27 June 2012

Journalists face life imprisonment on trumped-up terrorism charges

Imprisoned writer and journalist Eskinder Nega, with his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil
Imprisoned writer and journalist Eskinder Nega, with his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil
Serkalem Fasil

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A journalist in Ethiopia and another in Burundi are facing life behind bars after shocking verdicts in unrelated cases but with almost identical anti-terrorism charges, say IFEX members.

Just today, well-known Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega was convicted in a trial that 10 groups jointly called "the criminalisation of peaceful dissent in Ethiopia." And last week, Hassan Ruvakuki, a radio journalist in Burundi, was sentenced to life imprisonment, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

On 27 June, the High Court in Addis Ababa found Nega guilty of "participation in a terrorist organisation" and "planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act," says a joint statement by 10 groups including five IFEX members - the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, the International Press Institute (IPI), PEN American Center and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

Nega was convicted along with 24 others, only eight of whom appeared in court, including opposition politician Andulalem Arage. They are due to be sentenced on 13 July and are facing life in prison.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), upon delivering his decision, Judge Endeshaw Adane said, “Freedom of speech can be limited when it [is] used to undermine security and not used for the public interest." ARTICLE 19 reported that Nega and Arage "were accused of using examples taken from the Arab Spring uprisings in the media to promote anti-government protest in Ethiopia."

Nega was jailed in September 2011 shortly after criticising the government's use of anti-terrorism laws to imprison local journalists and two Swedish journalists, who were arrested while reporting on rebel activity.

IFEX members report that Nega is the fifth journalist in Ethiopia to be jailed for terrorism-related crimes in the past six months. Nega "has long been a thorn in the side of the Ethiopian government," note the 10 groups in their joint statement.

After the elections in 2005, he and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were jailed for 17 months, during which time their son was born in prison. Their publishing house was shut down and Nega has since been banned from journalism, but continued to write for online media. Nega won the prestigious 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in April.

Hassan Ruvakuki
Hassan Ruvakuki
In a separate case in Burundi on 20 June, a High Court in the eastern city of Cankuzo sentenced Ruvakuki to life imprisonment on a charge of "participating in acts of terrorism," along with 13 other defendants, according to RSF and other IFEX members. Ruvakuki is a reporter for Bonesha FM and the French government-funded Radio France Internationale (RFI)'s Swahili service, hence RSF and RFI jointly undertook a trial observation mission of the case.

The charges against Ruvakuki were related to a terrorist attack in September 2011 near the border with Tanzania, reports ARTICLE 19. In November 2011, the journalist travelled to a rebel-held area near Burundi's border with Tanzania, where he interviewed Pierre Claver Kabirigi, a former police officer who claimed to be the leader of a new rebel group. According to CPJ, Ruvakuki was arrested upon his return and questioned "over his alleged links to the rebel group."

IFJ's Gabriel Baglo says the journalist was only doing his job and "has never engaged in illegal acts designed to endanger the lives of the Burundian citizens... He should not be condemned on these bogus charges of terrorism."

They say Ruvakuki's right to free trial was breached. "The judges were biased and incompetent, defence rights were violated and the sentence was decided in advance on the basis of spurious arguments. Everything suggests that it was a politically-motivated reprisal," said RSF and RFI, noting the sentence comes "at the very moment that a law designed to protect journalists from imprisonment is on the point of being adopted."

The two groups also point out the unfortunate timing of the harsh sentence, saying "Burundi is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence on 1 July but the party announced by the authorities has already been spoiled."

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