Washington DC, 22 July 2015
I’m writing to you as the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders to share with you our concerns about freedom of information in Kenya and in Ethiopia ahead of your official visit to both countries this week.
Kenya is ranked 100th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, while Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180. We ask that you raise the crucial issue of freedom of information and freedom of the press during your talks with your counterparts in both countries.
In Kenya, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the government’s efforts to combat terrorism have come at a price for journalists’ safety. Harsh laws, such as the 2013 bill creating a special government-appointed media court to rule on editorial content, or the 2014 Security Laws Amendment Act, designed to counter extremism and strengthen security are too often a pretext to silence and intimidate journalists. This affects their ability to do their job. Though the Constitution of 2010 guarantees their right to work freely, many journalists end up censoring themselves and limiting their coverage of important issues because doing it has proven far too dangerous. They live in fear of costly lawsuits, arrests, attacks, intimidation, and even murder.
The murder of Kenyan journalist John Kituyi this April is still unsolved. He was beaten by unidentified assailants as he was returning to his home and died of his injuries in a hospital later the same night. The attack was believed to be targeted since his assailants took his mobile phone but left his wallet. Before his brutal murder, relatives said he had received threats in connection with stories he had published in his regional weekly paper, The Mirror, notably about how authorities had interfered with witnesses due to testify at Deputy President William Ruto’s trial before the International Criminal Court on the post-election violence of 2007.
The United States must urge the Kenyan government to protect journalists and end this climate of impunity. Laws that repress freedom of the press and freedom of expression must be repealed, and journalists must be free to cover all topics without fear of reprisals.
In Ethiopia, the situation for journalists and citizen journalists is even worse. While Reporters Without Borders welcomes the recent release of journalists Reyot Alemu, Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, and Edom Kasaye, and the release of two members of the Zone 9 blogging collective, Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret, we continue to be extremely concerned about the fate of those who remain behind bars. The remaining members of Zone 9, Befekadu Hailu, Atnaf Berhane, Natnail Feleke, and Abel Wabella were arrested on the same charges as colleagues who were freed, yet they continue to be detained since their arrest in April 2014. They face up to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges for blogging about human rights. Another journalist convicted around the same time period as Reyot Alemu, Woubeshet Taye, also remains in jail. He is the former deputy editor of the Awramba Times and was convicted on terrorism charges in 2012, for which he is serving a 14-year prison sentence.
We want to believe that these releases are not merely opportunistic but can signal the start of a widespread policy to allow freedom of information without reprimand.
The 2009 terrorism law is frequently used to silence critics of the Ethiopian government, and this especially targets journalists and bloggers. In 2014, threats against privately owned media forced six publications to close and dozens of journalists to flee the country. Many of these exiled journalists have fled to Kenya and still do not feel safe from the Ethiopian government, according to information gathered during our visit to Nairobi last year.
Since Ethiopia is one of the principal foreign country recipients of American aid, it is paramount that the United States urge the Ethiopian government to release the remaining journalists and bloggers currently detained. The United States must also encourage the Ethiopian government to release its iron grip on privately-owned media, so that journalists and citizen journalists can continue to cover important issues of public concern without fear of arrest.
Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s fight against terrorism should not come at the price of freedom of information and of the press.
I thank you in advance, Mr. President, for the attention you give to this letter.