On 3 May 2013, World Press Freedom Day, Human Rights Watch once more raised its concern about Ethiopia’s draconian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, adopted in 2009. The lobby group claims that the law is being used to stifle free expression and imprison independent journalists. In December 2011, it was used to convict two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson (LR, February 2012), for ‘rendering support to terrorism’ and entering the country illegally ‘to commit an act that is a threat to the well-being of the people of Ethiopia’. They were sentenced to 11 years in prison for crossing the border without a visa (common practice among journalists reporting from conflict zones) and attempting to investigate the long-standing insurgency in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region. Following an international outcry, they were pardoned and released in September 2012 after spending more than a year in prison.
Five Ethiopian journalists remain in prison on spurious charges that fall under the law. The most recent victim is Eskinder Nega, a journalist for the now-defunct political magazine Change, whose 18-year prison sentence was upheld on 2 May 2013. According to PEN, Nega was arrested in September 2011, after publishing a column investigating the government’s claim that a number of journalists it had detained were suspected terrorists.
Nega has a long history of writing articles critical of the government. In 1993 he opened his first newspaper, Ethiopis, which was swiftly shut down by the authorities. He was general manager of Serkalem, a publishing house which produced the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw and Menelik, all of which are now banned in Ethiopia. He was a columnist for the US-based news forum Ethiomedia, also now banned. He was detained at least seven times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, including in 2005, when he and his wife, the journalist Serkalem Fasil, were imprisoned for 17 months on treason charges. These were prompted by their critical reporting of the government’s violent crackdown on protests that followed disputed elections.
Despite being denied a licence to practise journalism since 2005, Nega has courageously continued to publish columns critical of the government’s human rights record, calling for an end to political repression and corruption. He was detained again in February 2011, accused of ‘attempts to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia’, after he published articles on the Arab Spring. Nega was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2012.
During his most recent trial, the judge reportedly accused Nega of using the ‘guise of freedom’ to ‘attempt to incite violence and overthrow the constitutional order’ and suggested that Nega wanted to spark a popular revolt in the style of the Arab Spring. He was also accused of having links with Ginbot 7, a group regarded as a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian authorities. Initially Nega faced the death penalty. On 2 May, one of the charges against him, ‘serving as a leader of a terrorist group’, was dropped, but his sentence has not been reduced.
He joins four other journalists in prison. In January 2012, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now-defunct Awramba Times, and Reeyot Alemu, a contributor to the independent weekly Feteh, were convicted of lending support to groups designated ‘terrorist’ and sentenced to 14 years in prison. PEN and other human rights groups believe both journalists were targeted for their coverage of banned opposition groups. Alemu’s sentence was reduced to five years on appeal in August 2012 and most of the terrorism charges against her were dropped. However, her final appeal, against the remaining charge of participating in the promotion or communication of a terrorist act, was rejected in January 2013. Both Taye and Alemu have been subjected to ill treatment and the health of both journalists has deteriorated while in detention.
Yusuf Getachew and Solomon Kebede, editor and managing editor of the now-defunct weekly newspaper Ye Muslimoch Guday (‘Muslim Affairs’), are also detained under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. On 29 October 2012, Getachew was charged with plotting acts of terrorism, ‘intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause’ by force and the ‘planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of terrorist acts’. Kebede was arrested on 17 January 2013 and is being held without charge. Ye Muslimoch Guday had provided extensive coverage of public protests by Ethiopian Muslims over alleged government interference in religious affairs. Kebede’s arrest is also thought to be linked to his coverage of the Muslim demonstrations and columns criticising government intrusion in religious affairs.
Readers might like to send appeals: protesting the Ethiopian Federal Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Eskinder Nega’s conviction on dubious terrorism-related charges; protesting the continuing imprisonment of four other journalists under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 – Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu, Yusuf Getachew, who is detained pending trial, and Solomon Kebede, held without charge since January 2013; expressing concern that all five journalists appear to have been imprisoned in response to peaceful journalistic activity, in violation of the right to freedom of expression protected under international human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is a party, including the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; and calling on the Ethiopian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the five journalists.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Fax: 00 251 11 551 4300
His Excellency Ato Berhanu Kebede
Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
17 Princes Gate
London SW7 1PZ
Fax: 020 7584 7054 /Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: On 19 April 2013, award-winning Uzbek writer Mamadali Makhmudov (LR, July 2006) was released after over 14 years in prison, at the age of 72. He met his five grandchildren for the first time. Regrettably his colleague, the editor Muhammad Bekjanov (LR, June 2004), remains detained. In January 2012, just days before Bekjanov was due to be released, he was accused of breaking unspecified prison rules and served with an additional five-year sentence. Bekjanov is in extremely poor health.