Ethiopia's terror conviction of journalist raises doubts on free speech

Ethiopia conviction of journalist Eskinder Nega for covering planned protests sparks international condemnation. US Sen. Patrick Leahy suggests cutback in aid to Ethiopia. 

By , Correspondent

Dissident Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega was today convicted of conspiring to commit acts of terror, sparking an outpouring of international condemnation.
 

The eloquent, long-standing critic of the Ethiopia Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front's rule – who has also been jailed at least seven times – was awarded the PEN American Center Freedom to Write prize last month. PEN called today's verdict demonstrated a "shameful disdain for Ethiopia’s obligations to its citizens and to international law."
 

Judges at the Federal High Court found Mr. Eskinder – along with 23 other activists and writers –  guilty of being involved in plotting a violent revolt. Supporters say his actual crime was voicing pro-democracy views and discussing the possibility of peaceful protests in the wake of the Arab Spring.

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Supporters include US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who wants at least $500,000 of existing American aid to Ethiopia's military next year to be potentially withheld, depending on whether the Ethiopian government respects press freedom.

"That means enabling journalists like Eskinder Nega to do their work of reporting and peaceful political participation," he said in a congressional statement on June 14.
 

The conditions in the bill, expected to become law, also press Ethiopia to protect judicial independence and a host of other human rights.

Despite these moves, Eskinder’s conviction is just one indication that there will be little change of course from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government, which relies heavily on up to $3 billion of Western aid a year in its much-lauded mission to improve health and education.

"The net result of the legislation's passage would be to annoy the current Ethiopian government without really pressuring it," says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. There is no substance to the conditions and the sole consequence will be denying young Ethiopian military officers a chance to be educated at a US university, he says.

Stifling effect on media
 

For remaining independent Ethiopian journalists, the message is clear.

One leading local writer doesn't answer phone calls from abroad any more, unless it's family calling: Contact with banned organizations based outside the Horn of Africa countries was part of the evidence used to prosecute other local journalists this year under a 2009 anti-terrorism law. Officials insist media work was a front for subversive activities.
 

Reeyot Alemu, an occasional columnist for one of the last bastions of dissent, Fiteh newspaper, was sentenced in January to 14 years in jail. Evidence used against her included e-mails sent to the Ethiopian Review website about anti-government slogans.

Frustrating to the government

In some cases, such as that of Ethiopian Review, it's apparent why official frustration at the media boils over.

The US-based website, the Ethiopian Review is virulently opposed to Meles's regime, which has ruled the country since helping overthrow a Marxist military junta in 1991. It publishes a torrent of anti-government agitprop.

Last year, Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi, who invests huge amounts in the nation he was born in, won about $272,000 in damages in a British court from Elias Kifle, the website's owner, after it falsely accused him online of hunting down a woman Mr. Kifle claimed was the Sheikh's daughter with the intention of stoning her to death.
 

Ethiopian Review's "insurgent journalism" and outspoken criticism from the likes of Fiteh make them enemies of the state in a divisive political landscape.
 

"They still have the guerrilla mindset," a local journalist says about the former rebels now in charge. "They think the free media is the enemy of them." 

Censorship battle

An ongoing battle is being fought over a contract issued by state-owned printers. Its terms argue that printers have the right to refuse to print newspapers that contain content printers consider illegal.
 

Bereket Simon, a senior official, dismisses the contract as "routine contractual agreement," and says opponents to it have a "political agenda."

Editors and foreign rights groups argue it is an act of censorship and another form of repression that has forced newspapers to close and journalists to flee or be prosecuted.

But the contract lets the sweeping terms of an anti-terrorism law to be interpreted by the printers' management. Only courts should have the right to decide – post-publication – if content is illegal, says Tamrat Gebregiorgis, managing director of Fortune, one of Addis Ababa's leading English-language newspapers. Editors – already staggering from a 35 percent increase in printing costs last year – are now working together to set up their own printing house to provide an alternative to the government's.

Mr. Tamrat – often criticized as too close to senior officials, despite routinely publishing editorials criticizing the ruling party – thinks the directive stems from government "concern about the conduct and activities of certain publications."
 

Regardless of the risks, Fiteh plans to keep advocating for "liberal democracy," continuing Eskinder's campaign and activities that Senator Leahy describes as "fundamental to any free press."

Government vision

Still, the government has its own vision for Ethiopia's media.

Much as some tenets of market economics are discarded by Meles's Revolutionary Democrats as part of an ideology of bubble-building hyper-capitalism, the idea of a free press holding power to account is rejected as fraudulent.

The West's "neo-liberal" media, for all its professed freedom, does little investigative journalism, but rather is obsessed with celebrity gossip and beholden to "big business," Mr. Bereket says. This is why toxic mortgages sold in 2002 went unreported until they contributed to the financial crash six years later, or the US government's claims about Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction were uncritically relayed, he argues. "I don't see the media serving the public interest," Bereket says. "I don't think that type of media will help the developing world."
 

He would prefer to see Ethiopia's press provide "objective information" to assist the majority of Ethiopians in "their daily struggle to improve their economic and political lives." Newspapers should help a diverse nation "enjoy dialogue, compromise, and accommodation, instead of confrontational politics," he says.
 

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