Yesterday, the Ethiopian Supreme Court upheld the conviction and extreme sentence of award-winning online journalist Eskinder Nega, who now faces 18 years in prison. Nega was arrested in September 2011 and charged with “terrorism” under a vague law in Ethiopia that has been used to target online journalists and political dissenters. His trial and appeal faced repeated delays, while international human rights and free expression groups continued to criticize his imprisonment and punishment. EFF, PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others campaigned for his release, and a United Nations panel found his conviction to be in violation of international law.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any 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."
Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling “The persecution of Eskinder and other journalists is the hallmark of a regime fearful of the opinions of its citizens.”
Eskinder Nega came to the United States for college, studying at American University before returning to Ethiopia to become a journalist. He founded four newspapers—all of which were shut down by the Ethiopian government—and has been jailed repeatedly for his outspoken articles. His journalism license revoked, Nega moved to the digital world, becoming a blogger and using online platforms to discuss the political situation on the ground in Ethiopia. While many journalists in Ethiopia have been silenced or fled the country to protect their lives and the lives of their family members, Eskinder Nega refused to leave or stop writing. His courage and dedication as a journalist have made him an international symbol of press freedom and the power of the Internet to maintain free speech in repressive conditions.
Eskinder Nega wrote passionately about the opportunity for Ethiopia to embrace human rights and free expression. In one blog post, he wrote:
Tyranny is in retreat everywhere. It has lost one of its two last great bastions, the Arab world. The momentum is now on the side freedom. Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably, freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.
Eskinder Nega’s writings have provided a window into the realities of life on the ground in Ethiopia and served as inspiration for people in Ethiopia and around the world. His continued imprisonment denies the world of a unique and powerful journalistic voice from an area of the world that is hungry for accurate, fair, and multifaceted reporting.
It is time for Washington to speak up. The U.S. government has cultivated tight political ties with Ethiopia, and continues to nurture that intimate relationship, even as Ethiopia shuts down Internet freedom and intimidates its own online citizens. It can and should use its political influence with Ethiopia to champion the cause of bloggers wrongfully imprisoned. Nega’s case is emblematic of a larger problem: Ethiopia’s ongoing pattern of prosecuting journalists and political dissenters, imprisoning those who challenge the status quo, and using threats and technology to restrict its citizens’ liberty and free expression in the process. The United States’ ongoing silence in the face of such human rights abuses by a close ally is damning and shameful.