By De Birhan Staffer
21 December 2012
On April 8, 2001.
Two most prominent and ‘controversial’ academics, in the eyes of the regime, Dr. Berhanu Nega and Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, as per the invitation of the then Student’s Union of the Addis Abeba University (AAU) mainly the Union’s President, Student Teklemichael Abebe, held a day-long panel discussion at the hall of the National Lottery on academic freedom. That was possibly the only and last time that AAU students had invited “controversial” individuals and had dared to openly discuss and debate on a “sensitive” issue. The 2001 Panel was followed by student riot in the main campus of Addis Ababa University. The two academics were arrested on the allegations that this Panel “incited a student protest at Addis Ababa University the next day”, however they were both released later on bail. Due to the protests that followed it, hundreds of students had fled to neighboring Kenya. One of them being Teklemichael (a lawyer by training), who is now resettled in Canada and working for ESAT Television and Radio in the U.S. after almost half a decade of stay in Kenya.
Dr. Berhanu Nega is often heard as saying that, that Panel and the events that followed it were moments that “ignited” him to be fully involved back in politics decades after he left the then Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP) as a young man.
Today (21-12-2012), 11 years after that event, graduating students of the Addis Abeba University School of Journalism and Communications, Undergraduate Program have for the first time invited a prominent person who is “controversial and on the watch list of the regime”, Journalist Temesgen Desalegn, to speak about media and media freedom in Ethiopia. Temesgen was the editor in chief of the critical newspaper, Feteh, which was closed by government order. The Ethiopian government filed over 100 lawsuits against him, some of which he is still fighting. He has also been arrested this year. Now he works as the editor in chief of another critical magazine, Addis Times.
These weekly sessions are often organized when they invite speakers to panel on different topics of interests. The program has been ongoing for a couple of years now. Most of the guests invited were journalists, artists, writers, academics and other celebrities. De Birhan has learnt that there were times when journalists who came from the State’s media as guest speakers and spoke about certain “sensitive” matters to the students and had to later receive “warning letters” from their bosses.
According to De Birhan’s Staffer who was in the auditorium attending the session, the hall was crowded by students and unusually by staff and lecturers of the School who were all happy and interactive during the program. In a time when most people are wary of discussing politics and rights issues openly, most students were observed participating with liberty as was Temesgen.
De Birhan has taken record of some of the questions that the students raised and Temesgn’s responses.
- About himself : He said he was born in Arat (4) Kilo area, Addis Abeba and graduated in Accounting from the Addis Abeba University College of Commerce and in History from the same University.
- A student said that he had heard that he was a delinquent as a child. Temesgn humorously responded saying ” As I said I was born and brought up in Arat (4) Kilo and Arat (4) Kilo hosts individual and State delinquents, perhaps through that categorization, yes”.
- Asked about his opinion about Ethiopian opposition parties, he said “well I doubt if our oppositions do agree on/about Christmas let alone other issues”
- On his opinion on the future of journalism in Ethiopia, he said “I know that your journalism professors know first hand that you wouldn’t get journalism jobs but they teach you diligently. The future and present of journalism is as you just see it”
- He was also asked what he felt about Meles’ death and he said “I love my country sincerely and I want my country to be developed, so this dream can come true when and only people like Meles leave their position”
- Another young student asked him about his future,as most of his friends are in exile and in prison and he has many charges. He said “I’ll fight up to ‘keranyo’, I don’t know my future but my last will may be like ‘keranyo'”
- Asked about freedom of speech in Ethiopia he said “What do you want me to say? Is it not better you ask Ato Bereket?”
- Also asked what his view was about the current Prime Minister Hailemaraim Dessalgn, he said that it would be very difficult to say anything when Hailemaraim is not present. He said Hailemaraim has to be himself first to comment on him.
Temesgen advised the students to stick to and apply the fundamental “ethics and principles of journalism” when they join the workforce. After the session ended, students had expressed their “love and appreciation” to him and were deliberating on the issues he had spoken about.