Cape Town — United States Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken out publicly against the Ethiopian government's use of anti-terrorism laws "as mechanisms to be able to curb the free exchange of ideas."
His criticism came as campaigners for journalists' rights marked World Press Freedom Day, which is observed on May 3, by focusing attention on the plight of Ethiopian journalists and bloggers who are under arrest and in prison.
Ahead of his current trip to east and central Africa, Kerry told allAfrica in an email interview that he planned to raise restrictions on press freedom and freedom of expression in Ethiopia with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. "This is an issue I feel very passionately about," he told AllAfrica.
At a news conference in Addis Ababa on May 1, he said he had made it clear to Ethiopian officials "that they need to create greater opportunities for citizens to be able to engage with their fellow citizens and with their government by opening up more space for civil society."
He added: "I shared my concerns about a young Ethiopian blogger that I met last year, Natnail Feleke, who, with eight of his peers, had been imprisoned. And I firmly believe that the work of journalists, whether it's print journalists or in the internet or media of other kinds, it makes societies stronger, makes them more vibrant, and ultimately provides greater stability and greater voice to democracy... It's a testament to the strength of our friendship with Ethiopia that we can discuss difficult issues, as we do, even when we disagree on one aspect of them or another."
Challenged by an Ethiopian questioner over whether he was merely paying "lip service" to the issue, or whether he was "seriously concerned" about recent arrests, Kerry replied: "We are concerned about any imprisoned journalist here or anywhere else.... And we believe that it's very important that the full measure of the constitution be implemented and that we shouldn't use the Anti-Terrorism Proclamations as mechanisms to be able to curb the free exchange of ideas.
"And in my meetings with all public officials, I will always press the interests of the political space being opened up and being honored. And so we have previously called for the release of these individuals, and that is the policy of our government, and it's a serious policy."
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the New York-based advocacy group for journalists' rights, has named three African journalists - from Ethiopia, Egypt and Eritrea - among 10 "emblematic cases" of journalists around the world who are "silenced by authorities in retaliation for their work."
The Ethiopian journalist named by CPJ is Reeyot Alemu, whose case AllAfrica raised with Kerry. She was arrested in a 2011 crackdown on opposition, reports CPJ, and is serving five years' imprisonment on "trumped-up terrorism charges". Recent reports suggest that she is being denied adequate medical attention after breast surgery.
(The Egyptian journalist named by the CPJ is Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a freelance photographer detained while covering clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters last year. He remains detained. The Eritrean is Dawit Isaac, the founder of what was Eritrea's largest newspaper, who was jailed in 2001. No information has been released by his authorities about where he is and what his condition is.)
In another initiative, the CPJ has issued an appeal specifically for Ethiopian journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned.
"The actions of Ethiopian leaders," says the CPJ, "take Africa backwards to the dark days of apartheid and one-party rule, invoking an Orwellian reality of official deception, secret surveillance, and a disregard for honest voices speaking truth to power."
The CPJ urged campaigners to post messages on their websites and to support the most recently arrested journalists and bloggers on blogs and social media accounts, using the hashtag #FreeZone9Bloggers.