Less than three months before President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of a free press at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, three independent journalists and six bloggers were arrested and eventually charged under Ethiopia’s widely-criticized 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The journalists were known to write on a wide range of topics, including corruption, writes Birtukan Mideksa, a former federal judge, political leader, and prisoner of conscience in Ethiopia.
The bloggers, for their part, were part of group called “Zone 9,” which had a large following on social media and were known for their campaign to promote the rights provided under Ethiopia’s constitution. They were all arrested shortly after Zone 9 posted an announcement on Facebook indicating that the group would begin blogging again after a seven month hiatus.
The six bloggers and three journalists were held without any formal charges against them for over two and a half months and were finally charged on July 18. In response, 41 NGOs sent a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn calling on his government to immediately release the detainees and revise the law. The U.S. government has also condemned such an abuse of anti-terror legislation. Secretary Kerry publicly expressed his concern about the arrests during a visit to Addis Ababa just days after they were detained. He specifically mentioned blogger Natnail Feleke, with whom he had met on a previous visit, and adamantly insisted that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation should not be used as a mechanism to curb the free exchange of ideas.
Unfortunately, what happened to these independent journalists and bloggers is neither new nor surprising.
On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, a prominent journalist and human rights defender, was arrested and charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Ten months later, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. While the Ethiopian government asserts that Mr. Nega’s prosecution is unrelated to his work as a journalist, an independent inquiry found otherwise. In Opinion No. 62/2012, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held that Mr. Nega’s imprisonment violated Ethiopia’s obligations under international law. …..
Other international bodies have also criticized the use of anti-terror laws against journalist, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and five United Nations special procedure mandate holders. During Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review earlier this year, a number of countries, including the United States, raised similar concerns. Most recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, denounced the arrests of journalists and bloggers declaring that “the fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations. And working with foreign human rights organisations cannot be considered a crime.”
Birtukan Mideksa is former federal judge, political leader, and prisoner of conscience in Ethiopia. She has held fellowships with the National Endowment for Democracy and Harvard University and is a member of Freedom Now’s Board of Advisors.