ZeHabesha, a Minnesota-based news outlet that covers Ethiopian issues, was sued by Ethiopian Airlines, the largest airline in Africa. Credit: Photo via ZeHabesha's Facebook page.

Africa’s largest airline is suing an independent Minnesota journalist and his newspaper over interviews containing alleged “defamatory statements” the outlet broadcast in April on its YouTube channel. 

On May 28, Ethiopian Airlines filed a claim in U.S. District Court in Minnesota against Henok A. Degfu and his Burnsville-based ZeHabesha, an online and print media platform that provides news, analysis and opinion tailored to Ethiopians at home and abroad. 

The lawsuit, which seeks damages of $25 million, alleges ZeHabesha “falsely and maliciously published” three interviews accusing Ethiopian Airlines and its CEO Tewolde GebreMariam of—among other things—“deliberately importing COVID-19” to Ethiopia, purposely purchasing from Boeing low-quality aircraft systems, operating prisons inside the company’s headquarters, engaging in corruption and retaliating against employees who have voiced grievances against the company. 

In one video, posted April 15 on YouTube, ZeHabesha told its viewers that GebreMariam “has toiled hard to make the Airline importer and distributor of the virus event to Ethiopia,” according to the lawsuit.

A few minutes later in the video, the announcer added, “If the world had not closed its door for the entrance of any flights, Ethiopian Airlines would have continued [its] journey carrying its virus, carrying not humans but their corpse from country to the country.” The news outlet, according to the documents, also accused Ethiopian Airlines of “intentionally purchasing B787 Dreamliner aircraft with severe product quality problems.” 

In 2019, an Ethiopian Airliner crashed on its way to Kenya from Ethiopia, killing all 189 passengers and crew members on board. The government of Ethiopia blamed the Boeing 737 MAX plane for the deadly crash. 

The suit also alleges the news organization “falsely” accused GebreMariam of “operating his own prison on the Ethiopian Airlines Compound.”   

Derege B. Demissie, the lawyer representing Henok and ZeHabesha, declined to comment on the case to Sahan Journal, saying that he intends to respond to the plaintiff s assertions in a counterfiling. 

Founded in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines has established a reputation for being one of Africa’s leading carriers in the past few decades. The company, which is wholly owned by the government of Ethiopia, possesses 111 airplanes, according to a BBC news article last year. The carrier served more than 10 million passengers in the 2017–2018 fiscal year and made $245 million in profits. 

Henok A. Degfu founded ZeHabesha news organization in 2008. Credit: Photo via ZeHabesha’s Facebook page

Henok founded ZeHabesha in 2008. In the last decade, the outlet became a leading news source for Ethiopians in Minnesota and across the world. On Facebook, it counts nearly 1.5 million followers, and its YouTube channel, more than 600,000 subscribers.

For Henok, who arrived in the U.S. around the same time he established ZeHabesha, lawsuits are nothing new. In 2005, when he left Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government sued him for defamation and shut down a newspaper he ran. “Ethiopia is hell for journalists,” he told this reporter in an interview in 2017.

In Minnesota, Henok’s mission has been to establish an outlet that holds accountable powerful people and government agencies in his home country. His small media operation has provided Ethiopians with an alternative news source, independent of government and special-interest influence.    

In its defamation lawsuit, filed by the St. Paul firm Collins, Buckley, Sauntry & Haugh, the airline denies any responsibility for creating or spreading COVID-19. The suit maintains that the World Health Organization and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that carriers of the virus came from Europe in “other Airlines.” 

ZeHabesha’s statements about balky Boeing aircraft and corruption and retaliation, the lawsuit maintains, are “false and defamatory.”

The charges, Ethiopian Airlines said in the court document, have tarnished the company’s reputation, leading “to a loss of sales and revenue.” 

According to a June 30 story in Bloomberg, amid the global pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines remains profitable, though it experienced a drop of $1 billion in ticket revenue for the year ending July 7. 

The International Air Transport Association estimates global airlines will lose a collected $84 billion in 2020. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...