Press TV has conducted an interview with Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists, from New York, about Ethiopia cracking down on freedom of press and independent journalism critical of the Ethiopian government.
The following is an approximate transcript of the interview.
Press TV: How would you characterize the government’s relationship with journalists in Ethiopia at the moment?
How concerned are you about individuals like Eskinder Nega who is serving an 18 year term; Woubshet Taye, 14 years; a very famous case of Reeyot Alemu – 1,000 days and counting, in prison; and then of course as mentioned in the report Somali journalist Mohamed Aweys Mudey sentenced to 27 years in prison – starting that sentence in February.
Keita: Yes we are extremely pre-occupied by the health especially of Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye. Their health has deteriorated in custody and they have been denied adequate medical attention.
Authorities have also conducted reprisals against them hardening or harshening the detention conditions; or moving them from prison to prison; or denying family visits.
And we are extremely pre-occupied because unfortunately Ethiopia has already a precedent where back in 1998 a journalist dies after being denied adequate medical attention while in jail. That journalist was also in jail for writing articles. So there is a very sad precedent.
Press TV: Ethiopia is not the only country that jails journalists of course. Why do you think these particular journalists have been imprisoned? There are many others who operate in the country and who haven’t caught the attention of the authorities?
Keita: Yes, these journalists are some of the most prominent in Ethiopia and we believe they were jailed in order to silence others.
Press TV: What was wrong with what they wrote though – in terms of their journalism? Because this is the critical factor isn’t it – when the government notices you then it’s something you’ve written that they disagree with. What was wrong with what they wrote?
Keita: There is absolutely nothing wrong with anything they wrote. Anyone can consult and read the articles they have written. Eskinder’s articles are available in English his words are very clear. They wrote about the issues of the day-to-day Ethiopians face: lack of democracy; the corruption; the ruling power’s abuse of power.
Issues that everybody knows, they just articulated those issues in a very public way. They did not have secret meetings – We look at the evidence presented by government prosecutors in all these cases and they amount to articles they wrote.
And none of these journalists called for violence; none of them called for people to get on the streets.
In the case of Eskinder, he wrote about the implications of the Arab Spring in Ethiopia for Ethiopia’s pro-democracy movement and basically he stated that if the government does not do democratic reform it is increasing the likelihood of popular protests.
Press TV: Is one of the problems for these journalistic organizations in Ethiopia campaigning for press freedom – and their funding and support often comes from outside from organizations such as yours – the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), so the Ethiopian government can then say, oh look, you’re serving a foreign interest, a foreign agenda instead of supporting a government?
Keita: First of all I want to correct that. CPJ does not fund any press organization around the world.
Press TV: Not you, but there are organizations which do support journalistic organizations or bodies within Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.
Keita: That is a false argument given the fact that the Ethiopian government relies on extensive external support to fund its own operation and to feed its people. That is just selective outrage and that is a non-issue, really, that is an excuse.
As far as most of the other press unions existing in Ethiopia they are all funded and controlled by the government underhanded. So, they’re not really independent press unions; they are not really campaigning to free the journalists or defending press freedom in the country; they are in fact echoing the government’s own rhetoric around this.
The government has been very good at spreading confusion here and there and they do not have the moral high standard to lecture anybody on journalism given the fact that the state media and the pro-government media regularly prints editorials and columns with naked slander branding independent journalists as terrorists, as traitors, as individuals involved in activities with al-Shabab.The level of propaganda and smear campaigns by state media is absolutely disgusting.
And so it’s hypocritical of them to point the finger at the private press and say the private press is unethical and not reporting truths.
Press TV: What do you think the next step is then because these journalists aren’t getting out of jail anytime soon despite the pressure you and other international organizations put on Addis Ababa (capital)?
Keita: Well, I think the solution is in the hands of the Ethiopian government. They know what they should be doing and it’s sad that it’s going to take longer for them to really realize that they are against history because the trend is towards freedom, it’s a natural impulse.
And even China, which the Ethiopian government is copying – even in China, China is trending towards more freedom because the Chinese leaders are understanding that in order to full economic development they need to relax a little bit.
So, hopefully the Ethiopian government will get it, but in the meantime the longer they keep these journalists the louder the voices for their release will grow.
Jailing journalists is really a statement of fear. We understand that. The Ethiopian government was fearful when the Arab spring begun and that this was in reaction to it fearing that they would face an uprising.
So it’s really a message that they should relax and with all the power that they enjoy already.