“You may be really surprised by our nonsensical imprisonment,” Reeyot Alemu wrote in a letter recently smuggled out of a prison in Addis Ababa, “The international community should be aware of the objective reality that we are burdened to live a life which is inexplicable to contemplate, let alone easily engage with.”
In 2011, Ms. Reeyot, a schoolteacher, columnist and political activist, was convicted of conspiring to commit terrorist acts across Ethiopia and sentenced to 14 years in prison; her sentence was subsequently reduced to five years. At present she and at least six other journalists remain imprisoned, while at least 49 journalists have fled the country as a consequence of government intimidation according to the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ).
Ms. Reeyot was awarded the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2013 and the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award last year, Woubshet Taye, sentenced to 14 years, was recently awarded the CNN Free Press Africa award this year, while Eskinder Nega, sentenced to 18 years on terror charges was awarded a PEN America press freedom award in 2012.
The Ethiopian government denies it is stifling free expression, and maintains that the three prisoners have not been targeted for their writings, but rather for associating with terrorists, and have condemned international campaigns demanding their release as an attack on Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
“No one convicted by a sovereign nation as a terrorist could be glorified and awarded with awards. That is an insult to the sovereignty of the nation,” said Communications Minister, Redwan Hussein in an interview, "They have not been accused for their writings...it is because they were guilty of working with terrorists."
The alleged attacks on Ethiopia’s press, and the government’s denials, are part of a broader struggle between the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), that has ruled the country since 1991 and controls 99 per cent of the current parliament, and besieged opposition groups that have variously allied with the media, international rights groups and the diaspora.
Rights groups have criticized the 2009 anti-terrorism law, under which most journalists have been prosecuted, for its excessively expansive definitions of terrorism and support to terrorists.
Reeyot Alemu was born on June 21, 1980, the eldest of Alemu Gobebo Anjejo’s three children. “She worked as columnist for Feteh newspaper and was editor of Change magazine,” Mr. Alemu said, “She wrote on gender equality, and wrote against the government and corruption.”
A retired lawyer and opposition politician, Mr. Alemu carries a folder familiar to those with imprisoned loved ones: charge-sheets, a short biography, and a well-thumbed copy of the Constitution with the section on freedom of expression marked by three asterisks.
Ms. Reeyot was targeted, he feels, when she said the government was forcing civil servants to contribute towards the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydropower project that has become a potent symbol of Ethiopia’s resurgent nationalism. The government says the contributions are voluntary.
“There is a line you don’t cross,” said Sileshi Berhe, Reeyot’s fiancée, “You can criticise officials and ministers but you cannot criticise government policies.”
In 2011, Ms. Reeyot was arrested and charged with conspiring, with journalist Woubshet Taye and exiled opposition activist Elias Kifle, to attack critical telecommunication and electrical infrastructure like telephone and electricity cables. Mr. Sileshi said he was held without charge for 3 months in a bid to make him testify against his fiancée.
The prosecution stated that the Eritrean government and variety of proscribed groups like GINBOT 7, headed by exiled former opposition leader Berhanu Nega, had funded Mr. Kifle in his quest to foment instability in Ethiopia.
A bank transfer from Mr. Elias to Ms. Reeyot as payment for articles she wrote for Mr. Kifle’s website, Ethiopian Review, was presented as evidence along with a photograph of anti-government graffiti that she mailed him.
“Reeyot is one of many journalists I know,” Mr. Kifle, who was sentenced in absentia, said in an email, “The reason they threw her in jail is because she was investigating the corruption and lack of transparency surrounding the Nile dam project.”
Media watchers say the regime’s attitude to the press hardened after the contested 2005 elections in which scores of anti-government protestors were killed and thousands arrested after the opposition alleged the vote was rigged. The press contributed to rising inter-ethnic tensions.
“I don’t agree with some of the ways in which the government deals with the press,” said Daniel Berhane, a pro-regime commentator, “But that is a result of legitimate fears and bad experiences.”
Recently, Mr. Daniel’s blog ran a four-part series on Eskinder Nega, a jailed dissident, highlighting instances of such racial fear mongering by a columnist in a paper partly owned by Mr. Eskinder.
Mohamed Keita, advocacy coordinator for CPJ, pointed out that Mr. Eskinder had not authored the pieces, and ascribed Mr. Daniel’s actions to a smear campaign against “a journalist who has become the global face of repressed Ethiopians.”
In a letter published in the New York Times this year, Mr. Eskinder denied that he had conspired to overthrow the government. “All I did was report on the Arab Spring and suggest that something similar might happen in Ethiopia if the authoritarian regime didn’t reform,” he wrote, “The state’s main evidence against me was a YouTube video of me, saying this at a public meeting.”
Mr. Eskinder asked the US to impose economic sanctions on Ethiopia and travel bans on officials accused of human rights violations.
While prominent dissidents have been pardoned in the past, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn bristled at suggestions international pressure could influence his government. “They say there are some who can help them from the international community,” he said, at a recent press conference, “This is a foolish kind of thinking. I tell you no one can rescue them when they trespass the law.”
“What is to be done?” asked Ms. Reeyot in one of her last articles, “stay firm in our convictions, a bright day will not be too far.”