19 June 2012

Ethiopia: Journalists Live in Fear of 'Terror' Law

Photo: David Njagi
The so called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), is an advanced network filtering method mainly used by countries which have bad press freedom records commonly known as "Enemies of the Internet" such as China and Iran.

guest column

Nowhere across Africa is the message that its people want a way out of what I call "the four Ds" - death, disease, disaster and despair - more resounding than among the continent's journalists.

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

I have seen this first hand in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's regime has long attempted to conceal the repression of its people. Journalists have fought back and continue to yell truth to power, although they still face the prospect of jail as a consequence.

And most recently, I have seen it 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 there on charges of terrorism. What appears to have been his crime is that he also 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, during 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 like this with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that is, effectively, a weapon that can be used against anyone daring to criticize the government in a way the government doesn't 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 all live in fear, calling the terrorism law a "game changer." One foreigner working in Ethiopia told me: "There is a red line. The problem is, we don't know where it is."

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 dissent, he said neither Eskinder nor any of the other journalists were in prison for what they wrote.

When we asked to see Eskinder and the others in prison, we were told that it was not likely and that turned out to be the case. But his wife, Serkalem, who was recently in New York receiving on Eskinder's behalf a prestigious freedom of the press award from PEN America, told us when we met her in Addis that Eskinder had asked her to tell us that he was in no way connected with any terrorist group-there or in the United States.

She also told us that he said that if the price of telling the truth was imprisonment, he could live with that. Of course, when the verdict is handed down - which is scheduled to happen Thursday - Eskinder could be sentenced to life in prison or death.

Part of the reason for my involvement with journalists and their issues in Ethiopia and other parts of the continent is to try to present a much-maligned continent in a light different to that in which it is often portrayed elsewhere in the world: in a light that makes it clear that Africans want as much as anyone else to make choices about themselves and their children in an informed way, and that they have the same hopes and aspirations for themselves, their families and their communities as do people in democracies the world over.

Imperfect as many democracies are, their governments do not put people in jail for words that come out of their mouths and the freedom-loving desires that live in their hearts. That's why, as an American, I hope that my countrymen and women who have that right should get on Ethiopia's case. They should insist that a U.S. government which is pledged to ensure those rights in America should also help ensure them in Ethiopia. And I hope they will be joined by freedom-loving people all over the world, including on the African continent.

But Ethiopia stands as a partner with the United States, in particular, in fighting REAL terrorists, including Al Qaeda, in a strategic part of the world. Surely the economic assistance the U.S. has provided Ethiopia in the past and the $350 million in assistance it is asking for in 2013 gives it some weight in pressing Addis Ababa to live up to the same principles enshrined in their constitution as in ours?

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

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