Ethiopia: development and security require free expression

birtukanLess 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.

Civil society responding to Liberia’s Ebola crisis


A leading national civil society  group has joined the campaign to support national efforts in addressing the Ebola Outbreak in Liberia.

NAYMOTE is using its On the Bus project to support the campaign. and setup a call center at the central office, trained and assigned volunteers who are effectively communicating Ebola prevention and control messages, targeting NAYMOTE’s network of over 800 bus volunteers as well as 2000 project beneficiaries using the institution’s database. These targeted populations are being reached by using mobile phones to conduct tele-education in simple Liberian English (Colloquial).

Subsequently, at the official launch of the Civil Society Organizations’ Response to the Ebola Virus Outbreak in Liberia on August 15, 2014, the bus volunteers dramatized and educated over 350 residents who attended the launch at the New Kru Town multi purpose building on the early symptoms of the Ebola virus, how to prevent the spread and what to do if someone gets sick.

Since the beginning of the Ebola Prevention Campaign by NAYMOTE, a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy, the call center volunteers have reached 1,890 citizens (978 females and 912 males) from within the institution’s database across the country and staff contact listing.


Swaziland labor, rights groups call for action on AGOA


Photo: Kate Conradt, Solidarity Center

Swaziland’s government needs to act on the African Growth Opportunity Act by October, according to a prominent rights advocate.

The government had limited time to salvage the situation and help the country save AGOA eligibility, said human rights lawyer and activist Sipho Gumedze.

Rights groups last week urged Swaziland and other states represented at this week’s summit of the Southern African Development Community meeting to curb rights abuses and uphold individual freedoms in their countries.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights deplored “serious human rights concerns” in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Labor unions and rights groups condemned remarks by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, calling for the strangulation of union representatives participating in the White House summit on Africa.

Due to systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, the USG removed AGOA benefits from Swaziland.

In a new policy paper, the AFL-CIO labor federation insists that AGOA must “ensure that it delivers on its ambitious goals of supporting democratic governance, enhancing civil society, combating corruption and promoting the rule of law in Sub-Saharan Africa”.

“Swaziland is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 60% of the country living in poverty and an official unemployment rate of 28.5%. The government, one of the world’s few remaining monarchies, has banned all political parties and refuses to recognise democratically established trade union associations. Trade unionists are regularly imprisoned, harassed and intimidated,” the AFL-CIO notes.

“While scrutiny of this repression is welcome, complete suspension of all tariff benefits is a blunt instrument,” it added. “The ability to target benefit suspensions at industries or sectors where violations are occurring would leverage the power of employers to seek better enforcement, and interim measures beyond revocation would prevent autocratic regimes from passing the harm onto workers.”

The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) says members will protest Minister of Labor and Social Security Winnie Magagula’s appearance before parliament, VOA’s Peter Clottey writes:

Vincent Ncongwane said Swaziland is set to lose about 17,000 jobs after the country was thrown out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) initiative over the country’s poor human rights record.

“Our members are mobilizing for protest action. Of course the challenge is that they have ensured that they are prepared to crash any protest, but that is what our members are mobilizing to do,” said Ncongwane. “We want to hear from the minister as to what is it that this government have in mind as with regards to AGOA, beyond just misleading the international community.”

U.S. trade benefits for Africa—known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—provide key economic support for countries such as Swaziland, according to Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

Yet some in the Swazi government are falsely accusing Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against AGOA benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., last week as part of a delegation of 40 African trade union leaders, notes the Solidarity Center, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy:  

While in Washington, Ncongwane and Gumedze, both internationally respected labor and human rights advocates, the Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini reportedly told lawmakers “you must strangle them” upon their return. The U.S. State Department condemned the threat, saying in a statement:

“The United States is deeply concerned by the threatening remarks made by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini toward Swazi labor and civil society leaders who participated in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. Such remarks have a chilling effect on labor and civil rights in the Kingdom of Swaziland.”

“The comments made today by Prime Minister Dlamini are a clear threat to the human rights community,” said Santiago Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “This type of language is another indication that Swaziland’s authorities do not, in any way, respect the basic human rights of its people.”


Terence A. Todman, U.S. ambassador, democracy advocate


Terence A. Todman, who served as U.S. ambassador to six nations during a four-decade career in which he became the senior African American diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, died Aug. 13 at a hospital on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Washington Post’s Emily Langerwrites:

Mr. Todman, a native of the Virgin Islands, served as the U.S. ambassador to Chad, Guinea, Costa Rica, Spain, Denmark and Argentina, as well as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs during the Carter administration. He retired in 1993 with the prestigious rank of career ambassador. ….Mr. Todman had joined the State Department in the early 1950s, he noted in an oral history, when “the only thing they had blacks doing ... was serving as messengers and secretaries.When he was named ambassador to Costa Rica in 1974, it was the first such appointment of an African American to a Spanish-speaking country, according to the Associated Press. …As U.S. envoy to Spain from 1978 to 1983, he was the first African American to hold a major European ambassadorship. RTWT

“In a distinguished, trailblazing, and celebrated career that spanned nearly 50 years, Terence was one of the very few Foreign Service Officers to attain the rank of Career Ambassador in the Department of State, and the first African American to do so,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Terence was known for his outspokenness and his advocacy for equality during a time of segregation, when few minorities could be found at any level in the State Department. A living legacy of Ambassador Todman’s advocacy and activism is today’s State Department, which looks so much more like America,” he said.

A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, Todman joined with former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in an international coalition of more than 70 democrats who expressed concern over the prosecution of civic activists in Venezuela, calling it a “grave threat to democracy.”

“He was a man of great dignity, a devoted patriot and a champion of the cause of democracy for all,” said NED President Carl Gershman. “He will be sorely missed and long remembered.”

A staunch advocate of democracy and human rights, Amb. Todman had a particular interest in the rights of minorities in Latin America, as expressed in his concern for inclusion and democracy in Ecuador. he also moderated an event on Capitol Hill that highlighted the work of NED programs in Colombia run by and for Afro-Colombians, and similar Afro-Latino groups.

On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.