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'Life is nothing without freedom:' Former Ethiopian journalist recounts torture, new life in Regina


'You have to express your feelings, your opinions, your ideas.'

REGINA, Sask. —

Becoming a journalist wasn’t Mastewal Birhanu’s choice — at least not at first.

Looking at Birhanu now, you’d never know the 31-year-old, who has called Regina home since 2015, endured torture at the hands of the Ethiopian government less than a decade ago.

It was all because he was a journalist trying to exercise freedom of the press in a country that didn’t believe in it.

Birhanu was born in Addis Ababa in 1987. He attended missionary school in his early years and decided to pursue post-secondary education after high school. He explained that the Ethiopian government assigns students pursuing post-secondary education their areas of study based on the country’s demand for certain professions.

Birhanu was directed to study journalism — a career, he explained, that’s much different in Ethiopia than Canada. Between 2005 and 2017, Ethiopia had only pro-government media and even today very few private outlets have emerged.

“(The government doesn’t) want to see anyone speaking the truth … because they are corrupt and dictators,” said Birhanu.

Journalists who publish information against the government, human rights activists and political opposition leaders are often beaten, harassed and even jailed by the Ethiopian government.

According to Birhanu, more than 137 journalists have fled Ethiopia in recent years.

Three are in prison today.

The Ethiopian government, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, put students in universities under strict surveillance. No one could talk openly about the government. Birhanu became disenchanted with this, and dropped out after six months.

In 2010, he graduated with a degree in marketing management from a private college.

But marketing didn’t inspire Birhanu the way his brief time in journalism had.

Frustrated with pro-government propaganda and laws restricting journalists from publishing government information, Birhanu and his friend, Temesgen Desalegn, began Feteh — which means “justice” in Amharic — an independent newspaper focused on human rights issues and government corruption.

Despite the potential consequences of publishing this information, Birhanu was willing to sacrifice his life to give others a voice.

“I had to fight for my right,” he said. “Life is nothing without freedom. You have to express your feelings, your opinions, your ideas.

“When I started publishing the newspaper (in 2010), seven journalists (in Ethiopia) were in prison. Most of them (were) charged with inciting violence and (similar) crimes. The government labeled them as terrorists.”

Eight employees worked out of Feteh’s office in Addis Ababa. The publication quickly garnered success.

“After one year … our subscriptions (were) getting bigger because people started reading and knowing what (was) going on in the country,” said Birhanu.

It wasn’t always easy for them to get information. People were hesitant to speak out, fearing they’d lose their jobs. Getting government response was also a challenge, as they were never invited to press conferences and couldn’t get answers when they requested information.

The success of their publication concerned the government so much, the government did everything it could to stop them from publishing.

“They started to accuse us (of) defamation,” said Birhanu. “They charged us (with) 132 defamation (charges) and inciting violence.”

“(Government security forces were) tapping our phones and our laptops. One day, they opened the door (to Feteh) with a master key and they put water into the computers. And when we came in the morning, all the computers were not working.”

Feteh staff were also targets of routine harassment and beatings by government forces. Birhanu remembers one day when he came face-to-face with them in public.

“I broke my arm … when they beat me on the street (and) I fell into a ditch,” he said, pointing to a small scar on his left arm — the only remaining evidence of that injury.

But Feteh’s biggest trouble came in 2012. Prime Minister Zenawi had fallen ill and the government wouldn’t let any news of his health out. Feteh, meanwhile, obtained information that Zenawi had died.

Just before the news of his death was published, government forces found out Feteh had that information and stormed their office. They burned nearly 40,000 copies of the paper.

They charged Birhanu and Desalegn with defamation and put them in jail.

Birhanu was beaten while serving time, although he claims Desalegn suffered more, losing hearing in his left ear and living with chronic back pain from the constant torture.

Although Birhanu was released after a few days on 30,000 Ethiopian Birr — approximately $1,370 CAD — a court ruled Desalegn would serve three years.

Feteh, meanwhile, was no more. It shut down operations in 2012 on order from the Ethiopian government.

Now released from prison, and without a newspaper to go back to, a human rights organization — one he didn’t want to disclose the name of, fearing they’d get in trouble for helping him — encouraged Birhanu to flee to Kenya, which has more lenient media laws.

There, he’d be able to advocate for journalists back in Ethiopia.

He took the chance.

“(When journalists) were in prison, I was a voice for them,” he said. “I mobilized some coverage for them to get (them) released. Our voices worked. After several years, they are now free, most of them.”

Some of those journalists who were set free were his own colleagues. Knowing this, he said, gave him a huge sense of accomplishment.

It was in 2015 that Birhanu was told the Canadian government had chosen him to come to Canada. He admits he still doesn’t know how or why he was selected to come. He only knew a place called Regina would now be home.

Although he’s been able to make friends and adjust to life here, living without his family — including his mom, Roma, his two sisters and two brothers — has been a different story.

“I miss them and it’s hard sometimes,” he said, adding they’re a vital part of his support system.

But he’s made a life for himself in Regina. While he works part-time at the Pasqua Hospital doing janitorial work, he studies in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina.  He hopes to help those suffering from addiction when he graduates.

Joining the local Amnesty International chapter has made the transition easier. He said Amnesty advocated for his rights while he was experiencing injustice back home.

“I had to pay (them) back,” he said.

Since joining the organization in 2016, he’s participated in letter writing campaigns, volunteered for Human Rights Radio — Amnesty’s local radio program — and even joined Amnesty’s dragon boat team, Amnesty Rocks the Boat, which competed at the Canadian Dragon Boat Championship in Regina in July.

Most shocking to him, however, has been the stark contrasts in press freedoms between Ethiopia and Canada.

“Sometimes when I listen to the radio here, I laugh,” he said. “(Journalists) can criticize Prime Minister Trudeau. They can criticize the economy, the budget. Not (in Ethiopia).”

His time in Canada has also allowed him to get a glimpse of continuing tensions between the media and the U.S. government. Some of what he’s seeing reminds him of home.

“In Ethiopia, there are journalists supporting (and) some journalists opposing the government,” he said. “And I feel that in the U.S. now. Some journalists (in the U.S.) get harassed. It’s not fair as a journalist in a developed country.”

Birhanu stresses the importance of not taking freedoms for granted. After all, he’s seen first-hand what it’s like to live without many.

Journalism, he said, isn’t always easy. Reporting in countries where there are few rights is a difficult challenge, but he believes it’s still a worthy career.

“You have to (overcome) that challenge if you want to be a real journalist.”

ewilliams@postmedia.com

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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