Sec Kerry travels to Ethiopia: will he bring up press freedom?

gloomy-Ethio-pressSecretary of State John Kerry is in the midst of a week-long trip to three sub-Saharan African nations: Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. There, he will focus on security in the region, especially as it pertains to the Congo. He does not forget an obligatory stop by programs that are a part of the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

But will Kerry remember to press Ethiopia on its press crackdowns when talking to them about democracy?

Last week, six members of the Zone Nine blogging collective were arrested. The bloggers have been critical of the government and its programs. Reports indicate that they are being held in a detention center in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

The group stand accused of inciting public violence through social media and working foreign organizations. The actions were quickly decried by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Kerry’s trip to Ethiopia is garnering attention from the rights groups.

“We hope that Secretary Kerry will recognize that peace and democracy are not compatible with censorship, intimidation, pervasive surveillance, and a crackdown on free expression and independent media,” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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The issue of press freedom is evidently on Sec Kerry’s radar. He responded to a tweet by New York Times journalist Nick Kristof regarding the recent arrests in Ethiopia.

The new developments are the latest in a series of harassment and arrests for Ethiopian press. Reeyot Alemu, was recently included in a list of notable imprisoned journalists around the world, by the Committee to Protect Journalists.  She has spent the last five years in jail after being sentenced for terrorism.

The very same law was used to jail Eskinder Nega for 18 years. The journalist and blogger was sentenced in 2011 and the ruling was upheld two years later. He remained resolute after the appeal loss.

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“The truth will set us free,” said Nega to the public following the ruling. “We want the Ethiopian public to know that the truth will reveal itself, it’s only a matter of time.”

The case did not escape the notice of the US. Then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton deplored the actions taken by the Ethiopian government against the press, in 2012.

“When a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere,” said Clinton.

Despite the rhetoric about upholding rights, Ethiopia still continues to crack down on its press, while receiving aid support from the US, World Bank and elsewhere. The extent with which Kerry will press on the Ethiopian government will have to be seen. The lack of press rights in the country remains an issue that some believe deserves far more attention.

“Intolerant, repressive societies are using anti-state charges and ‘terrorist’ labels to intimidate, detain, and imprison journalists,” explained Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.