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Ethiopian Journalists Challenge Anti-Terrorism Law

Ethiopian veteran journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and online journalist Reeyot Alemu have filed a complaint against Ethiopia at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, challenging the country’s abuse of its anti-terrorism law to suppress free speech. Both were convicted under Ethiopia’s notorious 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for asking critical questions about government policies — simply put, for doing their job as journalists. Mr. Nega is currently serving an 18-year prison term and Ms. Alemu one of 5 years. Their cases are but two of many more that have been brought under the guise of “combatting terrorism” in the country.

Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalim Fasil

Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalim Fasil. Photo used with permission of owner.

Ethiopia is one of many countries that has adopted anti-terrorism laws modeled after expansive legislation that specifically targets United States policy. Hundreds of journalists and other dissenting voices in the country have been prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation since it entered into force in 2009. With its overly broad provisions, which even explicitly make practising journalism a crime, it has been employed as an effective tool of oppression in a context that wasn’t conducive to a free press to begin with.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia 137th out of 179 states in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index, 10 places lower than its 2012 ranking. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists fled into exile from Ethiopia in 2011 than from any other country worldwide and between 2008 and 2013, a total of 45 journalists went into exile from the country. Journalists and opposition political party members face frequent harassment, particularly when their coverage is critical of the government. Self-censorship is a routine consequence of the situation.

Two of the journalists prosecuted under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation are Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. For Mr. Nega, the founder of many independent publications in Ethiopia, all of which have now been shut down, this is the eighth time authorities are persecuting him because of his work. Together with Ms. Alemu, a political columnist for the now-banned independent newspaper Feteh and a regular contributor to the online news outlet Ethiopian Review, he is now challenging the legislation on which he previously wrote critical opinion pieces where he questioned the way the law was being used to jail journalists.

Reeyot Alemu

Reeyot Alemu. Photo used with permission of owner.

Their petition asks the African Commission to refer the case to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which could issue a binding ruling against the Ethiopian government. This is necessary, they argue, because their case is merely an example of the many more journalists, activists and political opponents who are being prosecuted as “terrorists”. Under the African Charter, the Commission has the power to refer matters to the Court that concern a “serious or massive violation” of human rights. The complaint of Mr. Nega and Ms. Alemu sets out that the systematic prosecution of those critical of the government constitutes exactly that.

Their decision to challenge the Ethiopian government is a very brave one. Since their imprisonment, both journalists have suffered repercussions for speaking out on their situation and those of others. Mr Nega and Ms. Alemu have both been denied visitation rights on a frequent basis and Ms. Alemu has been threatened with solitary confinement.

Mr. Nega and Ms. Alemu are represented before the African Commission by Nani Jansen of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Patrick Griffith of Freedom Now and Korieh Duodu of Lincolns Inn. The next upcoming session of the African Commission will take place in Banjul, The Gambia from 22 October – 5 November 2013.

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