To understand Ethiopia’s election next month, where the ruling party is likely to win an overwhelming majority in parliament, it’s important to understand what happened in Africa’s second-most populous country a decade ago.
It’s 2005 and the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has given the green-light for the first multi-party democratic elections in the country’s history. The media is given unprecedented freedom to report and opposition parties are granted permission to campaign and hold meetings in public places.
But as the results trickle in showing the opposition running close with the EPRDF, the ruling party changes course. Opposition leaders are jailed and security forces kill nearly 200 people in unrest in the capital Addis Ababa. The ruling party never looks back, cracking down on democratic freedoms and independent media. In 2010, the EPRDF wins 99 percent of the seats in parliament, running virtually unopposed. The 2015 elections are likely to be similar. In 2014, 17 journalists spent time in prison and at least 30 fled the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“They clamped down on the press, they clamped down on the civil society,” says Tom Rhodes, an East Africa researcher for CPJ, in an interview with Global Journalist. “And what we have seen then is that one or two years ahead of elections, both in 2010 and 2015, the government would get tougher again, making sure there is no chance of critical voices from the opposition press.”
The major tool in the crackdown is the country’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, a vaguely written law that criminalizes ‘promoting acts of terrorism’ and has been interpreted in way that allows for the prosecution of critical voices in the media. “The law is very broad so it can be used in many circumstances,” says William Davison, a Bloomberg News correspondent in Ethiopia. “When combined with a weak judicial system, it means it is a dangerous environment for journalists.”
Representatives of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Information declined or did not respond to interview requests from Global Journalist. What follows are the stories of some of the journalists and bloggers currently behind bars prosecuted under the country’s anti-terror law.
A high school English teacher who founded her own magazine, Reeyot Alemu was arrested in June 2011 as Ethiopia sought to avoid the “Arab Spring” revolutions against authoritarian governments across North Africa and the Middle East.
Alemu had become known in Ethiopia for her articles criticizing government policy, the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia, and the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, according to the Media Legal Defence Initiative, a U.K.-based agency that aids imprisoned journalists.
After being arrested the Addis Ababa high school where she taught worked, Alemu was held for more than a week without being told why she was being detained, according to the International Women’s Media Foundation. Two months later, the government accused her of abetting an unknown terrorist group.
In January 2012, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in Kaliti prison. The sentence was later reduced to five years on appeal, according to CPJ.
“It seemed from Reeyot’s trial that the authorities considered her reporting on activism as actual participation in illegal political acts,” says Davison, the Bloomberg reporter. “It appeared to be a worrying example of how under this system a critical journalist can be convicted as an associate of terrorists.”
Martin Schibbye, a Swedish freelance journalist who spent more than a year jail in Ethiopia on terrorism charges, was held in a cell in Kaliti near Alemu.
“We see her for a short glimpse and she throws at us a small matchbook,” says Schibbye, in an interview with Global Journalist. “And in this matchbook she has put a small letter and she writes to us that her name is Reeyot Alemu, that she is a journalist and she is jailed because of her writings and her articles and she says ‘please if you are released before me tell the world that I am a journalist and not a terrorist.”
Alemu’s health is deteriorating in prison. According to Rhodes, the CPJ representative, Alemu has a non-cancerous breast tumor is suffering from gastritis and has not received adequate medical attention.
In 2012, the International Women’s Media Foundation awarded Alemu its Courage in Journalism award in absentia, and in 2013 she named the winner of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. -by Deme Walls