A couple of weeks ago, newspaper editor Dawit Kebede, an International Press Freedom award winner, fled Ethiopia. Sadly, Dawit's Awramba Times is the latest in a long list of Amharic-language private publications to vanish from the market following the incarceration or flight into exile of their editors.
Dawit was imprisoned in 2005 on trumped-up charges of genocide and treason after Ethiopia's disputed 2005 general election. At the time, he was the publisher of Hadar, an Amharic weekly, which was banned after his arrest. Twenty-one months in prison didn't break his spirit. Rather, after his release in August 2007, he launched a more mature paper, Awramba Times, with a promising team of writers and commentators. Truth be told, Dawit became more popular with Awramba Times than with Hadar.
Awramba Times was a breeding ground of young Ethiopian columnists. Apart from the usual news and sports reporters, the weekly had correspondents specializing in parliamentary affairs, health issues, women's issues, satire, and folklore. There were also featured guest columnists such as university professors and opposition party members.
Awramba Times's bold coverage drew an orchestrated smear campaign, waged by ruling party papers and their affiliates. Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), which issues press licenses, joined the foray by expressing displeasure with the paper when it presented its third-quarter report to the parliament in May. EBA accused Awramba Times of trying to incite an Arab Spring-style rebellion in the country. Others were even more blunt in reminding Dawit of the terms of his release from prison. But Dawit didn't seem to be threatened. "Getting outside or preferring exile and living under such repressive situations are the same form," he told CNN earlier this year.
While Dawit had a team of columnists and contributors, he was the face of Awramba Times. The paper has not seen daylight since his departure. For long time, a typical Amharic language private newspaper was tabloid size, as little as eight pages (but more recently as many as 24), with no advertisements. Companies, fearing backlash from the government, were reluctant to place ads in private newspapers, no matter their circulation. With the meager resources that publishers had, it was impossible to hire correspondents and columnists. That led most private newspapers to be a one-man or one-woman show. The incarceration or flight into exile of the editor usually led the title to disappear from the market. For instance, in 1993, Ethiopis, one of the first newspapers to emerge after the fall of the Marxist regime, ceased to exist following the detention of its publisher (the indefatigable Eskinder Nega, who at the moment is languishing in prison on terrorism charges).
More recently, exactly two years ago, the popular Amharic weekly Addis Neger took the same path. When the editors fled the country, the paper folded. Fortunately, they still had the energy to continue the publication online. Awramba Times can and may do the same thing.