The dual life of “The Reporter”

August 30th, 2008 | by addis portal |


Early on in the mid-’90s, Meles Zenawi realized that the newspaper market shouldn’t be left to private publications that proved a bone in the throat of the ruling regime. He ordered cadres to launch publications that would circulate disguised as “independent” newspapers that would first counter-balance, then neutralize, and finally dominate the market in favor of his ruling party.

Take the case of the rubber-stamp parliament.

Meles allows a few, powerless opposition MPs to take seats in a sea of ruling party cadres. Without them, he would be bedevilled as a one-party dictator. The few loyal opposition MPs render him valuable services. When Ethiopian dissidents appeal to Western democracies, they point to the impotent opposition MPs to say there is a fledgling democracy despite some flaws.

By the same token, Meles has ‘independent’ publications that run side by side with state-owned media. When other independent publications disappear from the markets, these ‘independent’ publications remain immune to repressive government measures, or to skyrocketing print costs, or backbreaking court fines. Their owners and editors even suffer occasional court appearances, or imprisonments, like the recent case which landed The Reporter’s Amare Aregawi in a Gondar jail. Before his release on bail on Wednesday, Amare declined his, saying his arrest in Gondar was an illegal act in the first place. No other journalists have the luxury to go this far. His act speaks like there is law and order in the country. In backward Ethiopia, the political drama that sustains the life of a rogue regime is much more sophisticated that it is often beyond the understanding of foreign journalists and diplomats living in Addis Ababa.

When police detained Amare Aregawia, owner of The Reporter, and took him to Gondar for court appearance a few days ago, only the politically innocent (naïve) may have believed the arrest is for real.

Is Amare an independent journalist or a masked propagandist who goes on assaulting the society that calls for the removal of the ruthless tyrant, Meles Zenawi, as witnessed in May 2005?

Well, we need to go back to the mid-’90s.

After entering Addis Ababa as a TPLF rebel, Amare’s first job was managing the Ethiopian Television (ETV).

Talented and well-read, Amare introduced various programs that breathed life into the stale, socialist-era television that has for years been dead as a pure propaganda outlet for the Derg military dictatorship.

As manager of ETV, and later ENA, Amare became prominent so much full-fledged ambassadors in Addis thought he was perhaps as powerful as the prime minister himself.

Actually, he was not. Amare’s boss was a low-level TPLF cadre who was not known outside of the Information Ministry. The diminutive cadre was the boss of all managers in the ministry, and he was dreaded like a plague.

When the cadre opens his mouth and stares his eyes, every manager, including Mr. Amare, would display the innocent face of a child, conveying the message, “OK, boss; whatever you say is right.” There is no doubt the cadre got the job for marathon talking – the ability to talk for several hours of the day and well into the night, no matter whether the talk has any substance.

The early into the mid-’90s was when private publications mushroomed overnight, and their influence, particularly among the West, was on the rise. The TPLF regime, which survives not on any public support but on hatching intricacies and deceptions, didn’t want all independent publications to be critical of its legitimacy. TPLF officials wanted to throw some of their own ‘private newspapers’ into the market.

It was in this situation that Amare was fired from his position as general manager of the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) in 1995. He was friendly to most people, and his dismissal came as a shock. Many journalists resented that the TPLF regime fired Amare because he was a reformist as opposed to the stone-age cadres of the TPLF.

He said he was forced to resign because he couldn’t cope with the circumstances around the Information Ministry, and made a resignation speech to media workers.

“They’ve thrown me out into the streets penniless,” Amare said to a sympathetic crowd of media workers. “I hail from a poor family, and I’m not scared to live the life of a poor man.”

A few months later, Amare hired a few reporters, office workers, and launched his own newspaper that he named “The Reporter.” He bought a one-storey house that he remodelled into an office. It was behind the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) building. Unlike all other purged TPLF rebels, the ‘penniless’ Amare found himself in the thick of a promising business in the newspaper industry.

The Reporter grew in popularity because, among other reasons, it had the privilege of publishing stories that only high-placed government officials would deliver. At a time when Meles Zenawi was bedeviling the independent press as “gutter press,” Amare had the privilege of getting exclusive and confidential stories from the late Kinfe G. Medhin.

How is it possible for an individual who was ‘thrown out into the streets’ by the ruling party to get access to a highly confidential information from one of the few powerful men of the ruling party?

Kinfe was assassinated in 2001 in Addis because, for the first time, he disavowed his loyalty to Meles Zenawi, and claimed neutrality when Meles was confronted by a group of TPLF officials who accused the prime minister of aborting Ethiopian Defense Forces’ imminent march into the capital of Eritrea, Asmara.

As an independent publication would love to do, The Reporter never asked for investigation into the political murder of its news source, Mr. Kinfe, nor launched its own investigation. The Reporter simply echoed the propaganda of the Zenawi regime that Kinfe was killed by an army major with whom he had a heated argument.

Because of the kind of privileged information it was getting from high-ranking party and government officials, and because of Amare’s gifted managerial skills, the Reporter earned a name as a respected independent newspaper so much even Transparency International (TI), the Berlin-based group that monitors corruption in each country, picked Amare up as country representative of Ethiopia.

TI usually considers independent journalists known for doing investigative journalism as ideal candidates to represent it. As in democratic societies, independent journalists are of course watchful of government activities. By the very nature of their profession, journalists are the watchdogs of the society on the government, especially in societies where corruption is widespread. So, basically, it was a blessing in disguise for the Zenawi regime that Amare Aregawi, one of its own cadres, was assigned to report on Zenawi’s corrupt practices to TI. I wonder if TI ever received any corruption report from Amare.

The Reporter and Election 2005

The Reporter arrived at the 2005 polls by appearing as a respected ‘independent’ publication. Though other papers have been exposing the dictatorship, The Reporter has been playing the role of counter-balancing the effects all other private publications had on the ruling party.

But when Meles Zenawi lost the elections, he immediately declared a state of emergency, thus putting all forces in the country under his control. Protests erupted and all independent publications reported the elections were rigged and protests by unarmed youths were dealt with brutality. There was one exception to the community of independent publications: The Reporter.

It was a critical time that one has either to be a hireling to serve Meles, or if truly independent, then serve truth. The Reporter shocked the entire Ethiopian society by turning itself into a noisy mouthpiece of Meles, and began to bedevil, and incriminate the opposition parties as ‘trouble makers.’ The society resented The Reporter, which was scoffed at as cheap, and was widely boycotted as a masked propaganda tool in the service of the criminal regime.

When many genuine Ethiopian journalists were either thrown into jail, or fled the country for fear of persecution, Amare Aregawi proved beyond any shadow of doubt that he was a loyal servant of Meles Zenawi, and not as he claimed, an independent journalist. What is disturbing is Amare was no stranger to the bloody, and profoundly anti-Ethiopian career of Meles Zenawi, and his two close confidants: Sebhat Nega and Bereket Simon. How he allowed himself to take up the demeaning job of serving those men that the society would one day take to justice remains a mystery.

Today The Reporter has resumed its pre-2005 role, and that is to act as an independent publication that, when it is given orders by the ruling party, will launch its ferocious attack on the society again. But till then, as long as the starving society remains quiet, The Reporter will keep plying trade as an independent publication in the service of society.

Imagine how many press freedom groups rushed to the rescue of Amare when news of his detention broke. The entire media watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders, CPJ and others scoffed at the Zenawi regime, and asked for the immediate release of the editor of the ‘influential Reporter.’ For Amare and the regime, the detention conveys many deceptive messages: First, The Reporter is free from government control; that is why the editor was thrown into jail. The second message comes as a stern warning to would-be journalists: “If we can arrest editor of the infuential Reporter, guess what would happen to others that try to cast the government in bad light.”

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