Ethiopia: The Role of Journalists Under Dictatorships

A video which shows Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi being heckled at the latest 2012 G8 Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C. has ignited a debate about the role of journalists in authoritarian regimes.

Ethiopian activist and journalist Abebe Gellaw is seen in the video shouting “Freedom, Freedom, Meles Zenawi is a dictator, you are committing crime against humanity.” Prime Minster Meles Zenawi who usually enjoys flattering pro-government press coverage at home looks shocked and irritated.

Discussing the video on Facebook, Abiye Teklemariam draws a comparison between the late Romanian dictator Ceausescu and Meles Zenawi:

I have seen a lot of leaders being heckled by protestors. They usually hide their shock and anger so effortlessly. Some of them actually get our sympathies with self-deprecating humor and fake concern for freedom of speech of the heckler. Meles Zenawi though looked utterly baffled and angry. His reaction had an uncanny resemblance with that famous Ceausescu moment, the way the Romanian dictator reacted when he, for the first time since his ascendancy to power, was booed by the normally impeccably obedient people during his speech. This video tells a lot!

Mesfin Negash says:

What an experience to MZ! You never saw MZ so shocked, embarrassed and angry in front of an audience. Journalist Abebe Gelaw made his point beyond proportion and IN PERSON. Must watch moment of MZ! PUBLIC WARNING:- you are strongly advised not to try or improvise this at home unless…! [lol]

However, Daniel Berahane does not think Prime Minster Meles Zenawi was shocked. He shares another video which he described it as “[Unedited] Meles Zenawi's graceful reaction, as Abebe Gelaw barks”:

In a bid to disapprove Abebe Gellaw’s efforts, Daniel further produces an imaginary interview between President Barack Obama and Prime Minster Meles Zenawi:

Barack Obama:…while we are on Ethiopia, I have to raise some concerns about journalists if you don't mind. You know, I receive letters from Congressmen and rights groups alleging that…..

Meles Zenawi:( clears his throat) Pardon me, Obama. I am not following. Which journalists are you talking about….the likes of the one you saw barking earlier?

Barak Obama :(snorts) Well, you have a point. Ok. Let's discuss the Sudan’s, what's your advise on…….

[Meles Zenawi might have said to himself: Thank you, Abebe Gelaw, you made my case.

Facebook image calling for the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia. Image courtesy of Ethiopia Mitmita Facebook page.

Al Mariam, an academic and blogger based in USA, argues that Zenawi got a taste of his own medicine:

Zenawi was shocked, bewildered, flabbergasted and completely disoriented. It was as though 90 million Ethiopians had lined up pointing an accusatory finger at him and shouting in unison, “Meles Zenawi! You are a dictator!…” In that moment Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!

The expression on his face [Zenawi's] was total disbelief. “Is that Abebe Gellaw? It can’t be! I thought I had him canned in Kality Prison with Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye. What the hell is he doing here?!?”

Hallelujah Lulie does not think journalists should not be campaigners as their professional integrity will be seriously tarnished:

Objectivity is not equivalent to neutrality. I understand the critique on objective reporting supporting the status quo. However patriotic and advocacy journalism is a very bad trend as well. Objectivity should not be about turning a blind eye to injustice and pretending to treat the oppressor and the oppresee in an equal manner. I understand the frustration that pushed Abebe to do what he did,but any effort to rationalize the act from a journalistic perspective is being hypocritical and bending and manipulating the rules and principles we claim to promote, to fit our own political objectives. Supporting the ‘Journalist’ Abebe shouting on Meles, and the Journalistic explanation to it make it look professional make me ask if it is wrong to question and examine the professionalism and accuracy of journalists in authoritarian regimes? How can a so called ‘neutral’ or ‘uninformed’ audience can trust anything Abebe or his alikes reports about Ethiopia? We should be able to look further than events and sensational reactions and worry about the creating a culture and laying a sensible foundation.

Abiye disagrees:

Journalists are supposed to be the purveyors of accurate information and whether overt and vocal opposition to a group might impair this task can be a reasonable topic of debate. But this debate about the boundaries of good journalism – that is, the impartial investigation of the truth – starts with an assumption that the space for good journalism exists. It is a second-order debate. In dictatorships, the assumption has no validity. Journalism in such system is an elaborate con-game that is played to justify a rigged result. Without a reasonable degree of freedom of expression and information, rules and practices against censorship, and a friendly space for journalists, impartial investigation of the truth is impossible. This poses a fundamental either/or question for those who want to practice good journalism: would they go on carrying out their task as if there were a space for their work(which is false) or would they fight to change the space(which demands a serious degree of political activism)? For me, the answer is so obvious. Anti-regime political activism by journalists in dictatorship is what they do to make good journalism possible.

Ethiopian government under the leadership of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is constantly condemned at home and abroad for its unacceptable treatment of journalists. Endalk sheds light on the plight of Ethiopian journalists.


  • mamo

    A lot of these uneducated Ethiopians confuse journalism with political opponents. That is what they do at home and abroad. They have the constitutional right to oppose the government at any level but they have to learn to obey the rules and regulations of one’s country. If they claim as a journalist, there are some regulations they should follow. It is not a rocket science. Every game has a rule if some one is not willing to obey the rule, there is no point in trying to play the game.

  • Well, This article is reasonable and well presented. It particularly reflects the two side stories. We need such a reasonable report and i hope this is all about a true journalism, thank you. In Ethiopia the current situation is very difficult: you can not criticize both the government and the opposition party. You can not challenge ideas instead, it is a mass support or critic in both sides. ETV and ESAT are presenting their own stories, even they don’t try to look from both debatable angles as presented above. I want to thank endalk this is a true presentation.

  • guest1

    A year earlier at the World Economic Forum in Tanzania the heckler had his chance to ask the Prime Minister a question. It was revealed that the heckler was ill-prepared, and the Prime Minister gave him a very civil, witty and intelligent answer. The heckler could have come better prepared to this discussion and could have confronted the Prime Minister with a more profound question. No, he prefered to abuse his accreditation as journalist to shout like a mad person. This is unfortunately the true face of Ethiopian pseudo-journalists.

  • sam

    What is with freedom of speech limitation by creating certain professional agenda? Abebe Gellaw as a citizen has the right to speak and say dictator as a dictator. He used the moment where no one can have, and express what the Ethiopian people want to say. The illusive, double talker MZ were cornered in this country and confronted by a journalist. It does not matter if you have badge of journalist, or higher status, you have to confront dictators by any means because there is no option of freedom to express anywhere in Ethiopia or other places. I consider the dictator is ruthless and has no moral ethic what so ever; he imprisoned all journalist who followed the constitution of the country. So, what do you expect to do Abebe Gellaw? To tell MZ that well, your highness everything is cool, is stupidity and has no purpose.

  • choco67

    Does anybody really truly think this journalist and the opposition they support will be bring Ethiopia a step forward. I highly doubt it. As the adage says better the devil you know than the devil you do not know.

    ESAT media is an utter joke. Narrow minded and bigoted. They can not arrange my socks let alone govern Ethiopia.

    It does not mean Meles is a saint. He is not, but he does not get called up to all this meetings if they thought he was a foolish leader. Ethiopia needs smart leadership now and in the future.

  • Abebe

    Abebe Gellaw should have his journalist license removed. I do understand his need to protest the situation in Ethiopia but this G8 forum is the wrong forum for him to bark his protest; he should be with the opposition group protesting from outside. Ho did not behave professionaly and I doubt he will ever be allowed to any kind of internatinal forum, specially if there is any Ethiopian official. This, in my opinion is a professional suicide that wouldn’t even advance the cause of the journalists in Ethiopian jails. Its paying a high price for no benefit at all except being considered a hero in a very restricted milieu in the diaspora

    • Frewu

      Abebe do not use my heroes name.Abebe did the right job and was able to make his point.Told to the world that they are sitting with genocide r.Melese is not only a dictator,he is also a war criminal and committed crime against humanity.He is the one who is trying to plant hatred among the people of Ethiopia for sake of staying in power.Meles is the most backward dictator who are following the old strategies to destroy Ethiopian-ism

  • […] the rest of the world is grasping for it desperately. Here are some examples: Libya, China, & Ethipoia. Now you can look at that and say there are only three. I say there are 3 from a 48 hour period […]

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