Ethiopia: Journalists Living in Fear of the 'Terror' Law

In nation after nation, journalists are attempting to inform their people of their rights and encourage them to hold their governments accountable. For this, many of them are being held accountable in the most draconian of ways.

In Zimbabwe, for example, Robert Mugabe’s regime has long attempted to conceal the repression of its people. Journalists have fought back and continue to expose hidden realities, despite facing the prospect of jail as a consequence.

Most recently, this has been happening in Ethiopia, where Eskinder Nega, a journalist I visited seven years ago in Kalati Prison, along with his pregnant wife, Serkalem Fasil (who gave birth in prison), is back in jail now on charges of terrorism. What appears to have been his crime is that he continues to tell, if not yell, truth to power – although the government is actually prosecuting him for what they say is his membership in a terrorist network that advocates violence. As ‘proof’ at his trial, they showed a video in which he questioned whether an Arab Spring-type uprising could ever happen in Ethiopia.

The government has empowered itself to prosecute what they see as dissent with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that is, effectively, a weapon that can be used against anyone daring to criticise the government in a way the government does not like.

One journalist who published Eskinder’s statement in court was also convicted, but got a suspended four-month sentence. Dozens of journalists have fled into exile and six have been charged with terrorism in absentia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

When I visited Ethiopia earlier this month with a colleague from the CPJ and the continent-wide project called the African Media Initiative, journalists we met with told us they live in fear, and claimed the government’s use of the anti-terrorism law was a “game changer.” One foreigner working in Ethiopia said: “There is a red line. The problem is we don’t know where it is.”

Awaiting the verdict

When we met Simon Bereket, Ethiopia’s Minister of Information, he defended the incarceration of Eskinder and the seven other journalists locked up with him on the grounds that they were involved in terrorism. In a polite but firm statement, he said neither Eskinder nor any of the other journalists were in prison for what they wrote.

We asked to visit Eskinder and the others in prison but were told that it was not likely we would be able to. But his wife, Serkalem, who was recently in New York receiving a prestigious freedom of the press award from PEN America on Eskinder’s behalf, told us when we met her in Addis Ababa that Eskinder had asked her to tell us that he was in no way connected with any terrorist group in Ethiopia or in the US.

She also told us that Eskinder had said that if the price of telling the truth was imprisonment, he could live with that. But when the verdict is handed down – scheduled for this Thursday – Eskinder could be sentenced to life in prison or death.

One thing that could arguably affect Ethiopia’s position of press freedoms is international pressure, particularly from the US. Ethiopia stands as a partner of the US in fighting real terrorists, including forces linked to al-Qaeda, in a strategic part of the world. Surely the economic assistance the US has provided Ethiopia in the past along with the $350 million in assistance Ethiopia is asking for in 2013, gives it some weight in pressing Addis Ababa to live up to the principles enshrined in its constitution.

Freedom of speech is a crucial cornerstone of democracy. It should not be a death sentence.

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