Ethiopia’s Oromo diaspora uses Web to dissent, debate in absence of press freedom

By Emily Wax

April 5, 2012 (Washington Post) – There may be at least four different factions with varying viewpoints on whether the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, should pursue the birth of an independent country or reform the existing Ethiopian state.

But one thing is clear: social media and the Internet have become a powerful tool for debate among the Oromo diaspora, which stretches from Minnesota to Washington D.C. to the Netherlands. Online, the diaspora discusses issues that range from the persecution of the Oromo back in Ethiopia to the infighting among Oromo political factions outside the country. The Oromo number as many as 40 million, according to some estimates.

The Web site conversation comes at a time when the Ethiopian government has been accused of cracking down on and jailing both Oromo leaders and people from its domestic media. Ethiopia is “the second-leading jailer of journalists in Africa,” only after its arch-foe Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It has one of the largest numbers of exiled journalists in the world, the committee says. ­­

The Ethiopian government has denied accusations that it is autocratic or repressive of the media.

“There’s no press freedom in Ethiopia and Oromo voices are particularly not tolerated,” Mohammed Ademo, a Columbia University journalism graduate student and co-founder and editor of OPride, a Web site that upholds Oromo identity and culture, said in an e-mail.  OPride is not affiliated with any political faction.

“Despite the huge size of the Oromo population, there is no single independent Oromo newspaper, radio, Web site, or TV in Ethiopia. OPride… is our meager attempt to fill the gap is being blocked. We use social media to engage with our readers and spur discussions about the future direction of the country.”

Gadaa is another an independent online media outlet serving the Horn of African region and its diaspora.

Ademo said Oromos, whose demands are as diverse as the community itself, are very passionate about ending their marginalization in Ethiopia and equally indignant about the factionalism among diaspora-based groups. They see it as a great disservice to their struggle.

After a Washington Post story appeared on one faction of the Oromo Liberation Front, many readers wrote me e-mails and posted their feelings on Web sites that focus on the Oromo diaspora.

Fido Ebba, head of foreign relations for one of the major factions of the Oromo Liberation Front, said that his organization continues to lead armed and political struggle in many Oromo areas in Ethiopia, to protest human rights violations of Oromos by the government.

He said that Web sites and radio stations work to unite Oromo by giving them a safe forum to voice their views, at a time when the Ethiopian government is cracking down on dissent.

“Many Oromos in diaspora are well engaged with cyberspace including Facebook and Twitter, to follow developments in the struggle of their own people,” said Ebba. “This has enabled many Oromos in diaspora to actively participate in the liberation struggle of their people.”

Taha Tuko, a member of the executive committee of another breakaway faction of the Oromo Liberation Front that I wrote about earlier this week, said will now focus on uniting with other opposition parties. Together, Tuko said, the parties will fight against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to form “a new Ethiopia where all Ethiopia including Oromos can benefit, politically, economically and socially.”

He and others accuse the prime minister of being autocratic, corrupt and repressive of the media.

His group has been holding public meetings, which have been written about online, in 11 cities around the world including Washington, Houston, Oslo and Frankfurt.

“We will fight Meles by all means of struggle to get rid of the regime,” Tuko said, adding that his group would use violence if needed. “Because the government is violent against Oromos.”

–The Washington Post

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