By Courtenay Forbes, Global Correspondent for Safe World. December 2013.
Reeyot Alemu is an Ethiopian journalist and teacher who has committed her life to highlighting the corruptions of the Ethiopian government.
In a country where the media is a vehicle for political propaganda, free speech is greatly restricted, Reeyot’s dedication to publicising the suppressions of the government has earned her negative attention from the authorities over the years.
Tenuous Terror Charges and Inhumane Treatment
Reeyot is currently serving a prison sentence under the charge of being involved in terrorist activity. There is an increasing trend within the country of using tenuous terror charges as an umbrella term for incarcerating anyone who speaks out against the inequalities within their society. Reeyot, along with numerous other journalists and political dissidents, have fallen prey to this systematic program of silencing.
The legislation that allows these innocent people to be imprisoned was activated in 2009, ostensibly as an anti-terrorism measure, but has increasingly been used to condemn anyone that the Ethiopian authorities deem to be damaging to their position. A vast land-locked country, Ethiopia is well-known for its disturbing problems with poverty and social inequalities. The party currently in power, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front), has devoted much attention to covering this up. The threat that Reeyot and her colleagues pose to this is evidently treated with zero tolerance.
Reports indicate that since her incarceration, Reeyot has been subjected to solitary confinement, been denied food, family visits and legal advice, as well as being subjected to unfair trials with false evidence. Alarmingly, after being operated on for a benign breast tumour, without proper anaesthetic, Reeyot was immediately taken back to prison without any aftercare, and is now suffering painful complications from this horrendous lack of basic medical care.
The political situation in Ethiopia is renowned for being fraught with fractious relationships and corruption. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising, though no less disturbing, that people such as Reeyot are being treated in such an inhumane way, and being falsely accused of crimes. What is surprising, however, is how little attention this situation is awarded in the world’s media; worryingly little seems to be known about Reeyot and others like her. This is perhaps indicative of the success with which the Ethiopian authorities have kept this problem away from the attention of the international media. Human rights organisations, however, are deeply concerned with the welfare of all those being held under false accusations, and are campaigning for their rights to fair trials, proper access to legal counsel, and safe prison conditions.
Denial of Medical and Legal Rights
The most recent news on Reeyot creates a disturbing picture: suffering complications from her operation, she is in pain and is being denied proper medical care. Her visits by loved ones are greatly restricted, and her father, who is also serving as her lawyer, is banned from giving her any advice in a legal capacity. It is therefore more important than ever that the ongoing campaigns to free Reeyot and the other journalists falsely imprisoned bring much-needed attention to this dire situation.
Imprisonment of Swedish Journalists
Reeyot is a symbol of the oppression being suffered by journalists in Ethiopia. The government uses the fear created by the label ‘terrorist’ to justify this mass-imprisonment. Many others have suffered similar treatment within the country; journalist Martin Schibbye, was imprisoned in Ethiopia, along with photographer Johan Persson, under these terror laws after crossing into the country from the Somali border. Since their release from prison, they have been avid campaigners for the release of these prisoners of conscience.
In a case that gained attention from the international community, Eskinder Nega was similarly committed to bringing the problems with the Ethiopian government to public attention. He suffered a similar fate to Reeyot, and is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence.
The element of this story that gained so much media coverage, however, was the imprisonment of his pregnant wife alongside him on a previous occasion back in 2005. Serkalem Nega was forced to give birth in prison, reinforcing the Ethiopian authorities’ lack of concern with the welfare of these prisoners. Having since fled the danger of her home for the US, Serkalem is carrying out important work to help raise support for her husband’s plight and the many like him.
Foreign Interests and Diplomacy
It is surprising to hear that democratic countries such as the US can be aware of the human rights abuses taking place on a daily basis in Ethiopia. This, however, is the alarming truth. One topic that Reeyot brought attention to was the impact of a proposed dam of the part of the Nile that lies within Ethiopia. Since this is seen as a diplomatic issue between this country and Egypt, the human rights problems that arise out of this plan have been largely ignored by countries not wanting to embroil themselves in any conflicts. The Ethiopian government has been useful to the US authorities in tackling its problems with neighbouring Somalia, and observers from the international community have suggested that this explains America’s apparent leniency towards Ethiopia’s appalling treatment of its prisoners and its use of terror laws.
Ethiopian president Mulatu Teshome has cleverly used the rampant anti-terror sentiment within US policy to justify the condemnation of anyone speaking out against corruption.
Reeyot Alemu is an award-winning journalist who is committed to preserving the rights of the people within her community, and her incarceration under false charges and in such horrendous conditions is inexcusable. Since it appears that political authorities from other countries are not willing to intervene in this situation, it falls to the invaluable human rights campaigners to rally support for Reeyot and all those wrongly imprisoned.
The campaign for Reeyot is picking up speed, and many more people are becoming aware of the dire situation of human rights abuses in Ethiopia. By spreading awareness of these inequalities, enough pressure will eventually be put on the Ethiopian government to answer for its actions, and for other governments to add weight to these demands for justice. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter provide powerful mediums for campaigns such as this one, and in this way everyone is able to make a difference. We must demand justice for Reeyot, Eskinder, and all those who are punished for exercising their right to knowledge and truth.
- Free Reeyot Alemu - Safe World for Women
- Ethiopian journalist on hunger strike - International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF)
- Reeyot Alemu: Imprisoned for defending free speech in Ethiopia - IWMF
- Jailed Ethiopian journalists challenge use of terror laws to silence dissent - Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI)
- MDLI launches fundraising bit for case of Ethiopian journalists
- Ethiopia: 4 Journalists Win Free Speech Prize - Human Rights Watch
- World Report 2013: Ethiopia - Human Rights Watch
- Ethiopia terror convictions an 'affront' to free speech - Amnesty International
- PEN Appeal: Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, and Elias Kifle
- IWMF video: Bob Woodruff presenting Courage in Journalism Award to Reeyot Alemu
- IWMF video: Reeyot Alemu wins 2012 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award
- Amnesty International video: "He's a journalist, not a terrorist"
- PEN America video: Eskinder Nega, recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award
- Anti-Terrorism Proclamation | Born from Power Thirst - by Reeyot Alemu. (IWMF)
- Letter From Ethiopia's Gulag - by Eskinda Nega (New York Times)
- Kerry's Ethiopia Opportunity - by Martin Schibbye and Patrick Griffith (Wall Street Journal)
- Reeyot Alemu: Ethiopia's Jailed Truth Teller - The Daily Beast
- Ethiopian Journalist's last chance for freedom - by Christiane Amanpour and Cynthia McFadden (IWMF)
Courtenay Forbes is studying Ancient History and History.
"Once completing my degree, I will be studying law in London, and then training as a barrister.. I firmly believe real progress must be made by re-educating societies concerning the treatment of women, and bridging the gap between traditions and modern-day human rights."