Alemu: The imprisoned and exploited Ethiopian journalist

“Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must
reveal and oppose them in my articles.” Those were the words of
award-winning journalist Reeyot Alemu before she was arrested and

Alemu was in prison when she turned 34 on January 21, 2014. But before she
was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined 33,000 birrs (about $1,850),
she suffered practically two weeks in friendless detention at home.

She was arrested on June 21, 2011 from the school that she taught and was
oppressed before she was thrown into the prison. She was later charged with
arson and teaching and organizing terrorism.

Those close to her said that the English class teacher cum journalist was
being humiliated for the simple reason that she did a critique that opposed
the method with which the ruling political party was raising funds for a
national dam project.

While the government labeled her a terrorist, it was obvious that it did
not give the name of the type of terrorist group she was a member or was
helping in the alleged activities.

“Government prosecutors presented articles Alemu had written criticizing
the prime minister, as well as telephone tête-à-têtes she had regarding
peaceful protests, as evidence against her,” reported International Women’s
Media Foundation (IWMF).

This was seen as a case of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang her by
many. In what people and groups thought was a reprieve that had come her
way, Alemu’s 14-year sentence was reduced to 5 years and almost all the
initial charges against her were dropped in an appeal court in August 2012,
but she was not released from prison.

“Alemu is one in a number of journalists who have been prosecuted under the
vaguely worded and broad-reaching anti-terrorism laws passed by the
Ethiopian legislature in 2009. The laws allow for the arrest of anyone
thought to “encourage” parties labeled as terrorists,” decried IWMF.

Investigation revealed that no person was initially allowed to visit Alemu
in the prison upon her deteriorating health. Not even her fiancé was
allowed. But there was a sanction later that only her father and mother
were allowed to visit her.

On their visits, one thing that Alemu would not want her beloved ones to do
was to seek for pardon from the authorities for her. It was observable that
many journalists in Ethiopia were suffering the same fate as Alemu’s in
different prisons. This had made different international organizations and
persons to characterize Ethiopia as one dangerous country where free press
was prohibited.

“PEN American Center believes that Woubshet Taye, Reeyot Alemu, and Elias
Kifle have been sentenced solely in relation to their peaceful exercise of
their right to freedom of expression, in violation of Article 19 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 9 of the
African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Ethiopia is a
signatory…” bemoaned PEN American Center.

PEN American Center consequently remonstrated against the apparent
unsympathetic sentences given down to the detained journalists and called
for the instantaneous and unrestricted liberation of them.

Ethiopia ostensibly was using charges such as treason and terrorism in
making sure that journalists were not given the liberty for effective media
coverage and that sources of information were punishable. Hence,
journalists like Alemu who were bent on exposing the perceived ills in the
government functionaries, were being oppressed and thrown into the prison.

According to Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, Claire Beston: “This
is an affront to freedom of expression.”

Hear Committee to Protect Journalists: “Ethiopia has refused to comply with
a decision by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture in the case of

While the country was supposedly not friendly to its journalists, this did
not deter the international media groups to throw their weight behind
journalists in the country, while at the same time downsizing the laws of
the country that are against journalists, as inimical and unfriendly.

Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2012 that Ethiopia was one
country where second to none tyrannical attitudes were meted out to
journalists. Friends and well-wishers of Alemu were especially on Twitter
sympathizing with her using the hashtag #ReeyotAlemu to express their
support for her.

From Twitter to Facebook to Petition Pages, the world’s people were showing
her gratitude and wishing her safe recovery. Some of their comments as at
March 16 when she marked 1000 days in prison read: “Hope the world cares
about her too!”, “Yet to see any campaign, Reeyot Alemu marks 1000 days in
prison”, “Government of Ethiopia continues to show weakness and paranoia as
journalist like Reeyot Alemu scare the daylight out of it; free her!”, “She
is denied family visits”.

Some believed that she was not supposed to be imprisoned since it was about
democracy; it was supposed to be about freedom of speech, which should be
personal. Others believed that she was imprisoned due to the alleged
injustice of the case she unraveled in her journalistic work. Others
believed: “Innocent journalist and a teacher has to be free and get treated
of her illness”, “I have a strong desire to see her healthy, strong, and

In 2012, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) conferred a
Courage in Journalism Award on Alemu, although, in absentia, for what was
described as: “refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice in
standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though
contrition could win her freedom.”

The IWMF, however, read a memo said was from Alemu that had been sneaked
out of the detention-center, and it read: “For EPRDF [Ethiopia’s ruling
party], journalists must be propaganda machines.

“While organizations such as the IWMF may not have the political clout to
provide direct protection or effect instant change in situations like
Alemu’s, the value of international attention should not be underestimated.”

According to the IWMF, Alemu had said in an earlier interview with the
group: “I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better
future… Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia,
I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.”

Her breast was said to be bleeding in the prison, but her father – Alemu
Gobebo – who was a lawyer, was not allowed to have entrée to her as a
lawyer but only as a father. “Alemu is deeply concerned about his daughter.
She has a tumour in one of her breasts. Her breast is bleeding but her
condition is not being monitored,” said a concerned journalists’ group.

She was a lady with a bright future in her chosen careers. Alemu was not
just one term award-winning journalist, she had won numerous awards that
comprise the UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the
Hellman/Hammett award, and the International Women’s Media Foundation
Courage in Journalism Award; she was a finalist of the 2013 Sakharov Prize
for Freedom of Thought.

Not even her father-lawyer was allowed to give her legal counsel or any
other jurist. She was denied what was supposed to be her fundamental rights
within the period she was in the house arrest.

Health experts were worried if the tumour she had developed on one of her
breasts was gentle or cruel. Her health condition was of serious concern to
the people and groups and the world that were aware of her incarceration.

Different persons and groups had apparently sent their petit

ions in
relation to Alemu’s imprisonment to these persons and offices: Mr. Frank
William La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of
the right to freedom of expression; Ms Rashida Manjoo, UN Special
Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences; Mr. Juan
Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment; Ambassador Tekeda Alemu, Permanent
Representative of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to the United

Part of their petitions read, “As you will be aware, the detention of Ms
Reeyot Alemu – Ethiopian journalist, contravenes international law on at
least two major accounts: Denial of proper medical treatment – Ms Reeyot
Alemu has a suspected breast lump and her father (a lawyer) recently
reported that her breast is bleeding. Under international law, denial of
medical assessment for possible breast cancer constitutes wickedness…”

Written by
Odimegwu Onwumere
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