One Spy for Every Person – Interview with Exiled Ethiopian Satirist Abebe Tolla
I used to hear about the shocking torture and mistreatment of my detained friends…I was not sure that I could resist the same treatment…(Abebe Tolla)
Huffington Post article by Cathal Sheerin.
Abebe Tolla, (better known as Abé Tokichaw) was a newspaper satirist for Feteh newspaper in Ethiopia. He fled the country in November 2011, fearing imprisonment in retaliation for his critical news commentaries. Ethiopia is one of the repressive states in the world: the government uses very broad anti-terrorism legislation to clamp down on the free press and on any kind of dissent. It has imprisoned numerous journalists for highly questionable terror-related offences that, in other countries, would not even be regarded as crimes. The most famous victim of this abuse of law is Eskinder Nega, who was sentenced to 18 years in jail in July 2012. In the face of this threat, many Ethiopian journalists have gone into exile. PEN International provided Abebe Tolla with some assistance after his flight to exile, and he recently told the Writers in Prison Committee’s Cathal Sheerin about his experience. What follows are his own words.
In Ethiopia nowadays, journalists – especially those working for the free press – work in constant fear. Nobody knows how long he’ll stay in his job because the government can charge you with being a terrorist any time it likes.
Whenever anyone is arrested under anti-terrorism law now, people [automatically] ask: “Was he/she a journalist?” To be a journalist in Ethiopia is to risk your life.
But I don’t really describe myself as a journalist; I am best known as a columnist. Most of my writings are about the problems faced by the lower social classes and the bad governance of my country. I write because I want things to change.
I still don’t fully understand why I was targeted.
It started in May, 2011, when a government security agent was assigned to follow me and [monitor] my activities related to Feteh newspaper.
The government thought that I was communicating with people they described as terrorists, like the journalist Elias Kifle (recently sentenced to life imprisonment) and Ginbot 7 (an outlawed opposition party).
He told me that I had to cooperate with the government by giving him information about these ‘terrorists.’ I told him that I had no idea [what he was talking about], but he wouldn’t believe me. He said that the government had a lot of evidence that I was working with Ginbot 7 and others.
I am a writer – I don’t work with any political group.
For the following six months, the agent contacted me at least once a week. He used to visit my office, urging me to work with the government. He told me to stop my writing.
(During this time, Tolla didn’t know whom he could trust, who might be watching him, or who might be listening in on his telephone calls.)
It was a time of continuous interrogation and intimidation. It wasn’t easy; I was frightened all the time. [Alongside security agents] Ethiopia has many spies and informants. We even have a saying: “One spy for every person.” It is obvious, too, that some journalists – even those in the free press – are informants.
Despite advice from my family and friends, I never stopped writing. I did, however, begin to censor my writing more than I had done before.
At the end of six months (during which Tolla provided no information), the agent told me that he was finished with me. He said that I wasn’t helping myself by not cooperating and that I had become a threat to the country. In November he said that I would be charged under anti-terrorist law.
I had heard about the shocking torture and mistreatment of my detained friends and other political prisoners and I was not sure that I could resist the same treatment.
I realized then that I had two options: either be arrested or flee my homeland. I chose the latter.
(Tolla slipped out of the country in November 2011 and is staying in an undisclosed location. His family knew nothing of his move.)
I didn’t tell them about my escape because I didn’t want them to be stressed; that made me very sad and depressed.
I was never actually charged with any crime, so I am not sure if I am now seen as a traitor. I am not comfortable in exile – the only thing that makes me happy is that I am still writing.
I still don’t feel safe at all. I get more threats now than when I lived in my own country. Most of them are messages warning me to stop writing. They say things like: ‘We know where you are,’ and there are lots of insults.
Ethiopia has many spies and informants in other countries. The feeling of insecurity here in ‘X’ (Tolla’s current location) is tremendous because there are Ethiopian security agents in many places in the city. I try not to move about a lot; most of the time I just stay at home.
Everyday I think about going back to my homeland, and I wish that it could be soon.