Ethiopian journalist on hunger strike over mistreatment in prison

September 13, 2013 — As stories about the political crisis in Cairo have been dominating the news from Egypt, there has been limited coverage on a brewing international conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia ? two countries that do not share a border but are indivisibly connected by the Nile, the world’s longest river.

Amid works to construct a giant hydro-electric dam, and much to the anger of the Egyptian government, Ethiopia has started diverting the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile, prompting a furious debate about if and how the ?Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? will affect Egypt’s water security.

While there may not be a definite answer anytime soon on whether this dam will have any impact on water security in Egypt, there is no doubt that it has already negatively impacted press freedom in Ethiopia. Earlier this summer, for instance, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ethiopian officials arrested a reporter seeking to interview people evicted from their homes in the region where the contentious hydro-electric dam is being built. More notable, however, was the arrest of Ethiopian columnist Reeyot Alemu more than two years ago.

A critic of the government writing for the now-defunct newspaper Feteh, Alemu had raised questions about the funding and merits of the dam shortly before she was arrested on bogus terrorism charges and sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Although two of the three terrorism charges against her were later dropped on appeal and her sentence reduced to five years, Alemu continues to suffer from her government’s efforts to silence dissenting voices and scare independent journalists into self-censorship. A tumor in Alemu’s breast remains untreated as she is denied access to medical care, and threats of solitary confinement linger over her every move in Ethiopia’s notoriously ill-maintained Kaliti prison.

While the Ethiopian leadership insists on the country’s adherence to the rule of law, there seems to be little doubt in the international community that Alemu’s arrest and conviction was politically motivated: The International Women’s Media Foundation honored Alemu with its Courage in Journalism Award last year, and in May 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized her ?commitment to freedom of expression? with its Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. In July, a delegation of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, scheduled to meet with Alemu, was denied access to Kaliti prison, prompting questions by members of the European Parliament over Ethiopia’s commitment to human rights.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia jailed more journalists than any other country in Africa in 2012 (with the exception of Eritrea), and 45 Ethiopian journalists have been forced into exile since 2008. Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye who gained first-hand experience with Ethiopia’s crackdown on press freedom after being arrested there himself in June 2011, delivers a damning verdict on the rule of law 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, they will keep her locked up. This decision lies entirely in the hands of the Ethiopian government,” he said.

But the Ethiopian authorities seem to be determined to keep Alemu silenced. Earlier this week, as Ethiopians were preparing for their New Year’s celebration, prison officials denied Alemu visits from anyone but her parents. It remains unclear whether the decision to keep her separated from her friends, siblings, and fiance is in response to an open letter Alemu wrote in August, criticizing Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, but it appears to be unlikely that the timing of the new restrictions is coincidence.

Protesting the prison’s decision to deny her visits from friends and relatives, Alemu has gone on hunger strike. The IWMF is deeply concerned about Alemu’s health and well-being, and calls on the decision-makers at Kaliti prison to re-instate Alemu’s full visitation privileges immediately.

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Reeyot Alemu