US senator condemns Ethiopia's persecution of the press
> Mohamed Keita/CPJ Africa
On Wednesday, the same day the White House announced a
gy-toward-sub-saharan-africa> strategic plan committing the United States to
elevating its efforts in "challenging leaders whose actions threaten the
credibility of democratic processes" in sub-Saharan Africa, a senior member
of the U.S. Congress challenged the erosion of press freedom in a key U.S.
strategic partner in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia.
Underscoring the importance of Ethiopia as an important partner for the
United States in containing terrorism and ending poverty and famine in the
region, Senator Patrick Leahy, a democrat from Vermont, published on
00.htm> statement in The Congressional Record, the official daily journal of
U.S. Congress, in which he condemned the assault on the freedom of the
Ethiopian press under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The senator argued that
success for the Obama administration's new partnership with Meles on
ta.php> food security depends on "broad national consultation, transparency,
and accountability," values, he said, that "depend in no small part on a
Leahy highlighted the emblematic case of Ethiopia's most prominent
imprisoned journalist and blogger,
nalist-honored-by-pen.html> Eskinder Nega. Eskinder, whom PEN American
this year with the Freedom to Write Award, could be
ne.php> convicted on June 21 on vague terrorism charges that carry a life
sentence "simply for refusing to remain silent about the Ethiopian
government's increasingly authoritarian drift." Five days prior to his
arrest in September 2011, Eskinder had published an
> article criticizing the Meles
administration "for misusing a vaguely-worded 2009 antiterrorism law to jail
journalists and political opponents," Leahy said.
In public statements and state media, Ethiopian government officials have
jo.php> discredit Eskinder and the other 10 journalists, calling them
terrorist accomplices involved in anti-state activities.
The evidence offered against the journalist in court, Leahy said, included
"a video of a town hall meeting in which Eskinder discusses the Arab Spring
and speculates on whether similar protests were possible in Ethiopia." The
journalist also consistently highlighted "the government's denial of human
rights, and call[ed] for an end to political repression and corruption"
despite being jailed seven times, his wife imprisoned, and his newspapers
repeatedly banned over two decades, Leahy said.
Leahy was the third member of Congress, after Alaska Senator Mark Begich and
California Representative Edward Royce, to
ssion.php> publicly voice concern over the persecution of 11 Ethiopian
journalists "for questioning government actions and policies--activities
that you and I and people around the world would recognize as fundamental to
any free press," he wrote. He added, "Ironically, by trying to silence those
who do not toe the official line, the government is only helping to
underscore the concerns that many inside and outside of Ethiopia share about
the deterioration of democracy and human rights in that country."
In the statement, Leahy, the chairman of a
responsible for funding portions of U.S. assistance to foreign countries,
said the "importance of respecting freedom of the press cannot be
overstated" in the disbursement of aid to the government.
ETHIOPIAN FREE PRESS ASSAULT
Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, later this month, I and other Members of
Congress will be watching what happens in a courtroom 7,000 miles from
Washington, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
That is where a journalist named Eskinder Nega stands accused of
supporting terrorism simply for refusing to remain silent about the
Ethiopian government's increasingly authoritarian drift. The trial is
finished, and a verdict is expected on June 21.
Mr. Eskinder is not alone. Since 2011, the Ethiopian government has
charged 10 other journalists with terrorism or threatening national security
for questioning government actions and policies--activities that you and I
and people around the world would recognize as fundamental to any free
press. Ironically, by trying to silence those who do not toe the official
line, the government is only helping to underscore the concerns that many
inside and outside of Ethiopia share about the deterioration of democracy
and human rights in that country.
Ethiopia is an important partner for the United States in at least two key
areas: containing the real threat of terrorism in the region, and making
gains against the region's recurring famines and fostering the kind of
development that can bring the cycle of poverty and hunger to an end. The
United States has provided large amounts of assistance in furtherance of
both goals, because a stable, democratic Ethiopia could exert a positive
influence throughout the Horn of Africa and help point the way to a more
peaceful and prosperous future.
That is why President Obama invited Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to last
month's G 8 Summit at Camp David. The subject was food security, and Prime
Minister Meles and the leaders of several other African countries helped
inaugurate a new public-private alliance for nutrition that aims to increase
agricultural production and lift 50 million people out of poverty in the
next 10 years. I can think of nothing that will do more to further peace and
prosperity of the region than this kind of targeted, practical, and
But initiatives like this depend for their success on broad national
consultation, transparency and accountability. Consultation to integrate
ideas from diverse perspectives, transparency to maintain partner confidence
that their investment is reaching its targets, and accountability to ensure
it produces the desired results. And transparency and accountability depend,
in no small part, on a free press.
In Ethiopia, that means enabling journalists like Eskinder Nega to do
their work of reporting and peaceful political participation.
But seven times in Prime Minister Meles's 20-year rule, Mr. Eskinder has
been detained for his reporting. In 2005, he and his journalist wife
Serkalem Fasil were imprisoned for reporting on protests following that
year's disputed national elections. They spent 17 months in prison, their
newspapers were shut down, and Mr. Eskinder has been denied a license to
practice journalism ever since. Yet he carried on, publishing articles
online that highlight the government's denial of human rights and calling
for an end to political repression and corruption.
In some of those articles, Mr. Eskinder specifically criticized the Meles
government for misusing a vaguely-worded 2009 antiterrorism law to jail
journalists and political opponents. Now he stands accused of terrorism. At
his trial, which opened in Addis Ababa on March 6, the government reportedly
offered as evidence against him a video of a town hall meeting in which Mr.
Eskinder discusses the Arab spring and speculates on whether similar
protests were possible in Ethiopia. If convicted, he could face the death
The trial of Eskinder Nega, the imprisonment of several of his colleagues
on similar spurious charges, and the fact that Ethiopia has driven so many
journalists into exile over the last decade has eroded confidence in Prime
Minister Meles' commitment to press freedom and to other individual
liberties that are guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution and fundamental
to any democracy.
The United States and Ethiopia share important interests, and the
administration's fiscal year 2013 budget requests $350 million in assistance
for Ethiopia. However, to the extent that any of that assistance is intended
for the Ethiopian government, the importance of respecting freedom of the
press cannot be overstated. What happens to Mr. Eskinder and other
journalists there will resonate loudly not only in Ethiopia, but also in the
United States Congress.
Received on Sun Jun 17 2012 - 01:22:30 EDT