Yesterday, officials from Ethiopia’s Immigration department deported me and I am now back in the U.K.
That marked the end of a tortuous 7-month period during which the government has failed to grant me accreditation to report for The Guardian’s Global Development section. In that time I have maintained a self-interested silence about an unsatisfactory process, but I am now keen to get it out in the open.
What my treatment demonstrates once again is a lack of appreciation of professional journalism and a failure of various government institutions and officials to follow established procedure in anything like a transparent manner. As such, these are issues that are relevant not only to all journalists in Ethiopia, but for anybody interacting with the authorities, and indeed all Ethiopians.
As has been the case throughout the process, I was not given a specific reason for my deportation, let alone a formal explanation, and I only had a brief opportunity to state my case yesterday. However, I have been on a Tourist Visa since Feb. 13, and an Immigration official declared that I was not a tourist.
The problems began when my government accreditation to report for Bloomberg was about to expire in September last year. The Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) appeared to be unhappy that I had ceased working for Bloomberg in January, yet I had remained active as a journalist under that license. I had been Bloomberg’s Ethiopia correspondent since 2010.
GCAO subsequently made it clear it was not possible to transfer to a new media in Ethiopia and instructed me to apply from the UK. This was despite the fact that other foreign correspondents had switched their accreditation from one organization to another in Addis Ababa. During those initial exchanges, a pattern was established, with GCAO officials shifting responsibility between each other, offering vague responses, and failing to discuss the issues with me face-to-face.
Despite the positive attitude of the Ambassador and others at the Ethiopian Embassy in London, it took three months for the approval of a one-month Journalist Visa, which was the first step in the new accreditation process. The application went through the Embassy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokespersons Office, GCAO, and the Department for Immigration and Nationality Affairs, which is part of the National Intelligence and Security Services.
I returned to Ethiopia in early January, assuming that GCAO would complete the process, as my Journalist Visa application explicitly said the intention was to be accredited as a Resident Correspondent. However, I received the same evasive and vague responses from GCAO officials, until the Minister informed me that a “concerned authority” was examining my application. With no information about which authority that was, I had no recourse apart from appealing to senior officials for assistance.
The next concrete information I received was from the MoFA Spokespersons Office, which I hadn’t understood to be involved in this stage of the process. They told me that my application had been refused. As usual, there was no detailed explanation in reference to specific administrative procedures, just a vague declaration that it was a “decision of the government”.
I left the country again on Feb. 3 as my Journalist Visa was expiring and reentered on the Tourist Visa on February 13 with the intention of holding meetings to try and sort out the situation, or at least to understand why my application had been rejected.
The subsequent period was one of turmoil, with more protests, the Prime Minister’s resignation, and the declaration of another State of Emergency. During that time I have of course been monitoring events closely and discussing with friends and acquaintances, including government officials, about what is happening and where it might all be leading. That included contact online and over the phone with some individuals broadly opposed to the government.
I also published an analysis commissioned in January by World Politics Review that was exclusively my own commentary. At no point while on the Tourist Visa did I attend any media events, do any formal reporting, or take any notes during discussions. However, I also made no progress towards resolving my situation, as officials that had promised to assist me were very busy dealing with a serious situation.
On the afternoon of Monday, March 5th I received a phone call requesting that I report to Immigration. Fearing deportation, I immediately contacted a senior government official actively supporting me, and he advised for me to stay put and wait for him to call back. However, before he did, Immigration officials arrived at my house early on Tuesday morning. I was then detained at Immigration Main Department for the whole day and told to leave the country that evening or be taken to a police station jail.
As with anybody dealing with public authorities anywhere in the world, what I am seeking from the Ethiopian government is fair treatment, efficient action, and transparent adherence to clear procedures. Unfortunately, none of those have been a feature of my recent experiences. Instead, I am thoroughly confused about who did what when and for which reasons.
On a personal level, I am unhappy at my treatment, which feels unjust given my long-standing commitment to accurate and objective reporting from Ethiopia. It seems reasonable to say that my coverage has consistently provided a relatively detailed and balanced insight into Ethiopian affairs.
As recognized by the government itself, there is a need for reform and change in how Ethiopia is governed. I hope that this minor contribution of mine is useful in demonstrating some of the problems that exist, as it will be important in the months and years to come that Ethiopian and foreign journalists are treated as constructive actors and reliable witnesses, rather than as suspected subversives.
It is also my sincere hope that I am allowed as soon as possible to resume my career reporting from Ethiopia, which has been hugely fulfilling so far, and I have dedicated considerable time and effort to.