Statement Of Senator Leahy On The Assault On Freedom Of The Press In Ethiopia

As Submitted To The Congressional Record

Mr. Leahy.   Mr. President, later this month, I and other Members of Congress will be watching what happens in a courtroom 7,000 miles from Washington, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

That is where a journalist named Eskinder Nega stands accused of supporting terrorism simply for refusing to remain silent about the Ethiopian government’s increasingly authoritarian drift.  The trial is finished, and a verdict is expected on June 21.

Eskinder Nega is not alone.  Since 2011, the Ethiopian government has charged 10 other journalists with terrorism or threatening national security for questioning government actions and policies – activities that you and I and people around the world would recognize as fundamental to any free press.  Ironically, by trying to silence those who do not toe the official line, the government is only helping to underscore the concerns that many inside and outside of Ethiopia share about the deterioration of democracy and human rights in that country.

Ethiopia is an important partner for the United States in at least two key areas:  containing the real threat of terrorism in the region, and making gains against the region’s recurring famines and fostering the kind of development that can bring the cycle of poverty and hunger to an end.  The United States has provided large amounts of assistance in furtherance of both goals, because a stable, democratic Ethiopia could exert a positive influence throughout the Horn of Africa and help point the way to a more peaceful and prosperous future.

That is why President Obama invited Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to last month’s G-8 Summit at Camp David.  The subject was food security, and Prime Minister Meles and the leaders of several other African countries helped inaugurate a new public-private alliance for nutrition that aims to increase agricultural production and lift 50 million people out of poverty in the next 10 years.  I can think of nothing that will do more to further peace and prosperity of the region than this kind of targeted, practical, and cooperative initiative.

But initiatives like this depend for their success on broad national consultation, transparency and accountability.  Consultation to integrate ideas from diverse perspectives, transparency to maintain partner confidence that their investment is reaching its targets, and accountability to ensure it produces the desired results.  And transparency and accountability depend, in no small part, on a free press.

In Ethiopia, that means enabling journalists like Eskinder Nega to do their work of reporting and peaceful political participation.

But seven times in Prime Minister Meles’s 20-year rule, Eskinder Nega has been detained for his reporting.  In 2005, he and his journalist wife Serkalem Fasil were imprisoned for reporting on protests following that year’s disputed national elections.  They spent 17 months in prison, their newspapers were shut down, and Eskinder Nega has been denied a license to practice journalism ever since.  Yet he carried on, publishing articles online that highlight the government’s denial of human rights and calling for an end to political repression and corruption.

In some of those articles, Eskinder Nega specifically criticized the Meles government for misusing a vaguely-worded 2009 antiterrorism law to jail journalists and political opponents.  Now he stands accused of terrorism.  At his trial, which opened in Addis Ababa on March 6, the government reportedly offered as evidence against him a video of a town hall meeting in which Eskinder Nega discusses the Arab spring and speculates on whether similar protests were possible in Ethiopia.  If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

The trial of Eskinder Nega, the imprisonment of several of his colleagues on similar spurious charges, and the fact that Ethiopia has driven so many journalists into exile over the last decade has eroded confidence in Prime Minister Meles’ commitment to press freedom and to other individual liberties that are guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution and fundamental to any democracy.

The United States and Ethiopia share important interests, and the Administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget requests $350 million in assistance for Ethiopia.  However, to the extent that any of that assistance is intended for the Ethiopian government, the importance of respecting freedom of the press cannot be overstated.  What happens to Eskinder Nega and other journalists there will resonate loudly not only in Ethiopia, but also in the United States Congress.

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693