January 4, 2013 — It was only a matter of time before Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was sent to prison. Her country has become one of the most oppressive in the world for press freedom, with numbers of jailed journalists rising steadily each year.
Alemu was arrested on June 21, 2011, and accused of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization under the controversial 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Based on no evidence other than her articles criticizing the Ethiopian government, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in Ethiopia’s notoriously ill-maintained Kaliti prison.
Although the U.S. government has expressed concerns about “the extent to which Ethiopians can rely upon their constitutionally guaranteed rights to afford the protection that is a fundamental element of a democratic society”, Ethiopia remains a key U.S. ally in its battle against al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, which some believe has resulted in an unduly lenient attitude towards Ethiopia’s human rights violations.
The arrest of Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, two Swedish journalists, made evident the damage to its reputation the Ethiopian government was willing to accept in its effort to silence independent reporters. They were picked up after crossing the Somali-Ethiopian border illegally while reporting on ONLF rebels and the humanitarian situation in the closed Ogaden region. The 14-month-long diplomatic tug of war under the watchful eye of the international media ended when Schibbye and Persson were pardoned and released in September 2012 after they admitted guilt and were sentenced to eleven years in prison.
Reeyot Alemu refused to admit guilt in exchange for clemency and has, instead, appealed the verdict. In August 2012, to the surprise of many experts in the diplomatic community, and in part due to the international attention Alemu has received, including winning the 2012 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, two charges against her were dropped and her sentence was reduced to five years. Alemu hasn’t given up – her court dates have been postponed numerous times but there is still a chance that the appeals court will decide to drop the remaining terrorism charges against her on Tuesday, January 8th.
“Reeyot is young and well-educated. She could have easily left her country or chosen a different career – but she loves Ethiopia and her profession. She always held her head high and she gave me strength”, Martin Schibbye said in an interview with the IWMF.
The first time he met Reeyot Alemu was on a prison bus from Makelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, to the Magistrate’s Court where the prosecution repeatedly filed 28-day extensions to keep political prisoners in custody without charge. “What do you do?”, Schibbye remembered asking Alemu on their first encounter. “I am a journalist”, she replied. They quickly realized that everyone on that bus was a journalist or a politician from the opposition and that they were all charged with a crime they hadn’t committed: terrorism. “That was the moment when we realized that we had ended up in a major crackdown against free speech in Ethiopia”, Schibbye told the IWMF.
Despite being separated from each other for the majority of their time in prison, the journalists in Kaliti felt a strong bond and built an emotional support network to help each other through their long days of confinement and uncertainty. “Even locked up in a dark room without shoelaces, deprived of your freedom of expression as well as your physical freedom, you can still keep the most valuable thing that nobody can take from you: 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”, Schibbye said.
After spending 438 days in the custody of Ethiopian authorities and closely monitoring the cases of his Ethiopian journalistic colleagues, Schibbye delivers a damning verdict on the state of democracy in Ethiopia. “There is no such thing as an independent justice system, it’s completely politicized. If the order comes from the federal level that Reeyot is to let go, she will be free. But if they feel that they gain more from keeping her in prison, for example to scare other independent journalists, they will keep her locked up. This decision lies entirely in the hands of the Ethiopian government.”
Schibbye suspects that intimidation of independent journalists played a substantial role in Ethiopia’s motivation to jail European journalists like himself and Johan Persson. “Reeyot and some of the other jailed journalists were brought to Johan’s and my sentencing hearing”, Schibbye recalled. “The Ethiopian authorities forced them to witness the rendering of our verdict as if to say: ‘Look what we can do to these European guys … imagine what we can do to you!'”
While organizations 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. “When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, the greatest fear is to be forgotten,” Schibbye explained. “The support from the outside is what keeps you going, it’s more important than food and medicine. And international recognition such as the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award does in fact provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching”, he said.
Even though their interactions were very limited due to a strict communication ban in Kaliti prison, Schibbye was deeply impressed with Alemu’s strong moral beliefs. She hasn’t grown tired of pointing out that she is a journalist, not a terrorist. “During the interrogation in Makelawi, Reeyot never broke down. She kept explaining to the police interrogators, some of them younger than her, why she was fighting for freedom of speech and democracy”, Schibbye remembers.
The last time Schibbye saw Alemu was in August 2012, not long before he and Persson were released from prison. They passed each other outside the prison administration offices, being escorted to and from their cells, Schibbye recalled. “She looked fragile but she is a survivor!”
Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson published a book about their experience in Ethiopia: 438 Days