Ethiopian PM Dies: Will Press Freedom Live?

With the death of Meles Zenawi, the government crackdown on journalists could end -- or intensify.

Meles Zenawi (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
Meles Zenawi (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

I wondered if the prime minister even knew we were there. In fact, I wonder now if he was there. The vacuum created by lack of information often leads down the path to speculation, and that is in no way a desirable way to inform the public — so let me exit that road quickly!

Nega isn’t the only journalist to feel the sting of a government grown harsher toward its critics since it promulgated a terrorism law in 2009 that superseded the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. Many are serving time in prison with Nega, and some have fled to country to avoid the same fate. Ethiopian journalists we met with this year told us when we were there that the terrorism law was a “game changer” that has them constantly at risk of the same fate as Nega and other imprisoned journalists. And yet, a courageous few soldier on with the only weapons they have: their pens and their computers.

Nega plans to appeal his sentence, and it may not be too late for the Ethiopian government to reconsider the path it is on. One step it could take to ensure a doubting world of its commitment to democracy is to free Nega and all the imprisoned journalists.   

What remains a mystery is what role Meles Zenawi had in the crackdown on the journalists. Was he spearheading it or going along with it? In the coming days, weeks and months, there are two scenarios that could unfold to answer the question: the democratic space could shrink ever more, or it could expand in a way that restores the democratic promise in Ethiopia’s constitution. 

Ethiopians the world over and those of us who champion freedom of the press are hoping for the latter, for the sake of that beautiful country and for all of the people who inhabit it.

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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