“Addis Standard lies, steals your money, collaborates with Egypt!”, Ambassador Shamebo Fitamo, Foreign Ministry official, said this in bizarre tirade and threatens to sue Addis Standard during an address to Ethiopians residing in Lebanon. According to an audio recording received by Addis Standard Ambassador Shamebo was discussing about a series of investigative reporting the magazine has done about the abuse of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon
Addis Abeba, January 09/2020 – In what Ethiopians living in the Lebanese capital of Beirut referred to as a “lashing out,” a visiting Ethiopian diplomat hosting members of the Ethiopian expat community in the country spent a half hour lecturing his audience on the ills of speaking with media, in particular Addis Standard, apparently irate over the magazine’s investigative reporting on the plight faced by Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon this year.
Ambassador Shamebo, former Director General for Procurement, Finance and Property Administration, currently the Director General of Middle East Affairs at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rendered this clear in an address delivered at the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut mid-December 2019. Besides accusing Addis Standard of spreading lies, the diplomat accused the magazine’s staff of attempting to steal insurance money from the parents of victims of abusive employers in Lebanon. Addis Standard was able to obtain several audio recordings from the meeting.
“Why are we allowing the spread of useless information that doesn’t benefit us or our common unity?” Ambassador Shamebo asked the gathered, while handing around printed copies of a recent Addis Standard news report. “This is the newspaper that is defaming the country!”
Ambassador Shamebo was in Lebanon to head a high level Ethiopian government delegation sent by the Ministry to meet with a number of Lebanese government officials and representatives of the large Ethiopian expatriate community in the country. The visit by the delegation was announced earlier in the same month by Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebiat Getachew in the aftermath of numerous reports of abuse and murder of Ethiopians working as domestic workers in the country, as well as the perceived unwillingness of Ethiopian consular staff to assist their citizens making waves in recent months. The spokesman had previously told state media outlet Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporate that the government was “working to take action to stop worsening abuses against Ethiopians in Lebanon,” without clarifying exactly what course of action it was taking.
There are over 300,000 Ethiopian women in Lebanon working as maids for Lebanese households across the country. Many are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that goes unpunished in Lebanon due to the institutionalized oppression enabled by the existence of the Kafala system which binds an employee to her Lebanese sponsor. The Kafala system is what facilitates the scourge. The horrific abuses meted out against Ethiopian maids in the country and the instability reigning across the country as a result of the ongoing Lebanese revolutionary protests, were slated to be primary agenda topics in the discussion.
However, at the much awaited December 15th meeting of the delegates and the Ethiopian community, Ambassador Shamebo announced that negative press coverage the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut was receiving would be high on the agenda. The Ethiopian consulate’s long documented refusal to intervene on behalf of its citizens in Lebanon has garnered the institution an unprecedented level of press backlash this year. An investigation by Addis Standard earlier this year revealed systematic neglect and refusal by consular staff posted in Beirut to pursue cases even when ample evidence of abuse, including murder, is available. With mounting reports of deaths and enslavement showing no signs of slowing, a number of Lebanese based Ethiopian rights organizations penned an open letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed calling for him to pay attention to the incompetent consular staff members. The open letter attracted a considerable amount of publicity, with the BBC and Open Democracy among media outlets that covered the story.
However, at the much awaited December 15th meeting of the delegates and the Ethiopian community, Ambassador Shamebo announced that negative press coverage the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut was receiving would be high on the agenda. The Ethiopian consulate’s long documented refusal to intervene on behalf of its citizens in Lebanon has garnered the institution an unprecedented level of press backlash this year. An investigation by Addis Standard earlier this year revealed systematic neglect and refusal by consular staff posted in Beirut to pursue cases even when ample evidence of abuse, including murder, is available. With mounting reports of deaths and enslavement showing no signs of slowing, a number of Lebanese based Ethiopian rights organizations penned an open letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed calling for him to take action against incompetent consular staff members. The open letter attracted a considerable amount of publicity, with the BBC and Open Democracy among media outlets that covered the story.
However, in his address, Ambassador Shamebo claims to have not heard of the publishing of any such letter. Instead, he singled out a recent report published by Addis Standard highlighting the consulate’s decision to enact a policy refusing to accommodate Ethiopians coming to their office in Beirut pleading for intervention in the case of Ethiopian women and girls trapped in abusive Lebanese homes. He accused the publishers of that story of “defaming the country.”
With the new policy enacted in August 2019, victims of abuse would require their families in Ethiopia to apply at the Foreign Ministry in Addis Abeba for assistance in getting intervention. After a year in which the consulate’s woeful track record in cases dealing with victims of abuse made headlines, those directly affected by the new policy say it was designed to shelter the consulate from additional criticism by making intervention only possible after the completion of a lengthy bureaucratic process initiated in Addis Abeba.
The policy saw Ethiopia’s acting ambassador to Lebanon Aklilu Tatere hand away his own duties to the Foreign Ministry. The enactment meant that any possible intervention or rescue would now be delayed by paperwork and applications across two countries, precious time that increases the desperation of anguished family members and potentially cost the limbs or lives of trapped victims themselves. However, the backlash that came as a result of Addis Standard;s report revealing its details saw the consulate abandon the practice sometime in early December.
It is the same story Ambassador Shamebo attempted to portray as a “misunderstanding and a fabrication”. “When Ethiopians die or are injured in Lebanon, their parents or next of kin are supposed to receive insurance money as compensation. To do so, they are required to process proof of identity via the Foreign Ministry,” he explained. “but some individuals want to steal this money. They’ve published a report in the media saying a new consular policy that without authorization from Addis Abeba, this can’t happen and that intervention won’t happen,” he told the gathering.
A member of the Ethiopian community interrupted the Ambassador saying “The story is based on the truth,” he said but was quickly hushed. “Addis Standard’s report suggesting that there’s a new consular policy was published by people who want a cut of the insurance money,” the Ambassador accused this magazine.
In a statement, the management of JAKENN Publishing PLC, the publisher of Addis Standard magazine, said the ambassador’s allegations were “defamatory and baseless.” “As part of its report Addis Standard gathered first hand testimonies of several activists and family members who reported being rebuffed by consular staff when they appeared in person to plead for help on behalf of a trapped domestic worker between August and December. They are the magazine’s primary sources of information,” the statement said. JAKENN Publishing PLC also denied that unlike what the ambassador suggested, the policy had nothing to do with insurance money.
Addis Standard also received an audio recording of an exchange that took place in October 2019 and served as further proof of the existence of the nefarious policy in which an exasperated family member of one such missing domestic worker was told by a consular staff that the consular wouldn’t be able to do anything without the family filing an application at the Foreign Ministry in Addis Abeba.
The relative, who handed over the audio recording, but asked to remain anonymous, told Addis Standard that her teenaged relative, Genzeb Worku, had not been heard from in three years. Despite her pleading, the consulate made it clear to her that they would do nothing on Genzeb’s behalf until her parents, who hail from a rural farming community in Amhara regional state, took their case up with government officials in Addis Abeba.
Genzeb’s father and brother appeared in a videotaped interview with local news outlet EthioInfo. “We haven’t seen her in three years. Her mother cries everyday,” her father, Worku Azbitew said. After being rejected at the consulate, the family sent an application through the Foreign Ministry. It is unclear how many families like Genzeb’s were forced to go through similar painstakingly long processes of unnecessary paperwork to receive any sort of official acknowledgement by the government.
A letter to the Beirut consulate sent by the Foreign Ministry in Addis Abeba authorizing a search for Genzeb.
Accusation on links with Egypt
Among the more serious accusations caught in the recording is Ambassador Shamebo’s description of Addis Standard’s links to UK based news and analysis website “Open Democracy.” The outlet has republished some of Addis Standard’s articles, which appeared to have provoked the ire of the diplomat. He described Open Democracy as being an Egyptian non-governmental organization and suggested Addis Standard was in collusion with Egypt.
“In addition to Addis Standard, there is another one called Democracy,” he said while handing out copies of articles by both magazines. “It’s an NGO based in Egypt and Lebanon with no relation whatsoever to Ethiopia. We will find out who is behind their effort. We will get to the bottom of this,” he threatened.
“An attempt to link any hard-hitting reporting to Egypt, the country’s traditional foe, appears to be little more than an attempt to dissuade Ethiopians in Lebanon from expressing themselves in the media,” Tsedale Lemma, Editor-in-chief of Addis Standard, said. “Despite being portrayed as a discussion forum on solving the issue of Kafala system abuse in Lebanon, it was unfortunate that the discussion ended up largely being an accusatory monologue with the goal of sidestepping documented transgressions by the Ethiopian consulate and tarnishing the names of those who report them.”
Ambassador Shamebo also mentioned four victims featured in an Addis Standard story and dismissed the authenticity of the account. “Woinshet Arega, Desta Tafesse, Mulu Tilaye and Tigist Belay, these four women were reported as being murdered in front of the consulate in front of our eyes,” he said, “We did our own investigation into these deaths.”
The four women listed were all named by the Ambassador were featured in the investigative report by Addis Standard published in July 2018. None of the four were reported as being murdered in front of the consulate. All four died in suspicious circumstances, and the circumstances surrounding the latter three exposed the consulate’s unwillingness to probe the deaths of their citizens.
“If he continues with this, we will sue the journalist,” he warned, referring to the reporter Zecharias Zelalem. “Before publishing his story, he had more lies about us. But as he knows the law, he came to us and learned that most of his facts were in fact untrue. So he removed some of them.” He also warned those who pass on information to Addis Standard reporters to be careful. “We know who (Zecharias) is in contact with here,” he said, “For troublemakers who tell themselves they know a journalist in Addis Abeba, it’s not worth it.”
“I stand by my story,” says Zecharias. “This supposed conversation never happened. As for the threats, Ambassador Shamebo has no grounds to sue me. My reporting is fact based. His statements are not,” he said.
“Most of us were left puzzled as it (media coverage) wasn’t one of the topics we expected to discuss. We spent less time talking about the hiring of a lawyer who would take our cases to court,” a participant of the discussion told Addis Standard but refused to be named for fear of reprisal.
Ambassador Shamebo, didn’t answer a phone call requesting an explanation for his comments. On the day of the address, he described what he intended on doing during his stay in a brief Facebook post. “The aim is to suggest concrete solutions for reducing problems by looking  forward solutions to the problem.” He wrote. Meanwhile, the government run Ethiopian Diaspora Agency reported on the visit by stating that “the delegation headed by Ambassador Shamebo is in Lebanon to visit Ethiopians, see how they are coping with the chaos brought upon by the Lebanese revolution and discuss solutions with Lebanese officials.”
“While the baseless accusations and false allegations might normally be brushed off, it is especially concerning that the Foreign Ministry delegation sent to a country where Ethiopian citizens become Kafala system casualties on such a regular basis, prioritized an unwinnable information war,” Tsedale Lemma further added. “The magazine stands by its reporting.” AS