January 2, 2013 — A few months ago, we had the honor of hosting the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award for the International Women’s Media Foundation. It was a moving, even glittering event. But there was one striking absence. Journalist Reeyot Alemu could not come to New York to receive her award because she is languishing in an Ethiopian prison. On January 4th, an Ethiopian court will decide Alemu’s final appeal. It is her last hope of freedom.
Alemu was arrested last year and thrown into jail for criticizing the Ethiopian government. She was well aware of the risk she was taking. “I was preparing articles that oppose injustice. When I did it, I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price,” she told us.
The price was a 14-year sentence in Ethiopia’s notoriously ill-maintained Kaliti prison where prisoners of conscience share quarters with violent criminals. Because she has refused to testify against fellow journalists, Alemu has been put in solitary confinement. All this, simply for writing articles.
After her arrest, Alemu was held without charge or access to legal counsel for three months. Using its controversial 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the Ethiopian government accused Alemu of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization. What has happened to Alemu is a powerful reminder that the freedom on which we built our careers can still not be taken for granted in other parts of the world.
Feteh (“Justice”), the independent newspaper Alemu wrote for, has since been shut down.
Under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled the country for 21 years until his death in August, Ethiopia jailed more journalists than any other country in Africa (except for Eritrea.) For a country which had courageously liberated itself from the yoke of terrifying dictatorship, it is a sad legacy.
Last month, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, made a move to greater political openness in appointing members of the four main ethnic-based parties to key cabinet positions. It is a good first step.
Whether Desalegn’s effort to build a more ethnically diverse cabinet is an honest attempt to democratize the Ethiopian political process or simply a move to consolidate his power will hinge on allowing Ethiopia’s independent media to exercise its press freedom without fear of government harassment. The release of imprisoned columnist Reeyot Alemu would be a good start.
Christiane Amanpour is a news anchor of CNN and ABC News. Cynthia McFadden is a news anchor of ABC News.