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If a journalist is arrested in Ethiopia and jailed for 18 years, does he make a sound?

Eskinder Nega was arrested after raising questions about arrests under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation in September 2011. Now he serves an 18 year sentence thanks to the very law he questioned.

“The Ethiopian government is treating calls for peaceful protest as a terrorist act and is outlawing the legitimate activity of journalists and opposition members,” said Amnesty International‘s Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston at the time of sentencing.

Rights groups raised attention to the use of the law to circumvent speech and dissent. Nearly a year later, Nega remains in jail. His attempt to appeal the ruling two weeks ago failed. The judge upheld the sentencing decision, saying it was correct.

“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.”

A year and a half of truth later and Nega is still in jail. He is not the lone victim of Ethiopia’s crackdown of opposition figures and abuse of its terrorism law. Ethiopia is one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist. 79 journalists fled Ethiopia between 2001 and 2011, the most of any country in the world. The press freedom index categorized Ethiopia among the most difficult countries for press.

Despite the clear violation of Nega’s speech rights, the issue has sparked little attention.

“There would be a lot of attention if there was a story about a Western person having their rights violated in such an egregious way,” says NYU professor Bill Easterly. “There doesn’t seem to be the same standard for poor people.”

It hearkens to a recent letter by Nega and published on Facebook shortly after losing his appeal.

“Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine de te tabula narratur. “Change only the name and this story is also about you.” Where ever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too,” he writes.

Easterly says that the truth has done little to alter assistance offered by the likes of the United States government and the World Bank to the Ethiopian government. Easterly, alongside prominent human rights leaders, penned pair of OpEds in the New York Review of Books in 2012 to draw attention to the jailing of Nega and the lack of action by the international community.

We therefore call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s Western allies to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent. We also urge the US to ensure that our more than $600 million in aid to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.

Sen. Patrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy
US Senate

Ethiopia is an important country to the United States because of terrorism in the region. Diffusing the power and impact of groups like al Shabaab in Somalia has been aided through the support of Ethiopia. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made that point in response to Nega’s sentencing and urged the Obama administration to act in a more deliberate manner given the hundreds of millions of dollars the US gives Ethiopia each year.

“The trial of Eskinder Nega, the imprisonment of several of his colleagues on similar spurious charges, and the fact that Ethiopia has driven so many journalists into exile over the last decade has eroded confidence in Prime Minister Meles’ commitment to press freedom and to other individual liberties that are guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution and fundamental to any democracy,” said the Senator.

A private report from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, made available this April by Freedom Now, investigated the Negra case. The investigators determined that Ethiopia is using its terrorism law to jail individuals who oppose the present government. The jail term for Nega violates a series of international rules, say the group. They conclude by calling for the government to take immediate action and release Nega.

The State Department signaled that it was paying attention by issuing a short release condemning the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia and reiterating what then Secretary of State Clinton said earlier on the issue of press freedom.

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

That is why the United States joins its global partners in calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists in every country across the globe and for the end to intimidation.”

Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department Patrick Ventrell reiterated concerns by the agency in regards to the lost appeal. When asked what the United States was doing in regards to the situation, Ventrell said the concerns have been raised. Pushed further to comment whether the lack of action would postpone a potential visit to Ethiopia by Secretary Kerry, Ventrell dismissed the possibility.

On the whole, public pressure on the US state department is moving the needle on the issue.

“This year’s Human Rights Report on Ethiopia contains the clearest, least ambiguous condemnation of Ethiopia we’ve ever seen,” said Africa Advocacy Coordinator for the Committee to Project Journalists, Mohamed Keita to Humanosphere. “The rebuke has grown sharper, and in my opinion, the State Dept has gone as far it can, without upsetting the other, more powerful players in the relationship.”

Ketia and Easterly both agreed that human rights are often an issue of less concern. Ketia pointed towards the relative stability of Ethiopia as a reason why it is hard for advocates to get more attention onto the country. It is possible that the rise of China in Africa, with its own rights violations, is providing reason to place rights below diplomatic priorities. Rights are pushed back further with so much of US aid to Ethiopia dedicated to improving food security and responding to problems related to hunger.

“The country appears stable, precisely because the government systematically quashes public discontent and suppresses news and information it. For instance, the peaceful protests of the country’s Muslim community against what they called government interference in religious affairs. The same information vacuum exists when it comes to information about the low-level insurgency in the Ogaden,” explained Keita.

Another journalist in Ethiopia was arrested on Thursday. This time for writing an article about the wife of late prime minister Meles Zenawi, seven months ago. Ethiopian journalist Ferew Abebe, editor-in-chief of the weekly publication Sendek, stands accused of defaming the nation’s former first lady.

CPJ says seven journalists are in Ethiopian prisons right now. A letter by Nega published on Facebook following his lost appeal shows his resilience in the face of injustice.

“I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!” ends Nega his letter.


About Author

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]