Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison

By Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser for Africa & the Middle East / July 12, 2012
VIENNA, July 13, 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) strongly denounced the long prison sentences handed down to journalist and writer Eskinder Nega in Ethiopia today, as well as the punishments given to five other journalists who were tried in absentia, all of whom were convicted of “terrorism” in late June 2012.

“We are saddened that despite international condemnation by journalists and political leaders around the world, Ethiopia persisted in the persecution of Eskinder Nega and his colleagues in exile, simply because they spoke out against the government of the day,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said.

“Not only do these judgements violate the journalists’ rights to freedom of expression and press freedom, it denies Ethiopian citizens’ in general access to information and weakens the media’s ability to hold government accountable, undermining the fight against actual terrorists,” Bethel McKenzie added.

Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was convicted this past June 27 of “participation in a terrorist organization” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act.” Five other journalists, sentenced in absentia, received prison terms of between eight years and life in prison.  Their names are Mesfin Negash, Abiye Tekelemariam, Fasil Yenealem, Abebe Gellaw and Abebe Bellew.

A total of 11 journalists have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes since December 2011. Of these, five are in custody, locked away at the notorious Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa. Those jailed there rely on visitors for food, are locked up with hardened criminals, and are reportedly subject mistreatment and torture. In addition to Nega, Reyot Alemu and Wubshet Taye are serving 14-year sentences for “conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism” and money laundering, while Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson are serving 11-year sentences for “rendering support to terrorism”, which includes the crime of offering ill-defined “moral support”.  Only journalists have ever been jailed for the crime of offering “moral support” to terrorists, according to a June report from Human Rights Watch.

But the convictions in absentia of journalists who have been forced to leave Ethiopia over the years also take their toll.

Negash, the editor of Addis Neger online news website, was sentenced in absentia to 8 years in prison, as was his colleague Abiye Tekelemariam. “I cannot go back to my country,” Mesfin told IPI. “I may not go back at all for the rest of my life. And of course for friends and family members at home, it’s also a kind of pressure, because at they end of the day, it effects them.”

But the effect is not just personal. “At least for some time, it will discourage and create fear among contacts and informants at home,” Mesfin said. This may be part of the government’s intention: After Mesfin and his colleagues were forced to shut down their print paper and flee the country, he and his exiled team began putting together an online version from their new residences in Europe, the United States and Africa.

“On one hand it really gives the liberty to write whatever you believe in,” he said. “So in that sense it’s liberating. But on the other hand, there is this challenge of being very far from home. You are not in person at home so you lose ultimately something in between.”

He added: “For journalists like me who are used to writing news and giving analysis, it really counts as a very important problem.”

For the past year, Ethiopia has used its controversial 2009 Anti-Terror Proclamation – as was feared – to systematically silence critical journalists and opposition members.  Human rights groups have condemned the politicised nature of their trials. Human Rights Watch noted the lack of due process afforded the defendants, who were denied access to their legal counsel, and whose complaints of mistreatment in prison were not properly investigated.

Press Freedom