Ethiopian Journalist Gets 18 Years in Prison

Eskinder Nega received a sentence that spared his life but could spell death for press freedom.


Today the EPRDF remains the predominant political party in Ethiopia by a wide margin. In 2010 it and affiliated parties won 545 of 547 seats in Parliament, giving it a fourth consecutive five-year term — affirmed by some observers, questioned and/or criticized by others.

Still, under the EPRDF, a constitution was created that included the right to freedom of speech. But in a chilling scenario that is starting to look in some ways like the era of Mengistu, the government passed an anti-terrorism law in 2009 that supersedes the constitutional guarantees and leaves little doubt that it is being used to silence dissent.

The U.S. government, among others, has criticized the law as well as the sentences handed down most recently: “The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.”

Before Nega’s sentencing, the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement saying this: “Not only does the Ethiopian government misuse national security laws, but its actions devalue its standing in the international community.”

But the U.S. and other Western nations, which rely on Ethiopia’s pivotal role in fighting real terrorists in the Horn of Africa, conceivably could do more than give verbal condemnations. The U.S. government is at the top of the list of international donors that contributed an average of $3.5 billion in aid to Ethiopia between 2008 and 2010, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spoke out against the crackdown on journalists, writing, “It’s time to put the values and principles that distinguish us from terrorists, above aid to a government that misuses its institutions to silence its critics.”

Sources at the Committee to Protect Journalists tell me that Nega will appeal the sentence.  Maybe, in the coming days, those with a vested interest in Ethiopia’s real security will weigh in, and maybe the powers that be in Ethiopia will be reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “The time is always ripe to do right.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.

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