Working with various media outlets and NGOs has led to Betre Yacob being labelled a terrorist, and like many other journalists in Ethiopia, he fears for his safety as a result of his work.
Betre Yacob fears for his safety after receiving unwanted attention from the Ethiopian authorities
“It has been more than a year and a half since I began to receive warnings from National Intelligence and Security Service agents,” explains Betre Yacob.
Yacob is an Ethiopian journalist, currently living in fear for his life because of his work in the East African country, which is generally regarded as one of the most restrictive nations in the world in terms of press freedom.
“However, in recent months, the situation has worsened and become worse than ever,” he tells Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF), adding “I have begun to receive death threats and witness further developments.”
Working as a journalist in Ethiopia is a particularly difficult proposition, and Yacob is the latest in a string of media workers who have faced and continue to face serious obstacles from the authorities.
He works as an Information, Education, and Communication (IEC) Coordinator for an international NGO focused on HIV/AIDs, and the rights of women, children, and marginalised groups.
Yacob has also co-authored a book entitled Nipo, nipo tu, a collection of short stories illustrating socio-economic problems in Ethiopia and is currently working with fellow journalists on launching a website focusing on issues in the East African region.
As a result of his work in these various fields, he has been identified by the Ethiopian authorities as a proverbial ‘thorn in the side’ and is now feeling the pressure of unwanted attention.
“On June 15, 2013, I realised that two people who I had never seen before had been following me,” he explains, “likewise, they followed my fiancé to the compound where we live.”
“She was crying when she arrived and we were unable to sleep that night,” he adds.
“The previous day I had received a phone call from an unknown number. The caller said that he was calling from the ‘Criminal Investigation’ and told me that they would kill me unless I stopped my journalistic activities,” noted Yacob.
“He said: ‘What you are doing is an act of terrorism against the public.’”
“Now I am worried that they might detain and torture me, as they have with many journalists,” he says, adding “I am also afraid that I might even face something worse.”
The journalist believes that his telephone calls and online activity have been monitored by the authorities for some time. “Different callers have frequently told me that they are looking into my daily communications,” he notes, “one of the callers told me they have enough evidence ‘to throw me into jail,’ but he said ‘we have found out that it is better to kill you than throwing you in jail.’”
Yacob explained that his persecution has not come about because of a single article he has written addressing a specific topic, but because of his journalistic work in general. “The regime considers me an enemy because I usually write on the poor human rights record of the country and its deteriorating political situation,” he notes.
He has been accused of contacting foreign, “terrorist” groups and of cooperating with them to undermine the government. “They mention my articles which are posted on websites belonging to these groups, as evidence, but I have never written a piece for such a group – they are already posted online and then shared by these groups,” he explains.
Life and death struggle
“Media freedom and freedom of expression are in great trouble in Ethiopia – they are struggling between life and death,” argues Yacob.
As other journalists in Ethiopia have repeatedly argued, he believes that the government’s continued use of the archaic and easily manipulated Anti-Terrorism bill has resulted in media freedom “severely deteriorating.”
“It is obvious that every independent journalist in Ethiopia now lives in fear of jail and violence,” he says, adding “the Anti-Terrorism law is intentionally vague and broad-reaching.”
Numerous outlets have been closed down, while prominent journalists have been handed hefty prison sentences under the terror law. Those who have turned to the internet to produce their work are finding similar obstacles and a wide range of websites and blogs are blocked by the authorities.
“Now working for an independent newspaper, magazine, or webpage is more risky than ever – reporting on politics, social issues or human rights in a way that does not conform to government rhetoric is enough to label you a ‘terrorist’ and get you thrown into jail,” explained Yacob.
“Questioning the policies and strategies of the regime can result in harassment, intimidation, threat, torture, jail, and other violence,” he adds.
“Struggle with courage”
Yacob suggested that the people of Ethiopia need to do more to demand that their right to free media is respected in the future: “They should ask the regime for their rights; they should struggle with courage.”
He also called on the international community to apply pressure on the government to learn from past mistakes and take measures to redeem itself.
“Particularly, major donor countries like US and UK, which are the backbone of the regime, should feel responsible and take appropriate measure against the regime. They should stand for the demand of the people -not of the regime,” he argues.
Yacob is firm in his belief that democracy and good governance will only be able to flourish in Ethiopia when media freedom is effectively protected.
“Free media encourages stable democracy and healthy social, political and economic development – it is a ‘concrete pole’ for the rights, liberty, dignity and wellbeing of citizens,” he argues.
And the hardships he is facing are not enough to deter the journalist, who dreamt of working within the media from an early age, believing that it would enable him to fight falsehood and brutality in an effective manner.
“I am working for the truth and for the benefit of my community – every truth I share with others brings me pleasure, hope and strength,” he explains.
“I know my government does not want me to do so, and I may end up in prison as many brave journalists have. I know I may be beaten or tortured and I know something terrible may happen to me. But I am sure I will never give up; noone will stop me from practicing journalism.”
Interview compiled by Peter Townson