In a series of reports being released since early September 2011, many Press Freedom Organizations like CPJ reported that minimum of ten journalists are currently accused on the basis of the country’s contentious anti-terrorism laws which the Prime Minster Meles Zenawi described it as a high standard law and a copy pasted law from American or British anti- terrorism laws in his recent parliament briefing in October 2011. With more Ethiopian journalists and dissidents also facing charges, the total number of people who would face terrorism charges could soon be ahead of Eretria which reportedly trail s only Ethiopia and described as Africa’s leading jailer of journalists and dissident. In fact, since July I have simply counted more than fifteen court proceedings against journalists.
The tight spot of private press seems to be reaching its climax, with many journalists of the private press on the verge of being indicted on anti-terrorism law. However such circumstances are unendurable wherever, but particularly in a country that gets a huge Western support for its development endeavors and that identified freedom of expression as a fundamental right in its constitution.
Nonconformist journalists allegedly tied to outlawed organizations Ginbot 7 or Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) or Oromo People Liberation Front (OLF) have regularly been targeted under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, and if the journalists found “guilty” they would face up to 20 years in prison, the cruelest punishments possible to silence critical voices in the country.
Accused journalists reactions
Scholar and journalist Abiye Teklemariam whose philosophical and critical facebook status updates usually sparks hundreds of comments and likes from his online friends faced prosecution in absentia. Though the charge reads that Abiye is going to be prosecuted for his editorship of Addis Neger Online I guess it appears that Abiye‘s critical facebook status updates added fuel for his indictment and of course Abiye instantaneously posted his reaction for the accusation:
For loving my country, for spending my waking hours thinking and talking about my country, for dreaming to see my country achieve its promise and potential, I am charged of terrorism by Meles Zenawi.
As usual his facebook wall is soaked with more than hundred melancholic and heartening messages from his e-friends.
Another journalist under blaze of the government’s allegation is Mesfen Negash who already faced prosecution in 2008-9 for an offense described as a press crime in his closed file. But this time Mesfen is accused under the anti-terrorism law of being members of a terrorist network and abetting, aiding and supporting a terrorist group. Mesfen was also not reticent about the allegation and he updated his facebook status by posting:
Special Status Update:My official Status according to Meles Zenawi’s book is changed to “a wanted terrorist.” It’ll inspire us all; don’t expect us to give up!!!
Other colleagues and friends of the accused journalists reflected on the incident. Tamerat Negera ridiculed on his facebook page as
What Else do you expect from despots and beasts? Congrats Dear Abiye Teklemariam and Mesfin Negash and I am terribly sad for Tamerat Negera and Girma Tesfaw. I hope you will be graduated and certified soon!
Where did the blocked sites instigate havoc?
Forget about the contents of blocked sites of Addis Neger Online; Abebe Gellaw of the U.S.-based Addis Voice; Abebe Belew of the U.S.-based radio station Addis Dimts; and Fasil Yenealem of Netherlands-based station ESAT; are they really accessible in Ethiopia and prompt havoc amongst Ethiopians? Here is my observation.
Mentioning a study conducted by Open Net Initiative (ONI) in 2009 Freedom House, whose website itself is blocked intermittently while I write this report in its 2010 report indicated that regardless of the refutation of the Ethiopian authorities in engaging in online censorship, Ethiopia is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to enforce nationwide, politically motivated internet filtering. A Freedom House report further highlighted that ONI carried out a testing which found that the filtering focuses primarily on independent online news media, political blogs, and Ethiopian human rights groups’ websites. Almost all recently indicted journalists belong to or own these blocked sites of Ethiopia, so where and how they wreaked havoc? I will leave this question for those who suppose these journalists posed problems for State.
Groundless fear on the rise?
Ethiopia’s problems in treating journalists and dissident opinion leaders are much deeper. They are basic attitudinal problems of government and they harshly will affect at least budding Ethiopian blogosphere and social media sphere. I have received a lot of advice not to write some critical issues about government on my blog. Some friends of mine even went on to fall out with me for fear of that similar cases could be implicated on me. They always wonder why I would play with fire. Considering Ethiopia’s behavior on journalists of the last five years at least they might appear reasonable as an atmosphere of fear go sky-high with each accusations and arrests. Since the disputed election of 2005 alone, the government retracted the accreditation of foreign correspondent journalists from Voice of America, Deutsche-Welle and others as part of an effort to obstruct attention garnered by foreign press though all of them regained their accreditation later. The government points finger at the journalists of filing biased reports on Ethiopia’s effort in building democracy and developmental endeavor. Besides many pro-government people give a piece of advice for dissident opinion leaders not to write critical issues as they believe critics would destroy Ethiopia’s good image on global media. In his recent sardonic Amharic comment a columnist of Feteh, Abe Tokichaw, highlighted these issues as a very somber social hitch. Indeed, with effortless investigation of closed files of journalists at federal high court I estimated that there were more than 500 court proceedings were ongoing against journalists between five years with proceedings intensified in the last six months.
The virtual lacuna of coverage and analysis of Ethiopia’s handling of journalists by local press though has improved, owing to the recent glaring waves of accusation and arrests, highlights local journalists fear of similar repercussion of their fellow journalists. Besides the coverage and critical analysis can be finger counted on few brave weeklies of Awaramba Times and Feteh.
A pervasive line in all of the allegations of the journalists is that the alleged terrorist activities of the journalists are masked in mystery, and the plaintiffs have always turned down to expose any evidences of crimes of the journalists. Worse still, plaintiffs have rejected even to inform those brought earlier than courts – sometimes in closed courts –
Meanwhile, Prime Minster Meles Zenawi affirms his government’s dedication to press freedom, even as he usually censures the aim of the journalists as practitioners of the free press. However journalists who criticize their government’s action show proper loyalty to their country, because no democratic state can endure without the open and free assessment of government policies that journalists present. If Ethiopian government desires to be considered a rising democracy, its leaders must not grip freedom of the press in hatred and allow the journalists to practice the fundamental human right which is recognized in the constitution.