Is it a coincidence that Berhanu Nega, an influential Ethiopian opposition leader, is being called an Eritrea-funded “terrorist” on the same exact day that he was supposed to testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in a session labeled “The Future of Democracy and Human Rights”? These accusations against Mr. Berhanu originate from a June 20, 2013 article published by Awramba Times, which links to an allegedly leaked audio with the alleged voice of Mr. Berhanu claiming to have received $500,000 from Eritrea to support the work of the opposition movement Ginbot 7 and Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). Furthermore, the article alleges that “the original source of this grant is the Egyptian government” citing “confidential informants” but providing no hard evidence of these claims. Despite the Awramba Times relative novelty and obscurity, Sudan Tribune picks up the story and publishes an article under the headline, “Eritrea provides Ethiopian ‘terrorist’ organization with $500,000.” The very first sentence of the article goes on to state that “the Eritrean government has offered $500,000 to Ginbot 7, an exiled Ethiopian opposition political organization designated by Ethiopia as terrorist entity.” The original Awramba Times article, however, never used the word “terrorist” but did label Mr. Berhanu as “Ethiopia’s Ramirez Sanchez,” the Venezuelan terrorist also known as Carlos the Jackal.
What do all these allegations mean and why now? It must be understood that in these two articles, the Awramba Times and Sudan Tribune attempt to (1) link Eritrea to terrorism by loose association, (2) brand Eritrea as an Egyptian proxy in the wake of recent Ethiopian-Egyptian tensions, (3) discredit both Ginbot 7 and ESAT, and (4) discredit Behanu Nega and his recent testimony before Congress.
In a post-9/11 world, the “terrorist” label is a serious allegation that requires meticulous scrutiny by all media sources. Simply because the ruling Ethiopian regime labels a political organization as a terrorist group does not automatically deem that organization as terrorist. It’s quite odd that Sudan Tribune chose to promote such a label, using it multiple times throughout the article. Why not simply call all suspected entities by name instead and let the readers be the judge?
Eritrea, once again, is branded as a supporter of terrorism even though all indications point to the fact that the Ethiopian ruling regime, which is dishing out the terrorist label, has been the primary proponent of terrorism in the region. Consider that Ethiopia committed the following: armed al-Shabab; bombed itself during an African Union summit and blamed it on Eritrea; openly supported and hosted the terrorist organization known as the Eritrean Islamic Jihad which killed a British national in 2003; illegally invaded Somalia in 2006 at the behest of the US; illegally occupied and continues to occupy sovereign Eritrean territory; allegedly murdered 5 European tourists in the Afar region, according to a military communiqué by the ARDUF (doesn’t recognize state of Eritrea); and committed an unprovoked attack on Eritrea in 2012 in clear violation of international law. Therefore, how can Sudan Tribune use the Ethiopian government’s terrorist label when the Ethiopian government itself takes part in terrorism?
In contrast, Eritrea has a long history of fighting terrorism, even before it was fashionable. As a Congressional Research Service analyst once pointed out, “if there is one country where the fighting of extremists and terrorists was a priority when it mattered, it was Eritrea.” According to American Forces Press Service on Eritrea, “Donald Rumsfeld said that the United States can learn much about combating terror from the people of this small African nation.” That was back in 2002. Since then, paradoxically, there have been multiple attempts to link Eritrea to terrorism. All have failed.
The Egypt connection is also an interesting twist to this story. The aforementioned article doesn’t represent the first instance that Awramba Times has tried to brand Eritrea as a proxy of Egypt. On April 17, 2013, the website ran headlines reading, “Eritrea supports Egypt’s ‘historic rights’ on the Nile River” but lacked any evidence that Eritrean officials made such claims. To the contrary, the Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki stated in 2011 that “the Eritrean people do not entertain ill-will against the Ethiopian people. We cannot take sides with Sudan or Egypt, and thus maintain an anti-Ethiopia stance because of the prevailing border conflict.” Connecting Eritrea to an adversarial Egypt or Sudan is not new. This tactic goes back to the Ancien Régime of Haile Selassie, who tried to brand exiled pro-self-determination Eritrean students, leaders, and activists taking refuge in Cairo as extensions of the Egyptian government. This tactic was and continues to be a play on the Ethiopian people’s emotions to distract them from domestic issues and the government’s brazen unwillingness to peacefully resolve issues with Eritrea. It’s now half a century later and nothing has changed. Awramba Times is either knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating this myth. Perhaps, a closer look at the website may give us a better understanding of its role in the sphere of Ethiopian politics.
In 2011, Awramba Times was awarded $36,000 grant by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED; see Fig. 1). For many decades now, the NED has been a known source of destabilization of nations in the interests of the United States. As Allen Weinstein, a co-founder of NED admitted in a 1991 Washington Post article, “a lot of what we do now was done covertly by the CIA 25 years ago.”
Since receiving the NED grant, the US-based Ethiopian opposition site has went on expand its influence among the Ethiopian masses opposing the current regime in their country, leading some Ethiopians to see the website as a fifth column. Its editor Dawit Kebede and deputy editor Woubshet Taye are frequently and preferentially cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In fact, Mr. Dawit was the winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Since then, however, Awramba Times has went on to take a hostile position against other forms of Ethiopian media–namely, against ESAT. The website claims that ESAT gives preferential coverage to Ginbot 7, co-founded by Berhanu Nega. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: ESAT has been enormously popular in comparison to Awramba Times. As of June 29, 2013, Awramba Times’ global rank is 107,724 while ESAT stands at 24,836. Interestingly, a bump in traffic is seen following June 20, 2013 when Awramba Times released the allegedly leaked audio, momentarily catapulting their rankings to almost 50,000 (see Fig. 2). Could this be the reason for the attack on ESAT and Berhanu Nega?
The odd thing is that in spite of the fact that both Ethiopian opposition media sources are externally funded (allegedly or proven) and both are considered terrorist entities under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws, only one seems to take on the terrorist label that the Ethiopian ruling regime often likes to dish out. ESAT is the terrorist, apparently, and Ginbot 7, Berhanu Nega, Eritrea, and Egypt are all terrorists by alleged associations based on unproven claims. Why does Sudan Tribune spare Awramba Times of such a label? Why not associate the US and the NED with the “terrorist” like they do Eritrea?
In addition, it’s quite hard to ignore the fact that the leaked audio fell on the same day that Berhanu Nega of the Ginbot 7 testified before Congress. He referred to ESAT multiple times in his testimony and by the end of the session, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) called for the reintroduction of the Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2010 with some revisions. Major changes may be afoot and this last Awramba Times article may be a means of distracting–or perhaps dividing–the Ethiopian opposition and redirecting those changes in favor of the website and their backer’s interests. It’s critical for all observers, particularly the Ethiopian people, to look beyond repetitive Eritrean scapegoating and direct their scrutiny towards the Ethiopian regime, which continues flout and violate citizens’ human rights, unabated, in a post-Meles Zenawi Ethiopia. Lies about Eritrea only serve to perpetuate the suffering of all the people of the Horn of Africa. The lies must come to a stop.