Ethiopian journalists languish in prison : Q&A Al Jazeera

Government in Addis Ababa refuses to release award-winning journalists jailed under Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

As Al Jazeera presses ahead with its campaign to free its journalists detained in Egypt, nine Ethiopian journalists who are receiving less attention continue to languish in prison, held on trumped-up charges of terrorism, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

To mark the 900th day of the imprisonment of award-winning journalist Eskinder Nega, who is serving an 18-year jail term, and the 36th birthday of Woubshet Taye, jailed for 14 years, Al Jazeera speaks to Nani Jansen of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, a London-based NGO that helps journalists around the world defend their rights.

Serkalem Fasil, baby son Nafkot and husband Eskinder Nega, who was imprisoned in 2012
Serkalem Fasil, baby son Nafkot and husband Eskinder Nega, who was imprisoned in 2012


Al Jazeera: What are the charges Woubshet Taye and Eskinder Nega are facing?

Nani Jansen: Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye and many other journalists in Ethiopia, such as Reeyot Alemu, have been charged and convicted under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, a deeply flawed law that is being used by the Ethiopian government to systematically suppress free speech in the country.

Because of their work as a journalist, they were deemed to be “participating in a terrorist organisation”. In fact, Eskinder was explicitly said to have “used his right to free expression as a cover for terrorism” and most of the so-called evidence presented in the criminal proceedings against them consisted of their journalistic writing.

AJ: What kind of legal assistance are they receiving?

NJ: Mr Nega is currently representing himself, having decided after his initial conviction that he was better off that way. He filed for an appeal in cassation (the last possible resort in Ethiopia) in May 2013 – he is still waiting for a hearing date.

Mr Taye decided not to appeal his conviction and has been hoping for a pardon. So far, the government has refused to grant him one.

AJ: What has MLDI done or is doing to have these journalists freed?

The Media Legal Defence Initiative has started several international legal proceedings to get Eskinder, Woubshet, and a number of their colleagues released from prison. A series of complaints has been filed with a UN body that has competence to address violations of the right to free speech. The procedure is confidential, I’m sorry; I cannot say which UN body.

More importantly, a complaint has been filed at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on behalf of Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, challenging the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation as such. In their complaint, Mr Nega and Ms Alemu not only present their own case, but demonstrate that there is a pattern of prosecution of journalists under the law.

They have asked the Commission to refer the case to the African Court, which can issue a binding decision saying that Ethiopia’s laws violate international law. This would be an important step for all journalists in Ethiopia. MLDI is representing Mr Nega and Ms Alemu in these proceedings, together with the US-based NGO Freedom Now.

AJ: Ethiopia is notorious for persecuting and jailing critical journalists. Tell us about the working environment for journalists in Ethiopia… Read More on Al Jazeera


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