Suomi/Africa
Perspectives from Africa,
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Understanding Africa

Representing Africans

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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Exploited and imprisoned: Alemu, the award-winning Ethiopian journalist

“Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”

Those were the words of award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu before she was arrested and imprisoned. Alemu was in prison when she turned 34 on 21 January 2014. But before she was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined 33,000 birrs (about US$1,850), she suffered practically two weeks in friendless detention at home. She was arrested on 21 June 2011 from the school that she taught and was oppressed before she was thrown into the prison. She was later charged with arson and teaching and organising terrorism. Those close to her said that the English class teacher cum journalist was being humiliated for the simple reason that she did a critique that opposed the method with which the ruling political party was raising funds for a national dam project. While the government labeled her a terrorist, it was obvious that it did not give the name of the type of terrorists’ group she was a member or was helping in the alleged activities.

“Government prosecutors presented articles Alemu had written criticising the prime minister, as well as telephone tête-à-têtes she had regarding peaceful protests, as evidence against her,” acording to the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). This was seen as a case of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang her by many. In what people and groups thought was a reprieve that had come her way, Alemu’s 14-year sentence was reduced to five years and almost all the initial charges against her were dropped in an appeal court in August 2012, but she was not released from prison.

“Alemu is one in a number of journalists who have been prosecuted under the vaguely worded and broad-reaching anti-terrorism laws passed by the Ethiopian legislature in 2009. The laws allow for the arrest of anyone thought to 'encourage' parties labeled as terrorists,” decried IWMF.

A prohibited press

Award-winning Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu (Photo: IWMI),

Investigation has revealed that no person was initially allowed to visit Alemu in the prison upon her deteriorating health. Not even her fiancé was allowed. But there was a sanction later that only her father and mother were allowed to visit her. On their visits, one thing that Alemu would not want her beloved ones to do was to seek for pardon from the authorities for her. It was observable that many journalists in Ethiopia were suffering the same fate as Alemu’s in different prisons. This has caused different international organisations and persons to characterise Ethiopia as a dangerous country for media operatives, one in which the free press is prohibited.

“PEN American Center believes that Woubshet Taye, Reeyot Alemu, and Elias Kifle have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory…” bemoaned PEN American Center.

PEN American Center consequently remonstrated against the apparent unsympathetic sentences given down to the detained journalists and called for the instantaneous and unrestricted liberation of them.

Ethiopia ostensibly was using charges such as treason and terrorism in making sure that journalists were not given the liberty for effective media coverage and that sources of information were punishable. Hence, journalists like Alemu who were bent on exposing the perceived ills in the government functionaries, were being oppressed and thrown into the prison.

Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, Claire Beston, said, “This is an affront to freedom of expression.”

Hear the Committee to Protect Journalists: “Ethiopia has refused to comply with a decision by the UN special rapporteur on torture in the case of Reeyot.”

Comments on confinement

While the country was supposedly not friendly to its journalists, this did not deter the international media groups to throw their weight behind journalists in the country, while at the same time downsizing the laws of the country that are against journalists, as inimical and unfriendly. Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2012 that Ethiopia was one country where second to none tyrannical attitudes were meted out to journalists. Friends and well-wishers of Alemu were especially on Twitter sympathising with her using the hashtag #ReeyotAlemu to express their support for her.

From Twitter to Facebook to Petition Pages, the world’s people were showing her gratitude and wishing her safe recovery. Some of their comments as at 16 March 2014, when she marked 1,000 days in prison, read: “Hope the world cares about her too!”, “Yet to see any campaign, Reeyot Alemu marks 1000 days in prison”, “Government of Ethiopia continues to show weakness and paranoia as journalist like Reeyot Alemu scare the daylight out of it; free her!”, “She is denied family visits”.

Some believed that she was not supposed to be imprisoned since it was about democracy; it was supposed to be about freedom of speech, which should be personal. Others believed that she was imprisoned due to the alleged injustice of the case she unraveled in her journalistic work. Others believed: “Innocent journalist and a teacher has to be free and get treated of her illness”, “I have a strong desire to see her healthy, strong, and free…”

Alemu's health has deteriorated in prison

Media freedom for an award-winning female

In 2012, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) conferred a Courage in Journalism Award on Alemu, although, in absentia, for what was described as:“refusal to self- censor in a place where that practice in standard, and her unwillingness to apologise for truth- telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.”

The IWMF, however, read a memo said was from Alemu that had been sneaked out of the detention-centre, and it read: “For EPRDF [Ethiopia’s ruling party], journalists must be propaganda machines.

“While organisations such as the IWMF may not have the political clout to provide direct protection or effect instant change in situations like Alemu’s, the value of international attention should not be underestimated.”

According to the IWMF, Alemu had said in an earlier interview with the group: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future...Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”

Her breast was said to be bleeding in the prison, but her father - Alemu Gobebo - who was a lawyer, was not allowed to have entrée to her as a lawyer but only as a father. “Alemu is deeply concerned about his daughter. She has a tumour in one of her breasts. Her breast is bleeding but her condition is not being monitored,” said a concerned journalists’ group. She was a lady with a bright future in her chosen careers. Alemu was not just one term award- winning journalist, she had won numerous awards that comprise the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the Hellman/Hammett award, and the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award; she was a finalist of the 2013 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Not even her father-lawyer was allowed to give her legal counsel or any other jurist. She was denied what was supposed to be her fundamental rights within the period she was in the house arrest. Health experts were worried if the tumour she had developed on one of her breasts was gentle or cruel. Her health condition was of serious concern to the people and groups and the world that were aware of her incarceration. Different persons and groups had apparently sent their petitions in relation to Alemu’s imprisonment to these persons and offices: Mr Frank William La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Ms Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences; Mr Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Ambassador Tekeda Alemu, Permanent Representative of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to the United Nations…

Part of their petitions read, “As you will be aware, the detention of Ms Reeyot Alemu – Ethiopian journalist, contravenes international law on at least two major accounts: Denial of proper medical treatment – Ms Reeyot Alemu has a suspected breast lump and her father (a lawyer) recently reported that her breast is bleeding. Under international law, denial of medical assessment for possible breast cancer constitutes wickedness…” 

Odimegwu Onwumere, a Poet/Writer from Rivers State, Nigeria