The African Union celebrates 50 years in Addis Ababa against a backdrop of soaring infrastructure and booming economic growth which project the image of Africa rising. On the outskirts of the city however, stands a notorious prison filled with people who should not be there: leading Ethiopian dissidents and journalists. For the political capital of Africa, this is a shameful blemish, but it also provides an opportunity for the African Union to recognize freedom, equality, and justice for all as the basis, not consequence, of peace, stability and economic development for the next 50 years.
This month, the Africa Progress Panel, a group of experts who analyze and advocate for the region’s development, noted in their annual report that accountable government, transparency, and the rule of law are essential to further strides in reducing conflict, poverty, joblessness, and inequality. These values are also central to the African Union’s charter, which states that “freedom, equality, justice, and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples.”
Notwithstanding, cynicism from the growing pains of democracy and the seduction of an authoritarian development model have led some AU member governments, including Ethiopia, to divorce economic progress from political freedoms.
Ethiopia’s rulers self-style after China’s Communist Party. Whilst trumpeting economic growth, they restrict the press and the Internet, and balk at ideals of democracy and press freedom as Western impositions, even though these values are enshrined in their own constitution. Fearing a domestic popular uprising in the early months of the Arab Spring in 2011, authorities arrested a number of leading journalists, including Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, and Woubshet Taye.
When I met the journalist Reeyot Alemu, she was handcuffed on a prison bus from the Magistrate’s Court, where the prosecution repeatedly filed 28-day extensions to keep political prisoners in custody without charge or access to legal counsel. “What do you do?” I asked. “I am a journalist,” she replied. “We are not alone. We are many political prisoners here accused for terrorism.” She pointed out the cells to our left, right, and opposite. “If you are released, tell the world I am not a terrorist but a journalist working for the truth. I wish you luck, the both of you.” At that moment, I realized that my colleague, Johan Persson and I, had been ensnared in a major crackdown against free speech in Ethiopia.
Today Ethiopia stands in defiance of a resolution of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which condemned the state’s crackdown on journalists, civil society members, and political dissidents. The country is, sadly, not alone. Eskinder, Reeyot and Woubshet are among some 40 journalists behind bars across Africa primarily for investigating corruption or human rights abuses, or raising questions about environmental degradation, public spending, or government secrecy. Reporting on such topics challenges powerful, vested interests who resort to various means to silence journalists. These range from accusations of tarnishing the good image of the country, sensationalism, and unprofessionalism, to imprisonment under charges of inciting public disorder, even treason or terrorism. While journalists may bear the brunt of these measures, the effect is to silence entire communities. If unchecked, this form of authoritarian governance leaves behind a lasting chill that slows social development and innovation.
Journalists face pressure to “promote” a good image of Africa in response to Western media’s tendency to focus on wars, political unrest, or natural disasters. “These are the images that we must aggressively seek to banish from the global media space and sphere about Africa,” Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta recently declared. Journalists “have the duty to tell the true story of our region and promote our collective desire for peace, security, and development,” Rwanda’s leader Paul Kagame told a gathering at the East Africa Media Forum in 2012. This view fails to recognize that journalists are at the service of public interest. Speaking truth to power is the highest exercise of patriotism. Ultimately, it is in the interest of Africans to support and build a vibrant watchdog press with the freedom to report on political and economic developments–both the good and bad, without pressure from narrow political or business interests.
Although we were in different cells, Reeyot helped me through the long days of confinement and uncertainty. Even locked in a dark room, deprived of the freedom to speak or move, together with the other inmates, we kept the most valuable thing that nobody can take from us: the right to determine who you are. Every morning we woke up and said to each other: We are journalists, not terrorists … this is just another day at the office. And whenever I saw her pass our cell I shouted: “The world is watching!”
Now, the world’s spotlight is indeed on the AU celebration and optimism is undeniably in the air. Look no further than the writings of Eskinder, the persecuted Ethiopian journalist serving an 18-year prison sentence on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government would have the world believe that Eskinder is a dangerous man inciting violent revolution, but his thoughtful critiques of the government articulate a hopeful vision of the future for Ethiopia and Africa. “It’s easy to complain about the things we do not have. No freedom. Raging inflation. Rising unemployment. Rampant corruption. A delusional ruling party. An uncertain year ahead of us,” he wrote in 2011, days before his most recent arrest. “But consider the exciting prospects:  could be the year when we, too, like the majority of our fellow Africans, will have a government by the people, for the people…. The gist of the matter is that there are ample reasons to hope.”
The African Union will better serve Africa as its member governments become more accountable to their citizens. A free, vibrant independent press and the open dispensation of competing ideas are necessary to make the noble goals of the African Union a reality.
Martin Schibbye is Swedish journalist who together with the photographer Johan Persson was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Both were pardoned after 14 months of confinement. Schibbye is writing a book about his 438 days as a prisoner.
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several panels.
Excerpts of this post were previously published in Africa Review.