By GEORGE KEGORO (Daily Nation)
I spent time last week with exiled Ethiopian journalists living in Kenya, who had been brought together by Journalists for Justice, a local organisation that champions the interests of practising journalists in the region, which was founded by Kenyan journalist Rosemary Tollo.
There are at least 30 journalists among the 37,000 Ethiopian refugees living in Kenya. Up to 100 others are refugees in other countries around the world.
There are also the six bloggers and three journalists, known as the Zone Nine Bloggers, in custody in Ethiopia for the last one year, awaiting trial on terrorism charges, because of blogging.
The exiled Ethiopian journalists in Kenya are mostly young, in their late 20s and early 30s, and almost all are men.
Most arrived recently, with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing, some leaving young families behind.
While many of them were influential persons in their country, they now live in poverty and under great uncertainty in Kenya, far from the positions of significance they once occupied.
One of them, Million Shurube, 33, died here last year, away from his young son whom he had left behind when he fled Ethiopia.
The crying shame is that such a large number of exiled journalists on our land is hardly noticed and is never discussed. The Ethiopians are among a throng of foreign journalists of other nationalities living in Kenya, the largest number from Somalia. There are also Eritrean, Rwandese and Burundian journalists here.
The Ethiopian journalists described the dire circumstances that made them leave their country and the difficulties that they have met since coming here.
All of them fell afoul of the authorities in their country because of things they had written or said on air. Some were charged in court and a number have on-going trials at home.
The Ethiopian legal system allows trials in absentia. Fleeing the country is no escape from the country’s judicial system.
A number of those living in Kenya have since been sentenced to imprisonment terms, after trials in absentia. If seized from Kenya, as has happened in the past, they are simply taken straight to prison.
The Ethiopians described their interactions with both the Kenyan authorities including the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), the police, and the counter-terrorism authorities and also with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
While the DRA has been reasonably responsive in processing applications for refugee status, their interaction with the police was characterised as problematic.
Because Ethiopians are a visible minority, they are easily profiled by law enforcement. Police easily pick them out in the streets and habitually shake them down for bribes, which are payable irrespective of whether they have papers or not.
In many cases, the police forcefully take whatever they find on them, like phones or cash. The counter-terrorism drive, which the country is engaged in, has increased their vulnerability.
They also characterised their interactions with the UNHCR, depicting its handling of refugee applications as unpredictable, and arbitrary.
As part of this, applicants in relatively the same positions are, however, subjected to differing treatment by the UNCHR, and there are frequent and unexplained delays in determining applications for refugee status.
A recent development is that some journalists, and other exiles, are abducted here and sent back to Ethiopia to face prosecution or to serve imprisonment after trials conducted while they were away.
It is unlikely that the Kenyan government is unaware of this. This development reflects the narrowing of the space in East Africa for political dissidents.
Whereas, in the past, enemies of regimes were localised to their own countries, there is a process of regionalising the enemies of regimes, which makes it unsafe for political dissidents who reside anywhere in the region.
The process of regional co-operation, through such bodies as the East African Community and Igad, has only succeeded in bringing presidents closer, without necessarily affecting the distance between the people themselves.
As part of the co-operation between presidents, the enemies of one regime are the enemies of all the regimes. The crisis in Burundi, over which there has been remarkable inertia by East African leaders, which allowed it to balloon into an armed conflict, is the latest demonstration of this point.
With at least 17 journalists in Ethiopian jails, the third largest number in the world after China and Eritrea, and with such a large number in exile, there obviously is something very wrong in Ethiopia.
Paradoxically, however, both within the region and internationally, there is no widely shared recognition of the gravity of the internal condition of Ethiopia — partly, because Ethiopia is playing a leading role in Western-backed counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
The lack of solidarity with the exiled journalists is regrettable. The Kenyan media establishment needs to recognise the presence of foreign journalists in distress living here. After all, it could have been them living abroad. Secondly, journalists are not ordinary refugees.
Journalists have a special status in society as people who witness, record and interpret events. Because of what they know, witnessed or arrive with, they are exposed to a special vulnerability to danger and persecution which the authorities need to be aware of, and take into account, when processing refugee status or deciding on practical living arrangements.
Thirdly, their situation will not last forever, and things will eventually improve. The advantage the political leaders are trying to preserve, which has seen them send their own people into exile, will come to an end one day. Journalists in exile need to record their memories. The opportunity to use the record will materialise one day.