Senior journalist and former Reuters Correspondent Reflects on Career

Senior journalist and former Reuters Correspondent Reflects on Career

He is a good raconteur with a wealth of anecdote and reminiscence about his journalistic careers. Many people know him as ‘Tsegaye Reuters’, associating him for the news company that he worked for 35 years during the Mengistu and the current regimes. The words of recognition given to him by the news company after his retirement, congratulates him for “providing exceptional news coverage from Ethiopia with the utmost dedication and professionalism.”
His journalism career started in the 1960’s during the Emperor Haile Selassie reign. He has spent a sizable portion of his professional life working for the Ethiopian Herald, making him one of the pioneering Ethiopian reporters. He covered conferences and summits, the courts, council meetings, the parliaments.
Tsegaye Tadesse, 83, had witnessed major milestones, such as the historic signing of the charter that would bring African leaders together, the attempted military coup against Emperor Haile Selassie, the abolishment of the monarchy in March 1975. He is one of the very few surviving journalists who started their careers during the Imperial era and he has built a formidable network of contacts along the years even while battling Mengistu’s censors. He developed a reputation as a moderate man, who preferred to work by consensus rather than confrontation and he has had a way of getting access to events and places where others would have failed.
I’ve had a privilege to speak to him recently about his career, and how his journalism years have been, which he describes as, a “joy and a life-time pleasure”. He lives in a house wrapped in imperial-purple bougainvillea behind the American Embassy. Despite a recent pneumonia infection, he is doing well for an 83-year-old man.
Born in 1933, in Senadyan Sefer in Amanuel Mesalemia area in Addis Ababa, Tsegaye spent his early years in the area attending religious school as was common then. He recited alphabet, psalms of David and kine (poetry). His father was appointed to Ilibabur and he moved to Sidist Kilo area with his mother. There he joined Addis Ababa’s famous secondary school, Teferi Mekonen, which produced many Ethiopian elites. That was around when the occupying Italians left the country, he says. After completing high school, he wanted to join the air force unsuccessfully. He instead joined the Teacher’s Training College that was just opened at Kotebe. After graduation, Tsegaye was assigned as a teacher at the remote region of Gore, Ilibabur but was later transferred to Shewa. “It was at Addis Alem School that I served a little longer than others,” he recalls. He also taught at Debre Berhan Haile Mariam School for a year. During those times, he was an avid reader of the national newspaper to which he used to contribute articles. Shortly after the end of his teaching career at Addis Alem, Tsegaye steeped into the office of the Ethiopian Herald in 1961 to take up a job as cub reporter-armed only with a flair for English. Herald was then edited by the African-American Dr. David Talbot, whom Tsegaye described as a remarkable person, which though turgid and dull, had a positively effervescent personality. “At the time, we had no official journalism training in our country, but we learned the trade on the job, proof reading, sub editing, and so on,”
“It was hard to find local news then. We had to depend upon the international news agencies for the bulk of the news,” he recalls. “Our role was to re-write a story taken from one of those agencies and give it a title and try to fit it into the page. That was the biggest job,” he says. Over time, Tsegaye moved on to more responsible assignments, developing and writing news stories, translating, and sending dispatches from the capital. Within just four years, he rose to the rank of sub editor.
Upon his move to parliament reporting, becoming the first parliamentary reporter for the Herald in 1963, Tsegaye came to learn of the so-called flogging bill which many progressive elements in the parliament regarded with dread. Tsegaye says it was a bill primarily intended to cow the general populous who were becoming more daring in expressing themselves after the 1960 coup. It threatened to penalize anyone who spoke ill of the monarch and the system with thirty lashes of the whip. The bill would also require journalists to refer anyone beyond the rank of a director as “honourable”. After many heated discussions and exchanges, the bill was rejected by the parliament. Tsegaye duly wrote a news story on it, even though the censor rejected the story. “The editor Tegen Yeteshawork and I disregarded the order and published it. We even shared the news to other agencies, before it came out on the paper. The news became a success and it was aired on many foreign channels,” Tsegaye recalls. This angered the government, especially the prime minster Aklilu Habtewold who was the brain behind the bill. He called the Minster of Information and railed at him. The irritated Minster on his part summoned Tsegaye and Tegen and heaped insults on them. Initially, the two were threatened with losing their three months’ salary for the “misconduct”. Tsegaye says “it was only for the sake of appearance. We had our salaries. We instead received lots of insults and swearing.” The censor hardened to keep a very strict watch on them afterwards.
Tsegaye saw the protracted Ethiopian revolution coming, which ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. One of the articles Tsegaye did before the dawn of the revolution was a full page story entitled “One Day with the Emperor”, written on the 23rd of July 1973 on the occasion of the Emperor’s eightieth birthday, and the last he was to celebrate as ruler. The article was intended to show the public duties of the Emperor, such as ceremonies, receptions and visitations. Tsegaye had to accompany the Emperor for the whole day, observing him whilst in prayer, reading official papers and notes, having audiences with ministers and meetings with his secretaries to discuss daily business and riding his horse at his ranch which was then located at Ghion Hotel. The article came out better than he hoped for, a sympathetic spread which even pleased the Emperor. “One of the Emperor’s greatest strengths was his ability to master astonishing amounts of details without losing a sense of strategic vison,” Tsegaye observed.
In the turbulent days after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, Tsegaye’s career for the government press ended. He came to establish his own advertising and distribution company. The company prepared brochures, fliers, catalogues, trading cards, magazines and run commercials for some of the biggest companies in the country.
While working there, the international news agency Reuters recruited him in 1975 as its Ethiopian correspondent. This was after the then British correspondent was expelled from the country for refusing to reveal his sources for a report about the execution of five Ethiopian army officers. Tsegaye views his days on the Reuters had been the best years of his working life; he believes it was this job that made his reputation as a journalist, allowing him to demonstrate what proper, standard journalism looks like. He covered the fierce fighting between the Eritrean’s People’s Liberation Army and the Ethiopian national army in the 1980’s. His reporting has proven essential, guiding viewers through the complexities of the bloody conflict. The military junta kept a close watch on his dispatches, threatening to revoke his license whenever angered by his reports. The military government was not particularly pleased when Tsegaye quoted from the rebel’s radio, which it was trying to jam regularly.
One of his reports would bring him to the military leader Mengistu Hailemarim’s office. When former American President Jimmy Carter stared to mediate conflict between the Ethiopian government and the rebel group, EPLF, in 1989, he begged local and foreign journalists not to aggravate the situation by focusing on negative side. The Ethiopian government officials also promised Mr. Carter to drop all the swaggering war discourse. However, while the negotiation was in progress, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam would declare in a speech in the Revolution square on the occasion of May Day that, he would “drive the Eritrean bandits away by force, there couldn’t be any peace brokering with them”. When Tsegaye reported this to Reuters, he was called by some government member’s anti-peace and war-monger. The Minster of Information threatened to revoke his license and on the following day, brought him to Mengistu’s office. But the President came to his defence saying that all he did was truthfully report what he said.
Tsegaye has also covered extensively the bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that broke out in 1998 and the deepening humanitarian crisis which has spread across the region in its wake. He travelled four times to the battlefield at significant personal risk. His reports have focused on – amongst other subjects – the effect of devastating ‘cluster bomb’ attack on the Ethiopian civilian population and the humanitarian and economic costs of the enforced inscription, mass expulsions of each other’s citizens.
Tsegaye expresses admiration for the prominent member of the elite group of the then journalists. Tegen Yeteshawork, the Columbia University educated journalist who took over editorship of the Ethiopian Herald from November 1961 and who later became head of the Press Department, was one of the journalists who made an extremely positive impression on Tsegaye. “He was a genius editor and a learned journalist. He was truly inspirational figure whom I loved like a brother. He was open to me in a generous manner from the very start, the way he engaged people throughout his life. Over the years we came to spend many hours together, and I always came away from these meetings well-informed. He had revolutionary instincts and he was a times at loggerheads with the monarch,” he recalls. When Tegen was killed by the military junta along with the other 60 officials in 1974, Tsegaye was stunned. He admired him a great deal- his intelligence, courage, and love for his country.
Another colourful personality that Tsegaye held in great esteem was the late Gedamu Abraha, who was the brain behind Addis Reporter, a highly-rated weekly English magazine, published in the 1969. Though Tsegaye and Gedamu didn’t work together, they had formed a warm continuing friendship when both were in the United States on a two month trip to attend Nixon’s election in 1968, invited by the State Department. They visited 36 states together. Tsegaye described Gedamu as quick-thinking, witty and hugely knowledgeable about Ethiopian political events and trends. “He had a laid-back, no-nonsense style of writing and brought a cool head and long perspective in the rhetoric of political and social reporting. In the nascent word Ethiopian journalism, he was a stickler for accuracy, precision and meticulousness.”
He also praises Seyoum Ayele, who was first the reporter for Voice of Ethiopia and later the Associated Press’s correspondent and Abebe Andualem as people “determined to get at the truth, people who believed in accuracy, people who subscribe to the code”.
Tsegaye described the job of a correspondent for a foreign news agency as “extremely demanding, both mentally and physically”, but hailed it as “a profession which teaches you to cope with literally any situation without panicking and without yielding to the pressures of interested parties.
When Meles Zenawi’s EPRDF’s forces entered Addis Ababa in 1991, Tsegaye was busy chronicling events unfolding with perspective gained from decades of watching history upfront. A colleague at the time recalls him as being «always a calm, avuncular figure puffing on his pipe; he sported a sort of deerstalker and drove around Addis in his vintage banger past tanks and men with machine guns.” “Beneath it all seethed with incredulity at man’s folly, but he was a survivor. He had to be –only his basilisk eyes betrayed what was going on his mind,” he added. Since leaving Reuters a few years ago Tsegaye had been involved in a number of social service projects as well as travelling and spending time with his wife and his five children who are all living in the United States.

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