(The Root) — The news this week that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died — of a "sudden infection," according to state TV — did not exactly come as a shock. For weeks there were rumors that he was ailing. When I was in Washington, D.C., recently, taking cabs to and from the Convention Center during the International AIDS Conference, as I engaged Ethiopian cab drivers about their country, to a person they all told me the prime minister was "dying of brain cancer."
It is not information I would have taken to the bank, but it did add a bit to the mystery of why the prime minister didn't meet with a delegation of which I was a part that visited Addis Ababa earlier this summer to plead for the release of journalists imprisoned on terrorism charges.
At that time, when I asked if our three-person delegation representing the Committee to Protect Journalists and the African Media Initiative could meet with the prime minister, I was told he was busy with budgetary matters. That could have been true. But the minister of information, Simon Bereket, who met with us then, also more recently denied that Zenawi was ill, even as the prime minister was presumably dying.
That surprised me, because when we visited Ethiopia in 2006, on a similar mission, while the prime minister was busy with a lingering trouble with neighboring Eritrea and Somalia, he readily agreed to meet with us and spoke unhurriedly, openly and candidly, acknowledging there was "poison" in relations between the press and the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. He also told us then that the government would work to change the situation. We quoted the prime minister in our CPJ news alert, saying: "The government has to talk to the private press, whatever the character of the private press."
Moreover, Zenawi granted us rare access to Kaliti Prison, where we were allowed to visit imprisoned journalists, who at the time included Eskinder Nega, who was released much further down the line. Nega is once again behind bars, sentenced last month to 18 years for what the prosecution claimed was an attempt to foment revolution in Ethiopia — a charge he has consistently denied. This time, we were told by Minister Bereket, with whom we met, that he didn't think there was enough time to arrange a visit to Kaliti Prison. Still, we waited in hope, but ultimately in vain, as we boarded our bus to the Addis Ababa airport to return to the U.S.
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.