mulugeta chose to take up their profession regardless, writing articles covering the social, political and human rights landscape in Ethiopia, and working with international organizations like Human Rights Watch to expose human rights abuses in the country. In January 2014, they established the Ethiopian Journalists’ Forum (EJF), an organization dedicated to working for the rights of journalists and press freedom in Ethiopia.

Getahun recalls that he first began facing serious challenges when he began reporting on the political and human rights situation in the country.

Since 2012, I have experienced several problems because of my profession. I have been intimidated, threatened, and warned so many times because of my writings and reporting. I have been frequently accused of working with outlawed groups considered as ‘terrorist’ by the government, foreign powers, and human rights organizations to elicit violence, commit terrorism, and overthrow the government, and threatened to stop writing on political and human rights issues. I have frequently been labeled as a terrorist and criminal by state owned media, including Addis Zemen, the biggest newspaper in the country.  On the top of that I have been under surveillance.”

Working for pro-government media outlets, Mulugeta faced a different kind of pressure, the pressure to conform and forego his journalistic principles. However, despite considerable pressure and attempted bribery, he was able to maintain his independence and write about human rights violations in the country. It was not without a price however; Mulugeta was placed under permanent surveillance and recounts that, between November 2011 and June 2012 he was “regularly harassed and threatened … by security officials to reveal information about opposition groups and leaders with whom I was friends or had sought interviews.”

Both continued to receive threats and experience intimidation on the part of the authorities, until in 2014 the pressure reached its peak. As critics of the regime and proponents of an Ethiopian free press, they were both listed as terrorists in the national media.

 “I was accused of inciting violence to revolt against the government and conspiring to unlawfully abolish the constitutional system of the country [in my articles],” says Getahun. “I was also accused of working with international organizations classified as ‘terrorist’ by the government. The Ethiopian government lists the name of journalists and politicians in its media when it decides to arrest them, and it is the last preparation. Those listed are always jailed and charged under the anti-terrorism law.” An official investigation was opened into Getahun.

Meanwhile, much of the harassment and intimidation that Mulugeta faced came from his role with the EJF and his connection to the Zone 9 bloggers, arrested in April 2014.

As head of public relations for the EJF, I was closely associated with its work and a particularly identifiable figure. Security agents threatened me to try to make me leave the association on several occasions following my appearance on the Amharic service of Voice of America (VOA) alongside the president of the EJF [Getahun] in February 2014. I also lost my job at Sendek newspaper as the management feared that it would be closed by the government if it was seen to be connected with me.”

Fearing imprisonment and possible torture, both fled Ethiopia to Kenya in mid-2014 where they have received refugee status.

When asked about their situation in Kenya and whether they feel safe, Mulugeta responded:

My life in Kenya has become increasingly dangerous.  As you know, in November 2014, I was violently robbed outside my home. Meanwhile the Ethiopian government continues to paint me and my colleagues at the EJF as terrorists. On 29 January 2015, Human Rights Watch launched its world report. Accompanying the Ethiopia section of the report was a video featuring several colleagues from the EJF and myself. The video was featured in a televised BBC report in which a government official offered the right of reply suggests that we use journalism as a cover to incite violence. Pro-government newspapers such as Addis Zemen and Aiga Forum subsequently called for me to be arrested on 7 February 2015.”

Both fear that they will be kidnapped or otherwise formally extradited back to Ethiopia.              

My life in Kenya is full of nightmare,” says Getahun. “It is filled with sadness, hopelessness, desperation, and stress. I always struggle to feel better but am always the same – desperate and stressed.  My movement is very limited because of the security problem. I often get to bed when the sun rises and millions wake up, and get up when it goes down. We only leave home when there is something to buy or there is an important appointment.

He goes on: “my security is still at risk, and I am always worried about it. I have continued to receive threats and warnings, and encountered serious incidents. In addition, the accusations against me have continued. I am also under surveillance. And this all tells me that I might be extradited to Ethiopia or something grave may happen to me anytime.”

Has the UNHCR in Kenya been able to help?

There are uncountable horrendous problems Ethiopian journalists are facing in exile in Kenya. They have problems ranging from security to financial and psychological. And these coupled with prolonged and ridiculous UNHCR eligibility and resettlement processes and other related challenges complicate their situation and threaten their lives…I have frequently applied to the UNHCR to get protection. But, the organization has kept silent so far,” comments Getahun.

Mulugeta adds:

“I registered with the UNHCR and received a refugee mandate in March this year, but the resettlement process is very slow. I applied to the UNHCR protection unit, but unfortunately they couldn’t give me any assistance. As a journalist, being a refugee means a lot of hurting, sometimes I ask myself if it would not be better to be imprisoned.”

Locked in their homes, unable to work, Getahun and Mulugeta have had to seek the assistance of international NGOs to provide them with support in order to survive. Getahun explains:

The financial problem is also another headache for me and my wife. It is always hard for us to pay for house rent and cover basic expenses. There are times we went to bed with empty stomachs. Such situations hurt me further…I have received financial support from some organizations and their support helped me to survive. Without their support I wouldn’t be here.”  

Their lack of security also leads to frustrations at their inability to integrate in their host country and contributes to fears that they may be returned to Ethiopia.

Are they able to write freely in exile?

While Getahun continued to write initially, recent threats have made him cautious:

At the moment it is too risky to keep writing. But, after I get out of here and resettle to a safe place I will keep writing.”

For Mulugeta, the psychological strain has been too much to allow him to write.

Each and every single day is weighty as a stone.  I have come to realize that journalism is dying in my heart. Since I fled Ethiopia, I haven’t been able to write a single story. I am worried about how to continue my career and how to survive… It is difficult to write freely in Kenya. However, thanks to the technology, it is made more possible in third countries. I hope I will continue with my career. I believe it is possible to exercise journalism everywhere.”

Clearly, continuing to write has been a struggle for both journalists, which they feel can only be overcome when they are resettled to a third country further from home. But what are the prospects for resettlement?

While 145 states have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognizes the international scope of the refugee problem and establishes the principle of mutual responsibility in resolving the situation, statistics provided by the UNHCR in 2013 show that the number of countries offering resettlement has remained stable at 27. The main beneficiaries of this initiative have remained the same since 2009: Myanmar, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Bhutan. While we can expect Syria to make the list in forthcoming statistical reports, will Ethiopia? Given that in 2013 fewer than 15,000 refugees were resettled from African countries, it seems unlikely.

According to a recent Amnesty International report, nearly one million refugees require resettlement, with the number expected to increase in the future. The international community must respond unilaterally, removing the disproportionate burden from developing countries, and recognize that the current crisis is, in fact, a global issue.

What can PEN do to help?

Both Mulugeta and Getahun believe that PEN should actively lobby governments and the UNHCR to resettle journalists at risk. Mulugeta recognizes the current work of PEN in providing other means of resettlement to exiled writers and journalists, and asks for the development of more scholarship opportunities and programs. He also sees PEN as having the potential to facilitate training opportunities.

With the growing pressure on readily available support, PEN Centers have a vital role to play bridging the gap by helping provide short- and/or longer-term assistance to writers at risk. Furthermore, as we have seen over the years, PEN members have the ability to welcome their persecuted colleagues, providing much needed psychological support, and aiding their integration into this international community of writers.

If you would like to discuss the possibility of your Centre becoming more involved in providing assistance and protection to writers at risk or in exile, please contact [email protected]