Ethiopia bans access to student’s critical article

By Cristina Holtzer / Staff Writer

Abigail Salisbury is an enemy of the state of Ethiopia because of an op-ed column she published online. 

Salisbury, a student in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, spoke about her article to an audience of about 10 in a “Let’s Talk Africa” lecture on Wednesday in 4130 Posvar Hall from 1:30 to 3 p.m. The Ethiopian government blocked her article, titled “Human Rights and the War on Terror in Ethiopia,” one day after she published it online.

While in Ethiopia, Salisbury noticed an extreme lack of freedom of speech and press for Ethiopian people and decided to write the piece, which criticizes the Ethiopian government.

Salisbury was working as an assistant professor at Mekelle University Law School, a small college outside of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, when she published the article. After the university administration discovered her article, Salisbury said the university “basically asked [her] not to work there anymore.”

“I was told that, based on what I wrote, that if I had been an Ethiopian person, I would have been put in prison,” Salisbury said. “I don’t think they want me back.”

Ironically enough, Salisbury said, she was in the country teaching international human-rights law, a class required for graduation from law school in Ethiopia.

Anna-Maria Karnes, a representative of the Africana studies department, also attended the lecture and interjected throughout. Karnes, whose parents live in Ethiopia, has a thorough grasp of the political climate in the country.

“Skype was outlawed two years ago in Ethiopia,” Karnes said. “There were people jailed for using Skype.”

When Karnes first discovered the Skype law, she worried that she would not be able to get in touch with her parents because that was their primary source of communication. But Skype was illegal only for Ethiopians, not for foreigners.

“As a Westerner, you are treated differently,” Salisbury said. “Better.”

Ethiopians subscribe to a different race and caste system than many Americans are used to. Salisbury said that when African-Americans traveled to Ethiopia, they were treated the same as whites. Ethiopians believe that everyone else in Africa is black but that they, themselves, are red skinned. 

Salisbury recounted a story of when someone in the street approached her and asked, “Have you seen any black women today?”

Salisbury said she was surprised by the scale of differences between the learning environments in Ethiopia and the U.S.

Because of the country’s limited resources, students learn to memorize verbatim what professors say in lecture. Salisbury said she’s seen students reproduce a lecture right down to the “ums” and “likes.”

Ethiopian education also differs from Western education because, Salisbury said, there could be “watchers” present at any time, in any classroom. Watchers are government representatives on the lookout for those speaking out against the government.

“What would creep me out if I were in that class?” Salisbury said. “I don’t know if I would be raising my hand with opinions.”

In addition to an extreme lack of freedom of speech, Salisbury said Ethiopians also struggle with tough racial tensions and “ethnic federalism,” or preferential treatment for one ethnic group that is officially recognized by the government. With Ethiopia located in a contentious part of the world, Salisbury said U.S.-Ethiopia relations are crucial.

“Ethiopia is really instrumental in the U.S. agenda and the global war on terror that we’re engaged in,” she said.

Salisbury and Karnes opened the presentation with an activity about African knowledge. They divided the audience into small groups and asked them to label a map of Africa with the names of as many countries as they could. Even with several African students and faculty in the audience, no one was able to label the entire map.

“You can’t know the whole of Africa,” Director of Africana Studies Macrina Lelei said. “That’s part of why we have African studies here at Pitt … to share those experiences.”