The cost of practicing journalism for an Ethiopian reporter? A jail cell, a caravan across the Sahara, a raft on the Mediterranean — and exile in Minnesota.
(sahanjournal)–Henok A. Degfu is probably the only editor in Minnesota whose reporters used to file stories by internet, but have now switched to reading him notes over the phone.
That’s because all five of his full-time reporters are based nearly 8,000 miles away, in Ethiopia, where massive protests and violent unrest have taken hold since musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa was shot dead two weeks ago in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Henok, 37, is the founder and executive editor of ZeHabesha, an independent media outlet that focuses mainly on political and social issues in Ethiopia. Henok’s news operation has been covering the unfolding unrest and the subsequent government crackdown that’s left Ethiopia’s more than 100 million people without internet—including his reporters.
ZeHabesha has been an important source of news since 2008, when he founded it in Minnesota. Throughout the day, Henok publishes English-language news articles on zehabesha.com and posts Amharic video segments on the YouTube channel, ZeHabesha Official, which has more than half a million subscribers.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Henok sat in a soundproof studio just off Snelling Avenue, in St. Paul, running his fingers on the trackpad of his MacBook Pro. The studio sits at the center of a little rundown building, which he acquired three months ago, tucked between two alleys.
By three o’clock that afternoon, Henok had posted six videos. One was a 20-minute roundup: the news of the day. He gathered the information he needed to write the newscast the only way he can these days—by calling his reporters and listening to them describe the unfolding events in Ethiopia.
“They tell me the news,” said Henok, who wore a checkered shirt with a burgundy velvet blazer. “I take notes. Also, I don’t identify my reporters because of their safety.”
Other videos posted that day included press conferences that government officials staged to brief citizens on the situation in their country. Within a few hours of publishing, more than a million people had viewed the clips. “These days, people watch the news on YouTube,” Henok said. “You don’t have to wait until the hour a certain television station decides to broadcast the news. Things have changed.”
Since its inception, ZeHabesha has also taken on powerful politicians and government agencies in Ethiopia, exposing corruption, shady business dealings and abuse of power. His latest target, Ethiopian Airlines, recently filed a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minnesota against him and ZeHabesha over a series of interviews the outlet broadcast on its YouTube channel.
But Henok is not new to controversy. In his late teens and early 20s, under the regime of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian government arrested Henok multiple times for publishing stories that were critical of the administration. In 2005, he escaped the country after the regime sued him for 12 cases of defamation.
Three years later, he started a new life in Minnesota, home to an estimated 30,000 Ethiopian immigrants and refugees, to pursue what his native country wouldn’t allow him to do: journalism.
When the first edition of ZeHabesha came out, the Minnesota community was very happy. When they saw the newspaper, they remember Ethiopia. The way the newspaper is designed, the language, the colors—everything reminds them of Ethiopia.”
HENOK A. DEGFU
Henok was born in Addis Ababa in 1983. By the time he turned 13 years old, he’d started transcribing interviews for his older brother, Abenet Tamirat, who ran a biweekly newspaper called Dagmawi. Henok transcribed, by hand, conversations Abenet had with artists and musicians, politicians and educators.
In 1996, Abenet wrote an opinion piece that predicted the possibility of a war between Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea. The government shut down Dagmawi and prosecuted Abenet, Henok said, sending him to prison for 14 months.
“They said to him, ‘You’re lying,’” he added. “They arrested him for writing something.” That something proceeded to happen two years later, when the two countries went to war over the border.
Five years later,, Henok had completed high school and acquired four years of experience—not just transcribing interviews, but helping Abenet with the design and publishing process.
With Dagmawi out of business, Henok started his own weekly newspaper, Medina, in 2001. He was 18.
After publishing the third issue—in which the paper accused Meles Zenawi of gross abuse of power, corruption and lying about the Ethiopia–Eritrea war—Henok won recognition from the government: his own trip to jail. Though this stay lasted just a few days.
Henok landed in jail four more times for writing unfavorably about government officials or rich and powerful people in Ethiopia. Each time he published the newspaper, Henok said, he either received a phone call from his angry subjects or encountered uninvited guests.
“The police come to your office and they harass you,” he said. “Government officials call you; they harass you. Even rich people, they have power. They hire police to harass you.”
One time, Henok remembered, he wrote about a wealthy construction business owner, whom he’d accused of corruption. When the story appeared in Medina, the man sent bodyguards to the newsroom. “I was this young, skinny guy,” Henok said. “And he sent 12 men to warn me.”
Another time, Henok added, the same man “paid police—he put me in jail for two days. Just because I wrote about him.”
It’s not a secret that previous regimes in Ethiopia repressed the press and cracked down on journalists like Henok and Abenet, explained Solomon Gashaw, an Ethiopian-born associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has lived in the U.S. since 1979. “Since the military junta in 1991,” Solomon said, “journalism was very much suppressed.”
Since 2010, according to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, at least 60 journalists have embarked on self-imposed exile from Ethiopia; 19 others have ended up behind bars. More than that, the report noted, “The government has shut down dozens of publications and controls most television and most radio outlets, leaving few options for Ethiopians to acquire independent information and analysis on domestic political issues.”
In 2005, Henok thought for the first time of fleeing Ethiopia. The government filed 12 different court cases, alleging that he’d made defamatory claims. The government, he recalled, had further tightened the noose on journalists to silence critical voices. Gone were the days when a journalist might get arrested and imprisoned for a few days, weeks or months. Now, judges were handing down longer sentences. Seven years. Ten years. Twenty years.
“The judges are party members,” he said. “They don’t give you a fair judgment.”
It became apparent to Henok that Ethiopia, the country he’d always loved, could no longer nurture his career dream. So he decided to pursue his passion elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, where freedom of the press enjoys greater protection, and where he could publish news stories without the threat of government reprisal.
The only available avenue to get him to that destination, though, was the arduous journey across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. (A few years later, this same perilous route would kill thousands African and Arab migrants searching for a better life in Western Europe. Nearly 20,000 migrants on their way to Europe died or went missing on the Mediterranean Sea between 2013 and 2019, according to a report by the news service Info Migrants.)
One night in February 2005, Henok packed his belongings and hopped into a car with 10 other migrants for a three-day ride to Khartoum, Sudan. From there, he’d proceed to Libya and then catch a boat to Italy. He would then continue his journey to London, where he’d ask for asylum.
But things didn’t go quite as planned.
A few weeks after his arrival in Khartoum, Henok paid Sudanese smugglers $400 to take him to Libya. The smugglers squeezed him on the back of a Land Cruiser pickup truck filled with 20 other migrants for a 13-day trip through the Sahara Desert to Kufra, Libya. To prevent female passengers from falling off the moving car, Henok said, the smugglers placed them at the center and had men sit around them.
To get through the journey and the seething heat, the smugglers fed their clients grilled deer, biscuits and water mixed with gasoline. Drinking pure water in the desert, the smugglers told their passengers, would lead to excessive thirst.
In Libya, Henok’s plan to travel into Italy hit another disruption. Libyan police caught him and sent him to prison in Benghazi for three months. Then, Libyan security officers trucked him back to the Libya–Sudan border.
Dropping migrants off at the border was common in Libya at the time, a report by the Human Rights Watch found in 2009. But in some cases, security officers left migrants in desert towns within Libya. “In practice,” stated the report, “this means that such migrants have no choice but to put their lives in the hands, once again, of the smugglers.
That was what Henok did. “When they deported me to Sudan, I had to try it again,” he said. “But I ran out of money.”
To make some money, Henok secured a job in Khartoum—cleaning offices and serving people coffee and tea. Whatever he earned from his gig, Henok said, went straight to smugglers who led him on the same 13-day road trip to Libya. This time, instead of trying to get to Italy, Henok paid smugglers $1,200 to take him in an inflatable boat to Turkey.
On February 8, 2007, Henok filed a petition with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After a series of interviews, background checks, and security and medical screenings, the United States eventually granted him asylum.
Whether he was traveling with smugglers in the desert, sitting in a Libyan prison or floating alongside seven other migrants over the open sea, Henok said one thing never really left his mind: the dream to relaunch his journalism career.
So, right after landing his first job in the U.S. at a Minneapolis bakery, Henok purchased a $350 Toshiba laptop with his first paycheck. At the time, he stayed with a relative and slept on the floor.
That decision raised a few eyebrows. “Hey,” Henok recalled hearing from friends, “you don’t even have an apartment.”
In December, four months after his arrival, Henok launched ZeHabesha, a 24-page monthly newspaper, providing news, analysis, opinion, entertainment and sports in English and Amharic. His original readership included Ethiopians in Minnesota, Chicago, Atlanta and South Dakota. A year later, he added an online version to attract Ethiopian readers and viewers worldwide.
“When the first edition of ZeHabesha came out,” he said, “the Minnesota community was very happy. When they saw the newspaper, they remember Ethiopia. The way the newspaper is designed, the language, the colors—everything reminds them of Ethiopia.”
But the newspaper, supported by ad revenue from Ethiopian-owned small businesses in Minnesota, wasn’t generating more than the printing costs. So Henok worked other gigs for a living. After the bakery job, he worked at the Radisson Hotel in Bloomington and AC Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. He held almost every job position, from houseman and room inspector to supervisor and director of housekeeping.
Over time, the tiny one-man ZeHabesha, which he produced at night and over the weekend, became a trusted source of news for millions of Ethiopians around the world. On Facebook, the outlet has 1.3 million followers; on YouTube, it has 600,0000 subscribers.
“In the last 48 hours, we had 1.4 million visitors on YouTube,” Henok said from his St. Paul office. “Last week, we had almost 2 million because of demonstrations and the unrest in Ethiopia.”
Both Henok’s online and print news content are available to readers and viewers for free. All that traffic now supports a staff of six full-time employees. His revenue comes from advertising products on ZeHabesha, zehabesha.com and ZeHabesha Official. By the end of 2017, Henok quit his hotel job to pursue ZeHabesha full-time.
For Ethiopian-born Seble Asnake, owner of Asnake Seble, a Columbia Heights–based adult foster care, the news outlet has been her main news source for issues in Ethiopia.
“I trust ZeHabesha because he’s balanced,” said Seble, who’s lived in Minnesota for the last 34 years. “It provides the important news that we’re now looking for, in a timely manner. We get up in the morning and we get the news. Especially right now, when we’re worried of what’s going on there.”
It’s not uncommon in Minnesota to find news outlets serving specific immigrant groups. There’s the Hmong Times for the Hmong community; La Matraca News for the Latinx community; and Zerkalo for Russian-speaking Minnesotans.
Solomon, the professor at the U of M, said ZeHabesha is one of the media outlets he turns to for information about his country. One of the biggest news items he’s been following on zehabesha.com is the series of YouTube interviews the outlet aired in April. The interviews allege that Ethiopian Airlines and its CEO Tewolde GebreMariam engaged in corruption, mistreating employees and importing COVID-19.
In May, the airline, which is owned by the Ethiopian government, filed a $25 million lawsuit in St. Paul, alleging that ZeHabesha “falsely and maliciously” published interviews about the carrier and GebreMariam. Solomon said he wasn’t surprised to hear accusations about Ethiopian Airlines.
“I know there’s a huge corruption with that system,” he said. “I’m surprised the airline is coming after him. The airline should have challenged the evidence instead of saying it’s defamation and false.”
What makes this case even more remarkable, though, isn’t just that Africa’s largest airline is suing a tiny newsroom in St. Paul. It’s that the same government that Henok escaped 15 years ago is still chasing him around the world—and trying to punish him for his work.
Is Henok startled by the suit? “It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “What I’m surprised about is that we gave them a chance to respond. They said the story is false. If you publish this story, we’re going to sue you. That’s a warning.”
They’re the same kind of warnings he heard from government officials in his teens, In his 20s. And, now, in his 30s.
Jane E. Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said it’s not uncommon for large companies to sue local news outlets for defamation. In the 1990s, for instance, Northwest Airlines (now part of Delta) sued WCCO-TV for a report on alleged safety and maintenance concerns.
The dispute, Kirtley explained in an email to Sahan Journal, switched from court to a local media arbitration process called The Minnesota News Council, which no longer exists. (The Council ruled against WCCO.)
As for the ZeHabesha case, Kirtley said, “It’s much too early to speculate about damages. The case would have to survive motions to dismiss and/or summary judgment before it goes to trial. This could take years.”
Sitting in his soundproof studio, Henok seemed excited to have become the proud owner of the new building, which is partly under construction. When he completes the project in August, the building will feature a green room studio for video recording, a conference room for community gathering, and a publishing room to print the latest product of his company: ZeHabesha Magazine.
Neither the $25 million lawsuit nor the years-long harassment he endured in Ethiopia as a young journalist seems to deter Henok from seeking the truth and reporting it.
In the soundproof studio, Henok faces a small green-yellow-and-red Ethiopian flag on a stick that dangles from a wall. A few steps away, in the publishing room, the stars and stripes hangs from a pole. The two flags, for Henok, present reminders of the country he left behind and the one that has given him what he’d never had there: the freedom of a journalist.