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Journalist could face death penalty at verdict

Eskinder Nega
Eskinder Nega

Lennart Kjörling

Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and other activists accused of inciting terrorism could face the death penalty, report PEN American Center and other IFEX members, whom Nega has worked with. The case was heard in court on 11 May and postponed to 21 June.

Nega was arrested in September 2011 for an article questioning the arrests of journalists and the actor Debebe Eshetu under the country's sweeping anti-terror legislation, under which he himself is now being tried. The laws criminalise any reporting deemed to "encourage" or "provide moral support" to groups and causes which the government considers to be "terrorist".

Nega was accused of affiliation with the banned political party Ginbot 7, and of allegedly receiving weapons and explosives from Eritrea so he could carry out terrorist acts in Ethiopia.

He's among five journalists - including two Swedish reporters - jailed under the anti-terrorism laws that the Ethiopian government, concerned by the Arab Spring protests last year, has increasingly used to quash independent reporting, according to PEN American Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). About 150 Ethiopian journalists live in exile - more than from any other country in the world, CPJ says.

Nega and his wife Serkalim Fasil, also a journalist, have remained in the capital, Addis Ababa. In 2005, they were jailed together in Kaliti Prison for treason because of their coverage of a disputed parliamentary election. The couple's son, now 7, was born in jail.

After protests began sweeping across the Arab world, Fasil told "The New York Times" that police started threatening her husband. She said the police warned that if he continued to cover protests and opposition politics in Ethiopia, he would be violating the law and could face the death penalty. "With that kind of threat, you can't function as a journalist," she said.

But Nega - who had previously been imprisoned at least six times under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his work as a journalist - has continued to write. His defiant stance in defence of human rights in Ethiopia earned him a prestigious press freedom award from PEN American Center. PEN said it was both recognition of his past work and an attempt to pressure the Ethiopian government into halting its prosecution of journalists.

Thirty-two IFEX members have also spoken out against Ethiopia's jailing of journalists and other critics on terrorism charges, and called for their immediate release.

And the International Press Institute (IPI) asked 20 of its World Press Freedom Heroes - renowned courageous journalists worldwide - to condemn his imprisonment.

The authorities now appear to be tightening their hold on local media. Just last week, Temesgen Desalegn, another local editor, was fined 2,000 Birr (US$114) for his newspaper's "biased reporting" of that trial, reports IPI.

IFEX members argue that Western governments are unlikely to press Zenawi on human rights abuses in Ethiopia, a strategic partner for the West in combating terrorism and instability in the Horn of Africa.

"But can you really be crowned a "champion of development" if you lock up all your critics?," asks Tom Rhodes, CPJ Africa correspondent. "Ethiopians and the international community will never be able to truly determine whether the prime minister is an 'advocate of the development state' if only yes-men and blind supporters are allowed to speak of his achievements."

Join in the call for the release of Nega by signing PEN's petition.

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