Ethiopia: Terrorism Law Decimates Media
Source: Human Rights Watch
Free Jailed Journalists, Allow Media Freedom
(Nairobi) – The Ethiopian government should mark World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, 2013, by immediately releasing all journalists jailed under the country’s deeply flawed anti-terrorism law. On May 2, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld an 18-year sentence under the anti-terrorism law for Eskinder Nega Fenta, a journalist and blogger who received the 2012 PEN Freedom to Write Award.
Eleven journalists have been convicted and sentenced since 2011 under Ethiopia’s repressive anti-terrorism law, including six in absentia. Three of the eleven are currently in prison. Two other journalists are currently on trial under the anti-terrorism law. Another journalist, Temesgen Desalegn, the editor of the now defunct independent magazine Feteh, is on trial for three offenses under the criminal code.
“Ethiopia’s journalists shouldn’t be spending World Press Freedom Day in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Freeing these journalists would be an important step toward improving Ethiopia’s deteriorating record on press freedom.”
Since Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law was adopted in 2009, the independent media have been decimated by politically motivated prosecutions under the law. The government has systematically thwarted attempts by journalists to establish new publications. Blogs and Internet pages critical of the government are regularly blocked, and in 2012 printing houses came under threat for printing publications that criticized the authorities. Mastewal Birhanu, the manager of Mastewal Publishing, for example, was charged under the criminal code for printing the editions of Feteh that were the basis for the charges against Temesgen.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns about the anti-terrorism law’s overly broad definition of “terrorist acts.” The law’s provisions on support for terrorism contain a vague prohibition on “moral support” under which only journalists have been convicted.
One of the three journalists sentenced under the law who remain in prison is Eskinder Nega Fenta, a veteran Ethiopian journalist. He had been detained numerous times, and was sentenced in July 2012 to 18 years in prison for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, as well as participation in a terrorist organization. Eskinder’s sentence was upheld on appeal on May 2, 2013. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a panel of independent experts, concluded in November that Eskinder’s imprisonment was arbitrary and “a result of his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”
Woubshet Taye Abebe, who is serving a 14-year sentence under the anti-terrorism law, was a winner of the 2012 Hellman-Hammett Award, administered by Human Rights Watch. Woubshet was the deputy editor of the Awramba Times prior to his arrest in 2011.He alleged in court that he was tortured in pretrial detention, as have other defendants detained on terrorism charges. The court did not investigate his complaint.
Reeyot Alemu Gobebo, a journalist for Feteh, was convicted on three counts under the terrorism law for her writings. Her sentence was reduced from 14 years to 5 years on appeal, and she remains in prison. Reeyot was recently awarded the prestigious 2013 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. She will miss the May 3 award ceremony in Costa Rica.
Members of the international media have also been charged under the anti-terrorism law. In December 2009, two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, were convicted 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 had entered the country without a visa and were arrested while investigating the situation in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, site of a longstanding insurgency. They were pardoned and released in September 2012 after more than a year in prison.
“The journalists who have been detained and convicted have one thing in common – they were all exercising their right to freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution and international law,” Lefkow said.
In 2012 Hailemariam Desalegn became Ethiopia’s prime minister following the death of Meles Zenawi, under whose leadership the country experienced a sharp decline in civil and political rights – including freedom of expression. Hopes that Hailemariam’s government would improve Ethiopia’s record on free expression have been dashed by ongoingarbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists and others.
Since January 2012, members of Ethiopia’s Muslim community have held regular protests in the capital, Addis Ababa, and other towns over alleged government interference in religious affairs. The government has harassed and detained journalists who have reported on these protests. Yusuf Getachew, former editor of the now-defunct Islamic magazine Yemuslimoch Guday, was charged under the anti-terrorism law and is on trial, though the trial is closed to the public. Solomon Kebede, Getachew’s successor at the magazine, was arrested on January 17 and has also been charged under the anti-terrorism law. Prior to charges being bought, Solomon spent more than two months in pre-trial detention at Maekelawi prison in Addis Ababa, which is notorious for torture, without access to legal counsel.
The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Ethiopian constitution, and in numerous African and international conventions, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Ethiopia has ratified. In November, Ethiopia was appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council and as such has made a commitment to uphold “the highest standards of human rights as enshrined in the constitution of the country and in the international and regional human rights treaties that Ethiopia has ratified” – including rights to freedom of expression.
“As a recently appointed member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Ethiopia should take swift steps to improve the media environment in the country,” Lefkow said. “These include immediately releasing all journalists imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law, amending the law’s worst provisions, and ending the harassment of what little independent media remains in the country.”
Family: Ethiopian Winner of Press Freedom Prize Suffering in Prison
By Marthe van der Wolf
ADDIS ABABA — The family of Reeyot Alemu, this year’s winner of the World Press Freedom Prize, says her situation in an Ethiopian prison is worsening by the day.
Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega are two of the best-known Ethiopian journalists imprisoned on charges of terrorism. UNESCO awarded Reeyot the 2013 World Press Freedom Prize for her exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression. But Reeyot's family and friends say she and her relatives are suffering.
Reeyot's father and lawyer Alemu Gobebo says that Reeyot feels honored to win the prize.
“As you know it is a prestigious prize," said Gobebo. "She was very glad, she was telling me that it is the international organization which is awarding me for my beliefs and fighting for freedom of speech and expression of thought. For that matter, this prize is good for her.”
Reeyot, 33, was sentenced to 14 years of prison after being found guilty of conspiring to commit terrorist acts, money laundering and participation in a terrorist organization. Her sentence was reduced to five years after she appealed her conviction and two charges were dropped.
Reeyot is imprisoned just outside the capital, Addis Ababa. On weekdays Reeyot’s family can visit her for 10 minutes. On the weekends they get to spend half an hour with her. The imprisonment has had negative consequences for the whole family, says Reeyot’s sister Eskeder Alemu.
“Reeyot is the breadwinner of our family, so it has affected our family by losing her," she said. "And I stopped a job because somebody came to my office and told my bosses. They said she’s Reeyot’s sister, she is a terrorist sister so you have to fire her. Then they fired me.”
Reeyot’s health is deteriorating, and she is suffering from a breast tumor, sinusitis and gastritis. Journalist Anania Sorri is a close friend of Reeyot who has been harassed himself many times for writing critical stories about the government’s developmental state. He says that Reeyot is denied proper medical treatment while also being threatened with solitary confinement:
“It is a current threatening instrument for the prison officials, they say that she has been violating some disciplinary kind of activities in the prison and that she has been releasing some kind of information about the prison situation to the foreign media," said Sorri.
The U.S. State Department released a report last month criticizing Ethiopia’s human rights record. International organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also accuse Ethiopia of using an anti-terrorism proclamation to silence dissident and critical voices. On Thursday, the appeal of prominent journalist Eskinder Nega was denied, meaning he has to serve his 18-year sentence.
The State Minister in Ethiopia’s Prime Minister's office, Getachew Redda, says the international criticism is not based on facts.
"The government feels that this criticism are totally misplaced and mostly made without the proper understanding of the basic tenets of the anti-terror legislation," said Redda. "As a matter of fact, the anti-terror proclamation is copied from some of the advanced legal systems in the world. If you have journalists or opposition members who make it their business to be involved in terrorist activities, simply because they are journalists doesn’t mean that they will be left free to mess with the security of the country.”
Reeyot has served one year and 10 months of her five-year sentence so far. There are six more journalists imprisoned
today in Ethiopia.
In Eskinder case, politicized verdict undermines Ethiopia
New York, May 2, 2013---In response to today's ruling by Ethiopia's Supreme Court to uphold an 18-year prison sentence imposed on award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega and reject his appeal, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued the following statement:
"This ruling trivializes the serious crime of terrorism, upholds a politically motivated travesty of justice, and lessens Ethiopia's international standing," CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita said. "As a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Ethiopia should comply with its obligations under international law and its own constitution and release Eskinder unconditionally. The persecution of Eskinder and other journalists is the hallmark of a regime fearful of the opinions of its citizens."
Eskinder has been jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges since September 2011. A U.N. panel determined his imprisonment to be in violation of international law and in reprisal for his "peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression."
US slams Ethiopia's 'political persecution' of critics
The United States Thursday slammed "harsh" sentences handed down to an Ethiopian blogger and an opposition leader, voicing concerns about the "politicized prosecution" of government critics.
An Ethiopian court dismissed the appeals of blogger Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage, jailed last year for terror-related offenses.
Eskinder was given an 18-year sentence, while Andualem was jailed for life.
The US was "deeply disappointed" that Ethiopia's federal supreme court upheld the men's "conviction and harsh sentencing," acting deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
"Today's decision further reinforces our serious concern about Ethiopia's politicized prosecution of those critical of the government and ruling party, including under the anti-terrorism proclamation."
Ventrell stressed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone "a right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference."
Upholding such freedoms "is essential if Ethiopia is to realize its stated goal of being a democratic state," he added.
However, he could not say if the court's decision would impact a planned trip to Ethiopia by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of May.
Although no dates have been announced, Kerry told US lawmakers last month that he planned to attend celebrations to mark the African Union's 50th anniversary in Addis Ababa.
"We travel, and we continue our relationship with countries... where we have human rights concern," Ventrell said.
Ethiopia transfers editor Woubshet Taye to remote prison
New York, April 22, 2013--The Committee to Protect Journalists protests Ethiopian authorities' transfer of independent newspaper editor Woubshet Taye to a remote prison several hours away from his family's home. Woubshet has been imprisoned since June 2011 on vague terrorism charges that CPJ has determined to be unsubstantiated.
"Moving detainees to prisons far from their families is a tactic long used by governments that wish to not only further penalize the individuals but to punish their loved ones as well," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "Woubshet Taye should not be in prison at all, never mind held in one so far from his family. We call on Ethiopian authorities to return him to a facility closer to his home, and to reconsider the unjust conviction that put him behind bars in the first place."
Authorities on Friday transferred Woubshet from Kilinto Prison, outside Addis Ababa, to a detention facility in the town of Ziway, about 83 miles southeast of the capital, according to local journalists and the U.S.-based exile-run AwrambaTimes.com. The authorities did not provide a reason for the transfer. Local journalists told CPJ that Woubshet's wife and four-year-old son would now have to travel more than four hours to reach the prison to visit the journalist.
Woubshet, former deputy editor of the now-defunct independent weekly Awramba Times and a recipient of Human Rights Watch's Hellman/Hammett Award, was sentenced in January 2012 to a 14-year prison sentence on charges lodged under Ethiopia's broad anti-terrorism law. The journalist was arrested a couple of weeks after he published a column in Awramba Times that critically assessed the ruling party's performance in its two decades of rule. The paper was known for its bold coverage of local issues.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said last month that Ethiopia had violated Woubshet's rights by failing to address his allegations of being tortured in custody, despite Ethiopia's commitment to "uphold the highest standard of human rights."
CPJ research shows that other states that have imprisoned journalists have used the tactic of moving journalists to prisons far from their homes as a means of punishing them and their families. Cuba, for example, placed journalists in prisons hundreds of miles from their families at the height of the Black Spring crackdown in 2003, according to CPJ research.