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Press Freedom News and Views

Blogger fights terror charges as Ethiopian leader praised

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at a conference in London in February. Western governments are hesitant to press Ethiopia on human rights abuses. (AP/Jason Reed)

Last week in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, while Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was making a speech about Africa's growth potential at an African Union forum, a journalist who his administration has locked away since September on bogus terrorism charges was presenting his defense before a judge. Eskinder Nega has been one of the most outspoken critics of Meles' domestic leadership over the past two decades and has suffered imprisonment, intimidation, and censorship for it.

The veteran, dissident blogger has been jailed at least seven times by Meles's government over the past two decades. He isn't alone. Including Eskinder, there are five journalists imprisoned on politicized terrorism charges in Ethiopia. The threat of prison has induced many independent journalists to flee the country -- the highest number of exiled journalists in the world, according to CPJ research.

Eskinder is facing a life sentence if convicted on terrorism charges for allegedly supporting a banned opposition party, Ginbot 7. Ethiopia's antiterrorism law criminalizes reporting or publication of information the government deems favorable to groups designated as terrorists, which include opposition movements such as Ginbot 7.

The tiny, drab courtroom in Lideta High Court where Eskinder appeared Wednesday was one of the smallest in the building, eyewitnesses told me -- a purposeful move to allow only 25 or 30 people to attend. Still, Eskinder's supporters managed to cram into the room and noticed a more gaunt, pale colleague whose sharp black suit and tie hid little of his deteriorating condition.

A three-judge panel listened as Eskinder described himself as a prisoner of conscience and rejected accusations that he had conspired to overthrow the government through publishing "inciting" articles and interviews to local and international media houses. "I wrote about human rights and democracy and used my right to free expression to fulfill my duties as a concerned citizen," Eskinder told the three judges. According to those in the courtroom, Eskinder went on to say he would accept any torture and imprisonment imposed by the state as "part of the price for fulfilling my duties." He said the final judgment of the court is "being eagerly and curiously awaited by the public and history."

One of the last columns Eskinder wrote before his arrest hinted at the fact that freedom from political tyranny was only a matter of time, citing the Arab Spring in North Africa as an example. Many local journalists suspect it was his repeated call for social change that incurred his arrest and led government spokesman Shimelis Kemal to accuse Eskinder and others in an Agence France-Presse interview of plotting "a series of terrorist acts that would likely wreak havoc." But Eskinder, in his defense, insisted that he has always wanted political change through peaceful, democratic means since change through war would only lead to further dictatorship.

Eskinder's wife, also an accomplished journalist who was jailed after the disputed 2005 elections, told Voice of America that Eskinder had been pleased with his defense but discouraged at having to battle the terrorist label. "He's a journalist, not a member of a political party," Serkalem Fasil told the U.S. government-backed broadcaster. Local journalists told me that VOA, one of the few stations reporting on the trial, was blocked the day after Eskinder's hearing.

Fellow journalists and rights activists across the globe have organized a petition calling for the release of Eskinder; signees include the heads of the U.S. National Press Club, the Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But will all this local and international support for a press freedom advocate be enough to sway policy? Ethiopia is viewed as a strategic partner for the West in combating terrorism and instability in the Horn of Africa, so Western governments are unlikely to press Meles on human rights abuses.

As Eskinder made an impassioned plea for his innocence, Meles Zenawi was honored across town as the AU trade meeting's special guest, a "leading advocate of the development state in promoting effective inclusive growth in Africa" and a champion of "development effectiveness." But can you really be crowned a "champion of development" if you lock up all your critics? Ethiopians and the international community will never be able to truly determine whether the prime minister is an "advocate of the development state" if only yes-men and blind supporters are allowed to speak of his achievements.

April 3, 2012 10:58 AM ET | | Comments (20)

Comments

Eskinder is someone with a very strong mind and I think it is up to the court to look at his ensconce. Your article is presumptuous of the outcome and prejudges everything. Is that what you call fair and unbiased journalism? You also went on to say several things based on hearsay. No wonder journalism standard is sliding and melting like the icebergs of the poles.

Eskinder Nega is not a Journalist, unless of course you have a different definition of journalists for Africa. Co-operating with a well known terrorist, yes terrorist Elias Kifle, who is orchestrating the bombing of Ethiopia's infrastructure openly on his website (www.ethiopianreview.com) and see many of his crazy claims..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvNPv5X3V9k claiming being a journalist doesn't absolve one from his crime. Mr. Eskinder Nega was posting/blogging online for a long time, and wondering he didn't go to jail, he is not in prison because of his blogging, but working with a terrorist. Of course I doubt you will even post my comment on your site, as well as report the truth. We will even see if CPJ is really for freedom of speech.

Forget about your journalism crap...you guys don't understand the illness of these people in the name of respected profession...let's keep developing...if u wish,go to Tibet and make some report on rights...they are burning in public...I bet your camera is "made in China".

CPJ's hidden political agenda is now exposed.Defending the rights of journalists was supposed to be the only mandate of CPJ.But look what they have openly said in the press release.They are bashing the Prime Minister of Ethiopia for issues that has nothing to do with journalism.Stick with your mandate and stop defending neo fascist "journalists" who used to write a pravda type papers during the genocidal military gov't of the 70s and 80s.They are hiding here in the US pretending to be journalists.
Dibaba

Keep up the good work CPJ. Ignore these silly posts from Ethiopian government bloggers.

selam, cpj, ethiopia this days for free journalists is so worest country, Eskender is my work mate, he is hero, but i am exild, i am not hero.i am suffering the last 5 years in uganda as refugee, intrnational comunitys ar forgotn me.one day i will back by frdom , also cpj cant lssin my voice.

On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger, was arrested by the Ethiopian authorities shortly after publishing an online column calling for an end to torture in Ethiopian prisons, a halt to the imprisonment of dissidents, and respect for freedom of expression. The charges against him are punishable by death, and carry a minimum sentence of fifteen years in prison,1 where both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn that he is at risk of torture.
Previous to his current arrest, Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, both newspaper publishers, were charged with treason following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections, along with dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders, and spent seventeen months in jail. While in custody, Serkalem gave birth to their first child. Even after they were acquitted by Ethiopia’s Federal High Court, Eskinder and Serkalem were blocked from reopening their newspapers and the government continued to pursue civil charges against them.2
Eskinder also was detained earlier this year, after he published an online column asking members of the security services not to shoot unarmed demonstrators—as they did in 2005—in the event that the “Arab Spring” should spread to Ethiopia.3
Most of us would have fled into exile after such treatment—as have nearly all of Ethiopia’s significant opposition leaders and independent journalists since 2005. In all, eleven independent journalists and bloggers have been charged with terrorism this year, five of whom are behind bars. Ethiopia tops Iran and Cuba to lead the world in the number of journalists who have been forced into exile over the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.4
Having spent a large part of his childhood in suburban Washington, D.C., and being in possession of a US residence permit, Eskinder could have easily followed. That he has not is testimony to his commitment to democratic values that Western governments say they hold dear.
America and its Western allies have aligned themselves closely with Ethiopia’s government in the fight against radical Islamists in the Horn of Africa and in efforts to prevent a repeat of the 1984–1985 famine. Worthy as these goals are, we should not allow them to blind us to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s increasingly authoritarian bent—as exhibited by his regime’s 99.6 percent election victory in 2010 and most recently the decision to prosecute Eskinder as a terrorist, along with seven other dissidents.5
We therefore call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s Western allies to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent. We also urge the US to ensure that our more than $6006 million in aid to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.7
Signed: William Easterly, Mark Hamrick, Aryeh Neier in letter to NY Review of Books


Abeba, which court are you talking about? The judiciary and the executive wings are controlled by the government. Have you ever seen a politician imprisoned in Ethiopia who walked away free once imprisoned by the government? I do not think you understand what bias means. This is the game that the Meles regime has been playing for years and you are now trying to play it here. If you have a good conscience that cares about fairness, you would have defended those journalists who dared to criticize the government at the cost of their lives and their families' as well. Just be fair to your fellow citizens before judging this writer.

The beuti of Ethiopian Politics; a dissident suffers in prison for merely speaking his mind & cronies of the regime suffocate the comment column here in defense of the action! This is what happens when an absolute dictatorship takes charge of everything!

Good job, Tom Rhodes!

God Bless you Bro. for Standing with Ethiopia's tenacious blogger, Eskinder Nega & for Speaking Up for Voiceless.

Thanks Tom once again for your well researched and insightful piece. Personalities like Eskinder are rare; sadly they pay a huge price for challenging and criticizing the authorities who think they're untouchables. Hypocrisy and double standard of international politics are one of the main reasons why Eskinder and many other prisoners of conscious in Ethiopia and across the globe are being punished with impunity by Meles and his likes. Eskinder, the truth shall set you free one day; regardless of the blackmail campaign by the tyrant and his paid up apologists. YES, fight tyrants from your PC, that was your motto and will be.
Theodros Arega
Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm, Sweden

In a country where kids do not have anything to eat, the Meles Zenawi dictatorial government spends so much money on dispatching countless number of paid cadres all over the internet. It is shame. Eskinder is a selfless and fearless journalist. He put his own well being on the line to speak up for the mindless human rights abuse being committed by this brutal dictator. As for western governments supporting Meles Zenawi, I am not surprized. History tells us that they also supported Saddam Husein, Mobutu, Shah, and other tyrants when it served their interests. Thank you for this article.

What I would like commentators and CJP to ponder into is the existence of real individuals whose names are labeled at the first four comments--Abeba, Lela Mar, Andy, and Dibaba. The average Ethiopian will tell you it's government minder(s) not rational individuals that stuff comments like those. And if they really exist, they gotta be the most unconscious creatures Ethiopia counted unto 85million. Get some fear of God and consciousness; start saving your and stop selling yourself for material wishes. You the liars are imprisoned, while Eskinder enjoying living life so true. Freedom is first in the mind, the physical one will be there soon for Eskinder. Be blessed Eskinder. Much courage while you stand for the truth.

Thank Tom for stating the truth.
Ethiopia will overcome the challenge of this dictatorial regime.

Eskinder could have chosen to live a better life outside Ethiopia,but he rather challenges the government on issues of freedom of press and free speech.
It is easier to comment from far a government should not say we unconditinally would like to talk with mastermind of terreorosts mr. afeworki and but why jail journalists because they talk conditionally about Mr. Afeworki.
Whatever the ethiopian Government preaches has not to be challenged is by itself abuse of free speech and human right and what Eskender stands is this fact.
I would like to congragulate those who are in jail with Eskendir for speaking their views and standing for their journalistic oaths.
I hope the Ethiopian Government realizes this and free and forgive those in jail.
Thanks!!
Much fun
Ottawa, canada.

This is superb article written by a great professional. It is not only about Eskindir Nega who will be always remembered for his great professionalism, thank you for your highlight on the troubling trend of suffocating free press and dissent against the tyranny in Ethiopia. Those who write against your article are only those paid netters by the Ethiopian regime who got few american cents per the comment they are posting against such articles. The facts tell the real story for themselves. Ethiopia is already world number one in incarcerating and forcing journalists to flee. Why journalists? It tells you an awful lot as to what kind of regime the Ethiopian government is.

CPJ is now a Spy Unit or political organization? I dont support EPRDF and was shame the way the court behaved towards Siye Abraha and they will continue towards Andarge but I also don't like CPJ meddling with Ethiopia internal Affairs if ti's a journalism organization, let it do only journalism with utmost honesty, neutrality and transparency. NEUTRALITY IS THE CORE CODE OF CONDUCT OF JOURNALISM.

I predict that the terrorist dictator Meles Zenawi will sentence Eskinder Nega to death to see the reaction of the Ethiopian public, and then he will appear as a dove carrying an olive branch asking Eskinder Nega to write a pardon letter to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment in an all-too-familiar gesture that has made the terrorist Meles Zenawi a darling of the dictator-loving so-called donor nations.

I am happy that murderer Melles is hliaumted. However, I dont see that this kind of viloence is useful for the following reasons:1. Abebew Gelaw was there as a journalist, not as a political activist.2. Melles can use this event as an opportunity to cheat the world saying those jailed journalists at home are also violent.3. His voice was much like an ill or mad man than normal. He screamed so much that the attendants were frightened.Oromo journalists should never try such weak way of violence.Only force matters to win the mercenery TPLF government.Oromia shall be free!

This is a heroic act by Mr. Abebe. More than hlauimting Meles, the signicance of Abebe act is that he has alerted all journalists and dignitaries in the room about Meles' atrocities I am sure many of the attendee will do their research on this generational killer who has managed to deceive the west, the East and several of East African countries to his way to where he is now.Abebe's act is a prove that individuals make a difference.“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does”Margaret Mead


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