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Twenty four people now either are serving long prison terms or face that reality should they return to their native Ethiopia from abroad. The irony is that many of these people, the terrorism law, have a global reputation for commitment to human rights.
The dissident blogger and journalist Eskinder Nega received an international PEN Award for this which was collected by his wife Serkalem Fasil in New York City a few months before the conviction.
It is true that Eskinder Nega was and is critical of the government. He was the owner and publisher of widely read newspapers such as Menelik with a circulation of over 100,000 before it was banned in November 2005. After a brief imprisonment he requested permission to re-enter the newspaper business but was not permitted to.
He, along with Natnael Mekonen and two others received 18 year prison sentences. The UDJ’s Andualem Arage, meanwhile, received life in prison.
Yet to the surprise of many including the convicts, most of the evidence came from legally permitted public speeches and writings. The government media, ETV, radio and newspapers along with the private international Media were invited to attend these meeting and report on them. These were open forums carried out by UDJ and protected by the police. It is difficult to see how someone plotting something sinister would do so in a public forum. Allowing an activity such as speech and writing at one time and then later declaring it illegal makes it appear politically motivated.
Speeches delivered at a UDJ Party Forum by Andualem and Eskinder were presented as evidence that they were inciting terrorism. It was an emotional and inspiring speech to be sure but no action took place after they spoke.
In accordance to the constitution, ‘everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference (Article 29 sub-article 1) and everyone has the right to freedom of expressions without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice (Article 29 sub-article 2).
This is a guarantee that has been in place for the last 20 or so years. This regime is different from the past two regimes, the Imperial and the Derg, in this specific area. It has not only abolished censorship but forcibly allowed Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution that was adopted word by word from Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR) to be implemented.
The decision pushes to intimidate others from writing, reporting or expressing their opinion. This is not acceptable. As the American State Department puts it: “This practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law, and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”
When we consider the anti-terrorism law, human rights advocates time and again have raised concerns over the broad definition of terrorist acts. Nobody condones terrorism. But preventing terrorism should not mean prosecuting lawful and peaceful opposition.
The vagueness of the law provides a loophole to do just that. For example two former Addis Neger journalists, Mesfin Negash and Abiy Teklemariam were sentenced to eight years in jail for ‘moral support for terrorism.’
There was no proof that they in fact did or plotted any specific act that would harm anyone. Rather they appear guilty of publishing a newspaper those in power did not like. There was no proof that they in fact wrote anything encouraging anyone to take action against anything. Being able to take away a person’s freedom without committing a specific egregious act trivializes terrorism and undermines the credibility of the Ethiopia judicial system.
Terrorism is an enemy of the entire population because it indiscriminately destroys people without prejudice. We have seen this all over the world including in developed nations like India, Japan and again this weekend in a movie theater in the United States.
Ethiopians have been the victim of these tragic acts that no one wants to see happen again. Yet terrorists plot in secret. They appear out of the darkness dressed in camouflage with guns bombs and booby traps. Journalists and bloggers bring information to light to inform people and public servants who can do as they choose with the information they have. Make no mistake information does have power, a power necessary to develop and build the very things the terrorists wish to destroy.