Exiled Ethiopian journalists perform a traditional coffee ceremony in a shared, cramped apartment in Nairobi. A wave of arrests prompted at least 30 Ethiopian journalists to flee into exile in 2014.  (CPJ/Nicole Schilit)
Exiled Ethiopian journalists perform a traditional coffee ceremony in a shared, cramped apartment in Nairobi. A wave of arrests prompted at least 30 Ethiopian journalists to flee into exile in 2014. (CPJ/Nicole Schilit)

Conflating terrorism and journalism in Ethiopia

At the Lideta courthouse in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, stands a statue of a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales in her outstretched hand–a universal symbol of justice, here cast in metal of pinkish gold and wearing thick braids in her hair.

Not far behind her is a brick-and-concrete building where some of Ethiopia’s most controversial court hearings in recent years have taken place. Journalists Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Martin Schibbye, and Johan Persson have all turned up for high-profile cases in those high-ceilinged rooms, in front of wooden benches packed to capacity with diplomats, friends, and family.

2014 was a busy year for Ethiopia’s judiciary–and a bad one for media professionals. In July, photojournalist Aziza Mohamed was arrested on the job. In August, the justice ministry pressed charges against five independent magazines and one newspaper. In October, former newspaper editor Temesgen Desalegn was sentenced to three years in prison for criminal defamation. The wave of arrests prompted at least 30 journalists to flee into exile during 2014, according to CPJ research. By late in the year, 17 journalists were in prison in Ethiopia–more than in any other African country except for Eritrea.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

The most contentious case of 2014 came to Lideta’s Federal High Court in July, when seven bloggers and three journalists were charged with planning terrorist attacks.

Nine of the 10 defendants, who were arrested in April and held without bail, smile and wave during their courthouse outings. A long prison sentence might be in their future, but hearings at least allow them to catch glimpses of the friends and family members who crowd around the courthouse doors to shout greetings and blow kisses.

On one such occasion in early November, the crowd outside the courthouse chattered in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. As the prisoners filed in, one well-wisher piped up in English–“I miss you so much!”–while security guards moved to block the narrow door to the hearing room. “Bota yellem,” they said. “There is no space.” One onlooker pulled out a smartphone to take a photo of the scene, but a guard snatched it away in warning. The others acquiesced and settled onto benches; they knew not to push their luck too far.

On that bright and breezy day, the hearing was inconclusive. Two of the three judges had recently been replaced, and the new panel needed more time before they could rule on the defendants’ objections to the charges. For the accused, it was back to prison for another spell of waiting.

The seven bloggers–Befekadu Hailu, Natnail Feleke, Mahlet Fantahun, Atnaf Berhane, Zelalem Kibret, Soleyana Shimeles, and Abel Wabella–were part of a group called Zone 9, which used social media to campaign for human rights in Ethiopia.

“As a collective of bloggers focusing on human rights, we have three major activities,” said Soleyana, who escaped arrest because she was in Nairobi at the time; she then fled to the United States and has since been charged in absentia. “The first one is advocacy work and campaigning for the rule of law. We have had four major online campaigns, which were highly focused on demanding the Ethiopian government to start to respect the constitution. We have also encouraged the citizens of Ethiopia, religious groups, ethnic leaders, opposition political groups, and civic society groups to respect the constitution.”

The three other journalists charged–Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, Edom Kassaye, and Tesfalem Waldyes–did not write for Zone 9 but were friends of the bloggers.

According to their charge sheet, the accused individuals “knowingly committed acts of crime by working with a terrorist organization,” though the defendants and human rights groups around the world say they are guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to free speech.

Outside the courtroom, Belay Manaye watched as his friends and colleagues were marched away from the hearing, wondering why he wasn’t right there with them. He, too, is a young journalist who has written critically of Ethiopia’s ruling party. He, too, has contributed articles to the Zone 9 blog.

“Just a day before their detention, I was with Befekadu. We were traveling in the same taxi home, and he was telling me that security people were following us. He was afraid we were going to be detained,” Belay said. “The following day I heard that he was arrested. That was very shocking. I was just waiting for the people to come and take me, because we had been calling each other, and we were together the day before.”

Until recently Belay was a reporter for the Ethiopian Herald, a state-owned newspaper where he wasn’t allowed to write critically of the government. By day, he filed articles chronicling positive developments in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country. By night, he penned a novel about a university professor who mounts a peaceful campaign to change Ethiopia’s system of governance. The work of fiction was published in 2014. It infuriated his employers, who pushed him to resign.

Now Belay contributes to independent newspapers that allow him to write more critically, though he must still exercise caution. “The very important thing is that journalists are self-censoring because there is the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which is very restrictive and repressive,” he said, “so you can’t exercise your profession freely.”

Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation became law in 2009 and has been strongly criticized by local activists and global human rights groups. It threatens jail sentences of up to 20 years for anyone who “publishes or causes the publication of a statement” that could be understood as an inducement “to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” Anyone convicted of planning terrorist acts could face life in jail or even a death sentence.

This doesn’t mean that critical views are absent from public discourse. In Addis Ababa, people who can afford satellite television packages can watch news broadcasts from all around the world. Consumers can also access foreign media online, though a state monopoly over telecommunications enables the government to block several opposition websites.

There are also a few independent magazines and newspapers that regularly pick apart government policies, but their numbers have been dwindling. “In my opinion the media still gives space for decent voices, even though it has very limited space and government feels insecure about it,” said Soleyana, “and, in the last two years, so many magazines changed their focus to politics from social and fashion issues.”

In the rural areas where most Ethiopians live, information is even harder to come by. Almost all who own a TV are limited to government-owned stations, which run repeated specials on development projects interspersed with music videos showcasing the country’s natural beauty. Radio is also state-dominated, and the Internet access rate in Ethiopia is one of Africa’s worst at around 2 percent, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

The most recent media sustainability study supported by USAID, which was published by the International Research and Exchanges Board in 2012, found that “state media not only fail to follow a public-service model, but that they have unequivocally devolved into a one-party propaganda machine … Editors and reporters at these institutions see their role as serving and protecting the ideology and interests of the ruling party.”

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, has been the country’s ruling coalition since overthrowing a brutal communist administration in 1991. With help from Western donor aid it has presided over a period of impressive economic growth and can boast that Ethiopia enjoys relative stability in a volatile region.

But since the 1990s, said Belay, the media situation has gone “from bad to worse to worst.” The security apparatus flexed its muscle after a closely contested election in 2005, when a crackdown on political opponents led to hundreds of deaths and landed thousands more people in jail. And in 2009 the anti-terrorism proclamation gave officials even more leeway to go after perceived threats. A federal election scheduled for May 2015 has raised further concerns that the recent arrests and terrorism accusations mark a fresh attempt to quash dissent ahead of the vote.

Government Communications Minister Redwan Hussien said that the response to the proclamation has been overblown, noting that similar policies exist all over the world. “If you take the anti-terrorism law, it is strictly copied from the well-developed and matured democracies of the West, and none of the sentences are even changed. It was just a carbon copy, and this was the language we used,” he said.

But, unlike other versions, Ethiopia’s law omits some key limitations on the definition of terrorism, and, as CPJ wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn shortly after the law was passed, the Ethiopian judiciary cannot be counted on to interpret the text fairly: “In principle, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the existing criminal code have high requirements for government prosecutors to prove intent in charges against the press, according to legal experts and CPJ analysis. In practice, however, Ethiopian judges have leniently interpreted these requirements, giving them little or no consideration.”

Prime Minister Hailemariam has defended the proclamation, saying that the country has a duty to defend itself against a web of terrorist networks in the region, including Somalia’s Al-Shabaab and such homegrown organizations as Ginbot 7, an exiled opposition group with links to Ethiopia’s archrival, Eritrea.

“I don’t think becoming a blogger makes somebody immune. If somebody involves into this terrorist network, that destabilizes my country. This is a clear message,” Hailemariam said during a press conference in July 2014.

Had he been free, journalist Tesfalem Waldyes would have been at that press conference, dutifully recording the prime minister’s words. Instead, he was behind bars at the Kilinto prison, a large compound surrounded by gray-brick walls.

The Kilinto facility is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, but it’s far out enough for one to see auto rickshaws and horse-drawn buggies, which are banished in the city center; far out enough that visitors to the jail must spend hours traveling along bumpy and congested roads; far out enough that the family members’ waiting area, a dirt patch shaded by corrugated steel, looks out over wild green fields stretching toward the mountains.

Foreigners are not easily allowed inside Kilinto, but through his Ethiopian visitors Tesfalem sends word that he has little hope of being freed anytime soon.

“They should have been charging me according to press laws, not terrorism laws,” he said from behind bars on a hot afternoon in mid-November, in a message memorized and delivered by a friend who asked to remain anonymous, “and, even if they had, I’d be innocent. I know I would be free if this were a fair trial, but I don’t believe that will happen, because from the beginning our detention was political.”

Along with the other eight defendants, Tesfalem was first detained at Addis Ababa’s Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector, commonly known as Maekelawi. The detention center is notorious for detainee complaints of torture, solitary confinement, and forced confessions.

Before his arrest, Tesfalem wrote business and politics stories for English-language publications, including the Addis Standard and Fortune. “I considered myself a professional journalist,” he said through the friend. “I was not a member of Zone 9, but at Maekelawi I was forced to sign a paper saying I was. The interrogators were very unprofessional.” He remembers constant intimidation and days of solitary confinement in a dark room and said that he signed the false confession to avoid further mistreatment. After being charged in July for allegedly taking part in trainings to incite public violence and for associating with Ginbot 7, he was moved to Kilinto.

Tesfalem hopes that he won’t share the fate of other journalists such as Woubshet Taye, who once worked for the independent weekly Awramba Times and was arrested in 2011. His wife, Berhane Tesfaye, recalls the day he was taken away in front of their son, then a toddler.

“The security forces called him from the house, and he went out; he said he’d be back in five minutes,” she said. “After half an hour, they brought him back inside the house. They stayed for about an hour, searching through papers, books, phone contacts, and everything. Then they took him away, and for one month I never saw him. I didn’t know what his condition was, and I was not allowed to visit him. He was in Maekelawi.”

Woubshet was charged under the anti-terrorism law and accused of associating with Ginbot 7. Both he and Berhane still testify to his innocence, but in 2012 he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Once he’d been moved to Kality, a prison not far from Kilinto, Woubshet told his wife that he had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement at Maekelawi. After a series of inexplicable transfers, the prisoner was, as of December 2014, back at Kality, where his wife and son–now 6 years old–visit as often as they can.

The prisoner’s son is named Fiteh, which is Amharic for “justice.” “Woubshet chose the name,” Berhane said. “He always had hope for Ethiopia, and especially for Ethiopian journalists, because now they don’t have freedom. I think things will stay like this in the near future, but, after some years, I hope Ethiopia will be better. I hope it will change.”

For foreign correspondents based in Ethiopia, the risks are fewer. Some have been deported–most recently in May 2014, when Egypt’s Hamdy al-Anany, who served as the Addis Ababa director for the Middle East News Agency, was subjected to forced repatriation–and many have been detained briefly at local police stations for lengthy accreditation checks that can foil attempts to cover breaking stories. But when it comes to unfair charges, long detentions, and harsh sentences, local journalists bear the brunt of the injustice.

In recent years there has been only one case in which foreign correspondents have been sentenced to long jail terms. In June 2011, Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson crossed illegally from Somalia into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region in an attempt to investigate the activities of a Swedish oil company there. Ogaden has long been plagued by instability; a Somali separatist group based there, called the Ogaden National Liberation Front, or ONLF, has been labeled a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government.

After gaining access to the area with help from the ONLF, Schibbye and Persson were apprehended by Ethiopian forces in the wake of a firefight during which both sustained gunshot wounds. From the beginning, the two journalists faced threats of execution, denial of medical treatment, and attempts to force false confessions. Then came a stint at Maekelawi, followed by another at Kality.

“Everything in Maekelawi is about confessing,” Schibbye said. “I heard people being beaten regularly–with hands, with sticks. I saw people wounded on their ankles and hands from being hanged upside down. Some were tortured badly by being beat on their balls with a thin iron stick. Everything was about ‘confess’ and ‘sign here.'” In Kality, too, the situation was dire. Schibbye recalls overcrowding, rampant disease, rats emerging from filthy shared toilets, and a pervasive atmosphere of fear.

Schibbye and Persson were charged under the anti-terrorism law, found guilty, and sentenced to 11 years behind bars. But international pressure helped secure a pardon request from the highest levels of the Ethiopian government, and the two were released in September 2012 after 14 months in detention. The same could not be said for the Ethiopian journalists they met in prison, including Woubshet and Reeyot Alemu, who was also charged and convicted under the anti-terrorism law.

“When I look back and think of Reeyot and Woubshet, who were left behind in the chaos, on the concrete floor between walls of corrugated steel, I feel sick to the stomach,” Schibbye said.

Minister Redwan maintains that the government does not condone mistreatment at any of its detention and interrogation centers.

“What must be taken seriously is, there is a law in this country, and that this country has adopted regional, continental, and international laws that each prisoner must be handled with due care,” he said. “If the government in any way came across such an act which is committed by any one of individuals there, then it would have acted accordingly and swiftly.”

Schibbye disagrees. “In our case, [the mistreatment] was sanctioned from higher up, for sure, from day one,” he said. “We believed that being journalists would set us free. Instead, being journalists was why we were charged and sentenced.”

Belay said that even while suffering physical and psychological torture at Maekelawi, his imprisoned colleagues sought to educate the prison guards about basic human rights. “When I asked them about this, they were laughing, but they were very sad, too,” he said. “These people have to be trained; they have to learn the laws and know the constitution so that they can respect it.”

Until that day comes, Ethiopia’s imprisoned journalists are stuck in a world of steel and concrete. They see their loved ones only at court days, where they are closely guarded so they cannot hug their families, or during rushed prison visiting hours, during which they are separated by two sets of bars so they cannot reach their friends.

But the fight for press freedom goes on in their absence. Belay said that despite–or perhaps because of–what happened to his friends, he is not afraid of speaking out. “If you arrest them while they’re exercising their rights, then come arrest me while I’m exercising my rights,” he said. “I want to deliver my message, too–so I will fight to the end.”

Jacey Fortin is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.