29 June 2011

Anti-terrorism law used to suppress dissent

Detained journalist Reeyot Alemu
Detained journalist Reeyot Alemu
Ethiopian authorities have held a newspaper columnist incommunicado for at least eight days under what appears to be Ethiopia's anti-terrorist law, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International. Reeyot Alemu, a regular contributor to the independent weekly "Feteh", was arrested on 21 June. She is the second reporter to be picked up and held without charge in less than a week.

Authorities have not disclosed the reason for Alemu's arrest, but a local lawyer (who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals) told CPJ that she was transferred into preventive detention for 28 days - the minimum period for preventive detention under Ethiopia's 2009 anti-terrorism law.

Local journalists said they believe Alemu's arrest could be related to her columns critical of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Her 17 June column in "Feteh" criticised the EPRDF's public fundraising methods for the Abay Dam project, and made parallels between Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, says CPJ.

Another journalist, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the weekly "Awramba Times", has been held since 19 June, also at the federal investigation centre at Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa, says CPJ.

The sweeping anti-terrorism law criminalises any reporting authorities deem to "encourage" or "provide moral support" to groups and causes the government labels as "terrorists". When it was enacted in 2009, IFEX members expressed concern that it would become a potent tool for suppressing political opposition and legitimate criticism of government policy.

According to CPJ, the law makes it difficult for Ethiopian reporters to cover the activities of Ethiopia's opposition figures and rebels without risking prosecution and a 20-year prison sentence - even though Ethiopia receives praise and assistance for participating in U.S. counterterrorism measures in neighbouring Somalia.

"The irony is, the government may pride itself on its efforts to fight terrorist groups, but we [reporters] will think twice before writing about it," said a local journalist who also requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

Recently, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the capital, Addis Ababa, EPRDF-ruled Parliament formally designated five groups as terrorist entities: al-Qaeda, the hard-line Somali Islamist militant al-Shabaab, the Ethiopian separatists groups Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), as well as Ginbot 7, a banned political party started by U.S.-based opposition leader Berhanu Nega.

WiPC suggests that Taye's arrest may be linked to his perceived sympathy for Ginbot 7. "Awramba Times" provides in-depth political coverage.

Human Rights Watch reports that just this March, more than 100 ethnic Oromo Ethiopians were accused of belonging to the OLF and detained without charge after mass arrests. Reports of the arrests broadcast on Voice of America's Amharic service were jammed by the government, further raising concerns that the roundups are politically motivated.

In a related issue, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA) has uncovered evidence that China has been providing technology, training and technical assistance to the Ethiopian authorities to enable them to jam the signals of dozens of broadcasters, including Voice of America.

According to CPJ, the Ethiopian government has long targeted international media for providing coverage of the terrorist groups. In 2009, the Ethiopian government went as far as accusing the Kenya-based broadcaster Nation Television (NTV) of giving a platform to terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa for airing a report on the OLF. In 2008, authorities accused Al Jazeera of "direct and indirect assistance to terrorist organisations" after it aired an exclusive report on the ONLF. In 2007, three "New York Times" journalists were detained for five days for reporting on the ONLF.

Enacted in July 2009, the anti-terrorism law contains an overly broad definition of acts of terrorism that could be used to suppress non-violent peaceful protests, and greatly expands police powers of search, seizure and arrest. The law also carries sentences of up to 20 years in prison, and provides for holding "terrorist suspects" for up to four months without charge.

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