By Abebe Gellaw (ESAT)
American Journalist Jason McLure worked in Ethiopia as a foreign correspondent for Bloomberg from 2007 to 2010. McLure left Ethiopia on his own volition after his difficult assignment in Ethiopia, where he, along was a translator, was even detained by security agents in Mekele for two days. He was investigating allegations of food aid misuse for political ends in Ethiopia.
McLure has recently launched a global campaign to press for the release of famed journalist Eskinder Nega and other journalists unjustly detained. McLure, who is the coordinator of Free Eskinder Nega Global Committee, says that the Ethiopian government has been abusing the word “terrorism” and twisting the anti-terrorism law to silence dissent. He urges the Ethiopian government to release Eskinder and other journalists charged with terrorism offences, which he says is outrageous. Mclure also demanded Western governments including the United States to press for the release of these journalists.
Commenting on a recent statement made by Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa at the Pentagon, McLure said that her claim that Ethiopia is a democratic country is very disappointing and delusional.
“This is a very disappointing statement frankly. It is at odds with any reasonable interpretation of the facts. And I think Ambassador Huddleston in that interview [onESAT] talked about a dialogue between the Ethiopian government and the US on democracy and human rights. And the mere fact that this dialogue is starting from the assumption that Ethiopia is a democracy shows that it is dead to begin with. It is utterly going to be a fruitless exercise because….her words are delusional. I know that she knows that they are completely at odds with the facts,” he said.
Following are excerpts from ESAT’s interview with journalist Jason McLure, an international journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, The Economist, Bloomberg News, Reuters and Foreign Affairs. He is currently working for Reuters, but he spoke to ESAT only as a representative of the Free Eskinder Nega Global Committee.
ESAT: Jason, How was your experience in Ethiopia?
McLure: I had a very great experience in Ethiopia. The people are very warm and welcoming. As an outsider, people are interested in you as someone who came from a different place and have a different view on things and certainly enjoyed the culture and the people. I enjoyed the food and enjoyed my time there.
ESAT: You worked as a correspondent in Ethiopia. How did you find working a correspondent in Ethiopia? Was it difficult?
McLure: Well, I think it is important to keep in mind when you talk about the press and how the press works in Ethiopia is that there is a very dramatic difference between the difficulties that Ethiopian reporters face and the difficulties that the international reporters face. The difficulties that Ethiopian reporters face are far greater than any challenges that international reporters have, to be clear. But that said it is a challenging place for foreign reporters to work and as we have seen Ethiopia has a history of expelling foreign and international correspondents for reporting on issues that the Ethiopian government would rather not have them reported on.
ESAT: You were expelled from Ethiopia last year. What were the circumstances that led to your expulsion?
McLure: First of all, I was not expelled from Ethiopia. I stayed there for three years and I left on my own volition. I was detained for two days while I was there by the Ethiopian intelligence services. They did attempt to expel me but that decision was later reversed and I stayed in Ethiopia through the 2010 elections. I certainly didn’t know if I would have been allowed to stay beyond that. As you know, one of the things the Ethiopian government requires of international reporters is that they get an accreditation from the ministry of government communication affairs each year. In the past the government has used that accreditation as a way to kick out international reporters that they don’t want being in Ethiopia.
ESAT: Why were you detained?
McLure: I was detained, actually in Mekele, with a translator. This was prior to the 2010 election. We were reporting a story about allegations that food aid, which is paid for by largely Western governments, much of which comes from the United States, was being distributed in a political manner among the rural people there. So there have been a number of allegations about this. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups, and the opposition had made statements to that effect and when myself and a translator went to this area of Tigray where there had been numerous allegations of this we were almost immediately detained in Mekele.
ESAT: You have started a petition drive to press for the release of Eskinder Nega, who is a famous journalist in Ethiopia. What prompted you to start this petition drive?
McLure: Well, I think Eskinder for some time has been a symbol of press freedom or the lack of press freedom in Ethiopia. As you know, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are more Ethiopian journalists in exile than in any country in the world. That is more than Iran, Cuba, Eritrea and North Korea. Ethiopian journalists have a very difficult life if they want to report independently and Eskinder has been steadfast in refusing to flee. He has been jailed numerous times in Ethiopia and the government has certainly encouraged him to leave and come to the United States.
I understand he has a Green Card and can do that, but instead he has chosen to stay there. He espouses nonviolence. He is certainly critical of the Ethiopian government and in his posts he certainly espouses the freedom of assembly, freedom of press, values that we in the West cherish… So the arrest of him on terrorism charges is outrageous and the fact that he potentially faces the death sentence for simply being a reporter, for simply expressing himself in a nonviolent way is frankly outrageous. That is why I and some other concerned reporters have tried to organize a petition on his behalf.
SAT: Who are the petitioners? And who has signed the petition so far?
McLure: You know, there are a couple of major thrust to this effort but the current petition which calls for Eskinder’s release and those of other journalists in Ethiopia, who have been unjustly detained. This petition is signed by Mark Hamrick, the President of the National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., the largest and oldest in many ways of the main national press organization in the United States and certainly one that most of the famous Washington journalists in the US belong to. Another person who has signed up our petition is Joel Simon, who is the Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. A third person is Aryeh Neier, who is the founder of the group Human Rights Watch and who is now the president of the Open Society Foundations, which were started by George Soros. Another is William Easterly, who is quite a famous author and development economist. He is a professor at New York University. His most famous book was the White Man’s Burden, which talks about how aid is often misspent and how Western aid efforts often aren’t efficient and effective and sometimes are even counter effective in many ways. The fifth person is Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. So these are some of the people that have signed up to the petition.
The petition has also been signed by a number of other journalists including three former BBC correspondents in Ethiopia and myself, numerous academics, researchers, human rights activists…Maziar Bahari, he is a quite noted reporter from Iran and was detained by the Iranian government for nearly four months during the Iranian elections in 2009. He has also signed the petition. So this is really a broad international group of concerned journalists and authors and human rights activists who want to make a statement that what the Ethiopian government is doing is wrong….
ESAT: As you know, Eskinder, a few other journalists, activists and leaders of political parties have been charged with terrorism offences. Why do you believe that it is wrong for the government to charge them with terrorism?
McLure: It is wrong because they are not terrorists. That is quite clear. I can’t speak for all the defendants but with regard to Eskinder they are clearly abusing this law to prosecute someone whose political views they don’t like to hear. [He is] someone whose values they disagree with. Eskinder espouses freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. He wrote criticizing the issue of torture in prison. These clearly are all values and ideas that the Ethiopian government did not think that he should be espousing and that is why he was arrested.
ESAT: Have you demanded the government of the US government to intervene in this case?
McLure: The United States government could make a start simply by issuing a statement about this. This is quite a clear abuse of Ethiopia’s terrorism law…I think it is a worrying trend, a move away from openness and towards repression on the part of the Ethiopian government. But that aside, what we are asking for and what the petition asks for is simply for the government to release Eskinder and other journalists who are unjustly detained and to comply with the Ethiopian constitution and the press freedom spelled out in the Ethiopian constitution and comply with international obligations through treaties signed under the United Nations. We think that would be a good start.
Personally, I would like to see Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to make a statement on this. And I would like to see the United States Embassy and other Western Embassies in Addis Ababa send their diplomats to the hearings. They have not been consistently sending diplomats to observe these trials. They have very large embassies in Ethiopia. The US Embassy in Addis Ababa is the largest in Africa…
ESAT: A few days ago, I had an interview with Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who is a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon. She says that Ethiopia is a democracy and has strong institutions including strong judiciary. Do you agree with her?
McLure: I speak for myself here, not on behalf of anyone else. But to me, this is a very disappointing statement frankly. It is at odds with any reasonable interpretation of the facts. And I think Ambassador Huddleston in that interview talked about a dialogue between the Ethiopian government and the US on democracy and human rights. And the mere fact that this dialogue is starting from the assumption that Ethiopia is a democracy shows that it is dead to begin with. It is utterly going to be a fruitless exercise because…her words are delusional. She knows that they are completely at odds with the facts and so I think the mere fact that she is stating that opinion there is really no hope and no cause for optimism that there is going to be progress in this dialogue on human rights and democracy.
ESAT: Despite the fact that there are known gross human rights violations in Ethiopia, the US government and other Western governments continue cooperation with the Meles government. They are still giving out aid to the regime. What is your opinion on that?
McLure: Well, I think the relations between the US and Ethiopia are complex. Foreign relations in general are rarely just based on human right and democracy. The US has clearly other interests in the region. It is clearly interested in preventing terrorism in Somalia; it is interested in what happened in South Sudan….All these things are vital US interests. I don’t think that their relationships can be based solely on the question of human rights and democracy.
But what is very disappointing is that very senior US officials can’t even speak candidly about the human rights situation in Ethiopia and the democratic situation in Ethiopia. So to me I think clearly human rights and democracy is just one aspect of the relationship. But I think you…under the Obama administration you certainly can’t say that US policy towards Ethiopia is emphasizing human rights and democracy any more than under the predecessors, which I think for a lot of people is disappointing.
ESAT: Two Swedish journalists, Martine Shibbye and Johan Persson, have been found guilty of supporting terrorists Ethiopia. Do you think that these two journalists have had a fair trial?
McLure: I wasn’t in Ethiopia so I didn’t observe the trial first hand. So I would be hesitant to comment on sort of specifics about the trial but I think it is obvious that they are not terrorists. Obviously, it is outrageous for them to be charged as terrorists. Now does the Ethiopia government have the right to control its borders and who comes into their country? Yes! These journalists came to the country illegally to face similar charges
These journalists indeed came to the country illegally. They should face civil charges. But that is a civil violation; that is not a violation of terrorism. Were they interviewing members of the ONLF? I understand they were and the Ethiopian government quite rightly regards the ONLF as their enemy but I think it is also fairly apparent that they are not supporters of the ONLF, they weren’t seeking to undermine or destroy the Ethiopian government to commit terrorist acts. Again this was an abuse of the word terrorism and abuse of the law. Frankly, I think it is part of a worrying trend with regard to the Ethiopian government’s actions toward these journalists.
ESAT: What do you expect from the Ethiopian Diaspora to support your petition drive?
McLure: Frankly, I am not asking anything of the Ethiopian Diaspora. It is not my intention to get involved within internal Ethiopian politics. This petition drive is solely about freedom of expression. It is about the journalists’ rights to work and report independently. So I am consciously trying to be limited to that as a foreigner. There are many things you don’t understand about another country’s politics… I want to limit this just to the issue of freedom of expression. We welcome journalists, authors and others who would like to join our petition drive….
ESAT: What do you want to say to the Ethiopian government, especially Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in relation to your effort to have Eskinder and other journalists released?
McLure: Specifically, we’re calling for their release. We are asking them not to be mistreated in prison. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have both stated that there is a cause for concern and they may be tortured. Eskinder may be tortured or mistreated while he in prison but fundamentally we are asking for their release. We are asking them to respect freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly in their country. These are universal values; they values that are engrained in the Ethiopian constitution. They are engrained in Ethiopia’s commitment under international law and treaties under the United Nations. But the first thing we are looking for his release.
ESAT: How important is freedom of expression in a country like Ethiopia which claims to be interested in building a democratic society?
McLure: Freedom of expression is a universal value that has no boundary and border. It is fundamental to the creation of democracy. If you can’t hear dissenting opinions or differing views, there is essentially no fundamental competition of ideas, which is what democracy is all about. It is apparent that in Ethiopia that is fundamentally stifled. I think it is disappointing that we hear from the US government statements that Ethiopia is a democracy, it has a strong judicial system. Following elections where the ruling party won by 99.6 percent, we have the most journalists in the world in exile ahead of Iran and ahead of Cuba. This is really amazing.
ESAT: You have had an opportunity to observer the economic and political situation in Ethiopia. In your opinion where is Ethiopia heading given heightened tensions between the government and the people?
McLure: You know, I have been outside of Ethiopia for some time. So I don’t have a good sense of what the current state of tensions. I would sort of confine my remark to a long term observations.
For the health of any society, for the long term stability of any society you need to have some sort of release for people who feel like they are not part of the system and their voices are not being heard.
It appears that in Ethiopia, right now, the government is effectively functioning as a police state, certainly with respect to journalists. If you can’t express your opinion, I think that obviously leaves a lot of people frustrated.
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