Nairobi, June 27, 2012–Today’s conviction of six Ethiopian journalists on vague terrorism charges is an affront to the rule of law and the constitution in the Horn of Africa country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. At least 11 journalists have been charged with terrorism since November 2011, according to CPJ research.
Before issuing the court’s verdict, Judge Endeshaw Adane in the Lideta Federal High Court in Addis Ababa, the capital, accused blogger Eskinder Nega, and five exiled Ethiopian journalists tried in absentia, of using “the guise of freedom” to “attempt to incite violence and overthrow the constitutional order,” according to news reports. The defendants, who were among 24 charged with anti-state crimes, return to court for sentencing on July 13. News accounts reported that the prosecutor requested life sentences–the maximum penalty–for all of them.
Eskinder and the five convicted journalists have professed their innocence, according to news reports. The journalists include Mesfin Negash and Abiye Teklemariam of the U.S.-based Addis Neger Online; Abebe Gellaw of the U.S.-based Addis Voice; Abebe Belew of the U.S.-based Internet radio Addis Dimts; and Fasil Yenealem of the Netherlands-based ESAT, according to news reports.
The judge accused Eskinder of wanting to spark an Arab Spring-style popular revolt in Ethiopia through the use of online articles and a speech in a public forum shortly before his arrest in September 2011, according to news reports. Prior to this, police had detained Eskinder and told him to stop writing about the Arab Spring. The journalist had also published an online column questioning the government’s use of the anti-terrorism law to silence dissent and calling on the government to respect freedom of expression.
The journalists were accused of being linked with the opposition Ginbot 7, which the government has designated a terrorist group, as well as other outlawed groups. They were also accused of “allowing terrorist organizations such as Ginbot 7, Oromo Liberation Front, and Ogaden National Liberation Front to express their terrorist ideas and promote their agendas on their online publication,” according to a translation of the original charge sheet.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, human rights defenders, three U.N. special rapporteurs, and three members of U.S. Congress have publicly criticized the Ethiopian government for using the sweeping anti-terrorism law to criminalize freedom of expression. The law criminalizes independent reporting on opposition groups that the government has deemed terrorists.
“We condemn the convictions of Eskinder Nega and five other journalists who exercised their internationally recognized right to freedom of expression,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “With its ruling, the court has effectively criminalized free expression, trivialized the genuine threat of terrorism, and undermined the credibility of the judicial system in Ethiopia.”
Local journalists told CPJ that the judicial process was marred by due process violations. The court did not accept any evidence or witness statements from Eskinder’s defense, and the blogger was charged without his lawyer present, the journalists said. In addition, public statements by government officials and news reports by state-controlled media contributed to a country-wide smear campaign launched by the government against the journalists, according to CPJ research.
This conviction marks the third terrorism verdict against journalists in the past six months. Three journalists were convicted in January on charges of terrorism, according to CPJ research. Two of the journalists were given prison terms and the third, an exiled reporter, was given a life sentence. In December, two Swedish journalists were convicted of terrorism and each given 11-year prison terms, CPJ research shows.