A court in Ethiopia has convicted a prominent journalist and seven other citizens there, along with 16 who were tried in absentia, of violations of the country’s anti-terrorism law. It was the third case in six months in which journalists were tried under that statute. The United States is deeply concerned about the prosecution primarily of journalists and political activists under the anti-terrorism law. The practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression.
Journalist and online blogger Eskinder Nega was arrested last September and accused of trying to incite violence with a series of articles that he wrote and posted online. He was also videotaped at a town hall meeting discussing the “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries and whether such demonstrations were possible in Ethiopia.Prosecutors said Nega’s activities and those of the other defendants violated the anti-terrorism law because they could encourage others to attempt terrorist acts – charges that all of the defendants denied.
The government has detained Eskinder seven times in all for his writings, part of a disturbing pattern. Including the verdicts last week, 14 of the 17 people convicted under the anti-terrorism law -- not counting those convicted in absentia -- are either journalists or opposition political figures.
Media freedom is under fire in other ways too. The Ethiopian government is blocking access to a growing number of websites – including recently the online international news sites of The Washington Post and The Economist – which restricts the free flow and exchange of information over the internet.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society. When they are restricted, all human rights suffer. That is why the United States has joined its international partners in calling for the end to actions anywhere that have a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression.