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.