Ethiopia: Freedom of Expression in Jeopardy

More than ten journalists have been imprisoned in Ethiopia since June 2011 and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists about 25% of exiled journalists in Africa are from Ethiopia, making the country the world's main enemy of the major driving forces of free expression: journalists, bloggers and political dissidents.

Two of those in jail, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson are Swedish journalists who have been labeled by Prime Minster Meles Zenawi as terror accomplices. They are serving 11 year sentences for “helping” and “promoting” the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group and entering the country illegally.

Three other local journalists received 14-16 year sentences and heavy fines recently for “terrorism-related” offenses. Exiled blogger Elias Kifle was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. One other journalist and blogger, Eskinder Nega, who is indicted with six different terrorism charges is facing the death penalty.

Jailed in Ethiopia: left, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson. Photo courtesy of freejohanandmartin.org

Nicholas Kristof draws attention to Ethiopia’s worsening situation of journalists with his wounding criticisms of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government:

In countries like Ethiopia, there are no reliable institutions to look after human rights and create checks and balances. There isn’t a free election system, independent court system, opposite party structure or all the other mechanisms that keep a regime honest. So one of the few ways to provide accountability is through journalists, local and international. And when Meles or another dictator arrests these journalists or drives them into exile, the losers are all the citizens of the country.

Human rights and free press advocacy organizations are incessantly campaigning for the release of imprisoned journalists. The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship and the International Federation of Journalists are all protesting the government’s treatment of journalists.

Facebook image calling for the release of all political prisoners. Image courtesy of Ethiopia Mitmita Facebook page.

Endalk summarises the global press outcry and highlights the context in which the Swedish journalists were being tried in Ethiopian court. He adds:

My reporting has included analyses of how the Ethiopian media both private and government media is covering court proceedings; how David Isaac, Eritrean-Swedish, was reported in Ethiopia’s media and the state of freedom of expression in Ethiopia such as continues brandish of arrests and accusations of journalists and opposition leaders. These malaises are most visible in Ethiopian media landscape since the ratification of the contentious anti-terrorism proclamation in 2009 which lead to the closure of independent newspapers, accusations, detentions and kicking out of journalists and bloggers out of their country.

Netizens' opposition to Meles Zenawi's government gained new momentum after Kristof asked his Twitter followers to report Meles sightings in Davos, Switzerland. Kristof wanted to ask Meles why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world. He wrote:

I’m in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, and so is Meles I’ve been pursuing him for the last few days, trying to confront him and ask him about his worsening pattern of brutality. He has refused to see me, so I enlisted (https://twitter.com/nickkristof )my Twitter followers to report Meles sightings. I want to ask him why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City.

Ethiopian blogger and journalist, Eskinder Nega, is facing the death penalty. Photo courtesy of FreeEskinderNega.com

Ethiopian blogger and journalist, Eskinder Nega, is facing the death penalty. Photo courtesy of FreeEskinderNega.com

One anonymous reader responded to Kistof’s opinion piece:

Meles has hoodwinked or scared many Western journalists from writing the plight of the Ethiopian people. Kristof is the exception to lay it out there. Meles is the most sophisticated dictator who cornered the market in PR or deception by buying senators, congressional representatives, columnists and professors with money and lies, thus piling up himself as a leader. At the same time, he is running Ethiopia as his fiefdom by confiscating land and industries, by denying access to technology and property rights, while applying the severest punishment to journalists and civil society members who oppose his policies. To stave off any Arab Springs type revolt, he has crafted an anti-terrorism law, where he stands as the most dangerous terrorist of all as far as the Ethiopian people are concerned.

Addis Neger’s Facebook page shared a link of a petition demanding the release of Swedish journalists in Ethiopia. Over 1300 people have signed Kelsey Crows petition and the number of petitioners are growing quickly about a pace of 100 signatures/hour. However, netizens wonder why the petition does not take into account the Ethiopian journalists who are suffering with Swedish journalists.

Ethiopia Mitmita comments on Addis Neger's page:

Where is the petition for our journalist????

Another Facebook user asks:

Why is the petition only for the Swedish journalists? It is really very depressive.

Habtom Gabreegziabher says:

Ethiopia has done nothing that any other country cannot do if it faces with the same situation.
every body has to know the reason behind the arrest was not because the Swedish were Journalist, they were arrested because they crossed sovereign border of a country called Ethiopia.
let me ask you a question,
How many peoples are arrested in the united states because of crossing the border from south America regardless their occupation??
The Americans has the right to protect their border.
the difference in our case is, the criminals who cross our border are Swedish and Europeans and we are Ethiopians and Africans.
JUST BECAUSE SOME BODY IS RICH HE DOES NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO COME INTO MY BACK YARD AS HE WISH. HE HAS TO ASK ME POLITELY TO DO THAT.

A highly politicized trial of a blogger Eskinder Nega will continue in March in the midst of a global outcry for his release.

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