Why Europeans should care about Ethiopia’s repression of journalists

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Alison Bethel McKenzie. [International Press Institute. 2009].

Alison Bethel McKenzie. [International Press Institute. 2009].

With European elections looming and a host of crises here at home dominating the political debate, there is the risk that challenges abroad – including Ethiopia’s disturbing treatment of journalists – will be swept under the carpet. It is vitally important that the current Parliament and Commission not let that happen as their mandates wind down, writes Alison Bethel McKenzie.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna.

When nominations for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought were announced last autumn, it was heartening to see that two imprisoned journalists in one of Africa’s most oppressed countries had made the list with the support of more than 40 lawmakers.

Although the award ultimately went to the Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, the nomination of Ethiopian journalists Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega marked important recognition of the appalling conditions that these brave people have faced since they were convicted on terrorism charges in 2011.

Yet today, there seems to be no end to the Ethiopian government’s assault on independent journalism. In February, an Addis Ababa court sentenced Somali journalist Mohamed Aweys Mudey to 27 years in prison for allegedly having information about a Somali al-Shabab terrorist cell operating inside Ethiopia. Several colleagues of Alemu and Nega are already serving sentences under anti-terror law.

Two Swedish journalists know all too well the consequences of being a journalist in Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country and a leading recipient of EU aid. In December 2011, reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were sentenced to 11 years in prison for “rendering support to terrorism” by interviewing people in the conflict-prone Ogaden region. Luckily for them, concerted international campaigns and diplomatic pressure helped win their freedom a year later.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, has always maintained a tight grip on the news media since taking power in 1991. Yet it strengthened its hand in 2009 by adopting the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation that gives virtually unchecked powers to the authorities to arrest and prosecute those they deem fall under an overly broad definition of terrorism.

Under the law, a journalist who interviews and reports on a suspected terrorist could be accused of distributing anti-government information. Eskinder Nega was convicted for allegedly supporting an “Arab Spring” in Ethiopia by writing about those who were inspired by democratic movements in North Africa. Reeyot Alemu, a school teacher by profession who spent her free time writing for a newspaper, was convicted for publishing a photo bearing the Amharic word bäqa (enough!) – a slogan for opposition groups.

The EPRDF has tried to weaken civil society groups as well. The Proclamation to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies (CSP), also adopted in 2009, restricts the operations and financing of independent human rights and civil society organisations. Together, the anti-terror and CSP laws have a profound effect on the ability of watchdogs to monitor and critique government policies, as well as provide early warnings of troubles in this disaster-prone Horn of Africa nation.

The government has not shied from using the laws to bludgeon opposition figures and journalists. Dozens of journalists have fled the country, including Abiye Teklemariam and Mesfin Negash, two newspaper editors who were charged with plotting anti-government activities and sentenced in absentia. Wubset Taye, Yusuf Getachew and Solomon Kebede, the latter two who ran the Ye Muslimach Guday (Muslim Affairs) magazine that reported on Ethiopia’s large Islamic community, are serving sentences along with Alemu and Nega under the anti-terror law.

My colleagues and I at the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna and from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in Paris were barred from seeing these journalists at the Kaliti prison – a notoriously crowded detention facility that has housed many prisoners of conscience – when we visited Addis Ababa in early November. Colleagues and lawyers for the families told us that the state prison administration routinely deny visitors the right to see prisoners. In the case of Reeyot Alemu, who has been treated for breast cancer, this has restricted her access to outside medical help.

Why should Europeans care – and why should European leaders do more than propose prizes for Ethiopia’s terrified journalists, no matter how well meaning these honours?

Because Europe has a major investment in the wellbeing of Ethiopia and its people. The country is the fifth largest recipient of development aid from EU donors, amounting to a record 690 million euros in 2011 and 557 million euros in 2012, figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show. Ethiopia is also one of the main recipients of EU humanitarian aid, with the European Commission alone providing 130 million euros over the past three years to help support millions of Ethiopians and refugees from regional conflict areas in need of basic food, water and health assistance.

It would be foolish to suggest that Ethiopia’s needy should be denied aid because of the notorious policies of their rulers. But that does not absolve the EU from using its influence to pressure the EPRDF élite, which has traditionally enjoyed a chummy relationship with western leaders.

The EU is committed through its three-year-old Agenda for Change development policy to foster democratic governance in Ethiopia and other aid recipients. The 2013 “Joint Co-operation Strategy” aimed at fostering a stable and democratic Ethiopia acknowledges that “fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of association and expression, face increasing restrictions”, but those who dole out money in Brussels and the 28 EU capitals have shown little outward sign of pressuring the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to reform laws that inhibit fundamental rights.

With European elections looming and a host of crises here at home dominating the political debate, there is the risk that challenges abroad – including Ethiopia’s disturbing treatment of journalists – will be swept under the carpet. It is vitally important that the current Parliament and Commission not let that happen as their mandates wind down.

Their successors, moreover, will need to insist that the EPRDF reform if it is to be a worthy partner of Europe. The EU should be prepared to get tough, through travel and economic sanctions on senior party officials if they fail to pardon the journalists and other prisoners of conscience – and begin the process of revamping their anti-terror and civil society laws to allow for legitimate dissent and independent news reporting.

European citizens who every year provide millions of euros in aid and support to Ethiopia deserve no less. So do the imprisoned journalists, and their many colleagues who live in fear of ending up like Reeyot Alemu and Eskinder Nega.

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