An exiled magazine reporter from Ethiopia, Kassahun Yilma, has just started as the sixth international journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Yilma, who worked for the widely-acclaimed, government-shuttered news magazine, Addis Neger, has spent the past three years living as a refugee in Kenya and the U.S. after he and his colleagues were threatened with arrest under the country’s anti-terrorism laws.
The international journalist in residence program, offered in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists, each year grants a journalist who has been threatened, jailed, or attacked for his or her reporting access to the J-School and its resources .
Ethiopia is one of the most repressive countries in the world toward the press. It regularly jails journalists and closes independent media, and is the only country with laws allowing authorities to charge journalists with terrorism if they publish stories the government finds offensive.
Yilma, who likes to be called Kassa, didn’t envision himself as a government target at the height of the turmoil over the questionable elections of 2005 in his country. He was working for an insurance company as a claims adjustor in Addis Ababa, the capital.
The government’s crackdown lasted for several years, with estimates of 200-500 civilian deaths. This was the beginning of a transformation for Yilma, now 32, who has a college diploma in marketing and management and was studying journalism and communication from 2005 until his exile in 2009. He left the country just before he graduated.
He describes the day he watched from an office window as the Special Forces and Addis police fired on young demonstrators: “The youth were burning tires, and the Special Forces just opened fire on them, just outside the building. I couldn’t handle it. I opened the window and shouted, ‘How could you shoot your own brothers?’” Someone pulled him back inside, fearing he would be shot next.
In the fury of the demonstrations, Yilma left his office and started out toward his own neighborhood, thinking that his friends and family were also likely under fire. After changing out of his suit and tie, he ran almost the entire 15 miles home. What he found was what he feared – more violence.
“Everyone was throwing stones at the police, bodies were lying in the street,” he said. “I had come back because I wanted to die there with them.”
Instead, Yilma and another man decided to make a white flag out of clothing and take bodies and injured people off the street. “I carried four bodies,” he said. One of them was the mother of a friend. They took her to the hospital, her purse soaked with blood.
Yilma was bored with his insurance job and soon got a chance to become a journalist when a college instructor opened a sports magazine. His mother is a poet and he says writing is in his genes, plus he was a soccer player in high school and college and an avid fan. So when he was offered the editor’s job, he gladly accepted. From there he went to Addis Neger, an Amharic-language newspaper that had the largest circulation in the country. It was lauded for its independent, analytic, and critical reporting.
In November 2009, a government newspaper blasted Addis Neger as “anti-state,” and linked the paper to banned opposition groups. The next month the government shut it down and sent its editors and staff into exile.
“I had a feature story that day in December,” Yilma said. “I called my editor and got no response. I called the managing editor, same thing. The executive editor was out of the country. I knew something bad had happened.“
Everyone had fled, several to Kenya, where Yilma ended up with no money, the clothes on his back, and no contacts. He had to leave his family and wife Helen behind. Yilma and his colleagues went on to start Addis Neger Online, reporting from outside the country.
At CUNY, he plans to study photography, writing, and web production, and he eventually wants to get a degree in international relations and human rights.
Previous international journalists in residence at the CUNY J-School included Iranian author and Internet reporter Roozbeh Mirebrahimi; Iraqi war correspondent Alaa Majeed; Sri Lankan editor and writer Sonali Samarasinghe, and Cameroonian television and radio reporter Agnes Taille. Rwandan editor Charles Kabonero was chosen but denied a visa to enter the U.S.
The international journalist in residence program, conceived by international reporting director Lonnie Isabel and former Committee to Protect Journalists staffer Elisabeth Witchell, is funded by CPJ and the Correspondents’ Club.