(Special to The Root) — After a reunion a few weeks ago in New York with Serkalem Fasil, an Ethiopian journalist and former publisher whose husband Eskinder Nega, also a journalist, is in prison on terrorism charges, I vowed to go to Ethiopia and plead with the government for his release, along with that of several other journalists imprisoned with him. Despite the Ethiopian government's claim that Nega and the other seven journalists are "spies for foreign forces," a wide array of human rights organizations and freedom of the press advocacy groups believe otherwise.
The journalists are there primarily because of their critical reporting, say rights groups, as Nega was when I visited him seven years ago along with Serkalem (who gave birth to their child in prison). And the government has gotten even tougher since then. As many as 150 people reportedly have been arrested since the government passed a sweeping anti-terrorism law in 2009.
I have just spent the weekend in Addis Ababa with two colleagues — Rob Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), on whose board I serve, and Dele Olojede, a board member on the African Media Initiative (AMI), which I co-chair. We had gotten word that the government would meet with us, provided we got beyond where such meetings have been in the past: criticism of the government's record on press freedom and intense condemnation by journalists, human rights advocates and some Western governments.
And while we had every intention of being critical of journalists' incarceration and calling for their release, we believed we could go beyond that with the participation of both CPJ, which fights for press freedom all over the world, and AMI, which helps media owners and journalists to be the best they can be, with workshops and other kinds of professional assistance.
A few hours after arriving in the country, we were welcomed at the Ministry of Information and spent the next two hours with the minister, Simon Bereket, who is said to be a power within the government. And while the meeting was cordial, the minister held fast to the government position that journalists had not been prosecuted for what they had written, but for what he termed as an effort to protect the country from terrorists. (There have been some terrorist attacks inside the country, arising primarily from tensions with neighboring Eritrea, with which Ethiopia fought a border war in 1998 that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Also, several al-Qaida suspects were arrested and charged in May with plotting against the government.)
We asked for but failed to get permission to meet with the prisoners to hear their side of the story. But before we met the minister, we had spent some time with Fasil. She said that during an earlier visit to the prison to take her husband food — prison food is sparse — Nega asked her to tell us that under no circumstances was he connected to or supportive of any terrorist organization, inside or outside the country. One of his alleged crimes was to speculate in his blog about whether an Arab Spring-type movement would take place in Ethiopia.
In April, the Ethiopian government, which owns the printing house used by many private newspapers, made printers liable for any content that could be deemed illegal under the terrorism laws. The journalists insist this action puts still another obstacle in the way of freedom of speech. We raised this with the minister, who denied any form of censorship at the printing press.
In keeping with our word that we would get beyond condemnation, AMI proposed the government join the journalists with whom we had met and commit to participating in an AMI-sponsored seminar and workshop that would, in the words of Dele Olojede, "bring together all stakeholders, with the aim of strengthening independent media in Ethiopia." It is a process AMI has carried out in a number of African countries, including some of Ethiopia's neighbors. The minister told us the government would be willing to participate. He also told us: "If there are problems in implementation of any law, the government is ready to sit down and review."
In closing our meeting with the minister, I emphasized that in no democracy that I know of is there ever a lovefest between the media and the government. But in order to have a democracy that lives up to its principles, it is important that they co-exist in good times and in bad.
For the good of this young democracy, we each encouraged the minister to let our people — his people — go. The final disposition of the imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega is due on June 21.
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.