The case of Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu


Last Friday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day. Perhaps you may have missed it? On one hand, the Press Freedom Day parades, or sales, are far and few between. On the other hand, even the press doesn’t seem to care much about its colleagues’ freedom and well-being. Take the case of Ethiopian journalist, Reeyot Alemu. On Friday, Alemu was awarded, in absentia, the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize 2013. Due to prior commitments and scheduling conflicts, Alemu couldn’t attend. Reeyot Alemu is a guest of the Ethiopian government, which convicted her, two years ago, of terrorism. The terrorism of writing, of critique, and of asking questions and seeking the truth: it’s the holy trinity of the barrel of the pen.

Alemu is an editor and columnist at Feteh, an independent weekly in Ethiopia, that was shut down by the government in 2012. Alemu reported critically on the fundraising methods used for a big dam project. Perhaps it was her scathing analysis, perhaps it was her comparison of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to Muammar Gaddafi, and perhaps it was none of these that landed her in jail. She was already a marked woman. Alemu knew this and kept on writing.

In June 2011 she was arrested. In January 2012, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years, and sent to the notorious Kaliti Prison, the ‘Robben Island’ of Ethiopia. Since then, Alemu has faced constant intimidation, threats of solitary confinement, and deteriorating health. In August 2012, two charges were dropped, and her sentence was ‘reduced’ to five years. The intimidation and threats continued, as did the deterioration of her health. In January 2013, her final appeal was denied.

In 2012, International Women’s Media Foundation gave Reeyot Alemu the Courage in Journalism Award. At the ceremony, via a smuggled, handwritten note, Alemu explained:

I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future… I knew that I would pay the price for my courage and I was ready to accept that price. Because journalism is a profession that I am willing to devote myself to. I know for EPRDF, journalists must be only propaganda machines for the ruling party. But for me, journalists are the voices of the voiceless. That’s why I wrote many articles which reveal the truth of the oppressed ones.

In the award ceremony this Friday, Reeyot Alemu again asked, again via note: “Who will expose the unpleasant truths of those in power if not journalists?”

So, where have the journalists been in the case of Reeyot Alemu? Largely absent. Bloggers, such as Rosebell Kagumire, have written. Journalist advocacy organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Africa-focused venues, most notably Pambazuka, have followed the case, off and on. Outside of the usual suspects, the mainstream press has been remarkably silent about one of their own. The Daily Beast had a moving piece; Women’s Wear Daily covered Alemu’s ‘fearlessness’ in the context of last year’s IWMF awards. The Guardian reprinted a piece from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and even that was a more general piece that only referenced Alemu in passing.

What is the threshold here for ‘news’? What exactly is all the news that’s fit to print, or read? Clearly international recognition counts for nothing. Clearly courage means nothing. And meanwhile Reeyot Alemu sits in the terrible conditions of Kaliti Prison, while the rest of the world, that trusts the news media to report on ‘far-off places’, goes on about its business, listening distractedly to “Freedom’s just another word…”

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5 thoughts on “The case of Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu

  1. For heavens sake free Ms.Alemu from the Ethiopian jail.What the hell is wrong with these pig headed rulers who believe it is their right not to be criticized? This is the practice of despots and here the developed world including the United States has not sanctioned this government which has constantly eroded the rights of its citizens.
    The problem I have with these situations is that since 9/11 several governments have used terrorism laws to suppress the rights of citizens.Having done so,it is difficult to see how the US will have the face to criticize such governments when well we know that the US,Britain,France,Germany and co have all placed different types of gag on citizens.
    Who ever is responsible for 9/11 has done it perfectly so that the world over the West now has little or no moral authority to call on others to end these violations since they are similarly guilty.We are therefore in a very difficult Place.
    If Alemu was of a different origin I am sure the voices of the West would be loud for all to hear but for her who cares except those whose lives border on the edge of similar arrest.
    Mr.Prime Minister! This is not the way to treat with our sisters in any field,freedom of expression is a God Given Right and must not be taken away by any man.I therefore urge you to free Reeyot Alemu now. This is not a good face for Africa in the face of enormous problems we face.Rather than jail Alemu,do your best to end poverty in Ethiopia.

  2. Reblogged this on Betyie und kommentierte:
    zum Thema Pressefreiheit in Äthiopien …
    und auch zum Thema prozessuale Sicherheit und Rechtsstaatlichkeit!

  3. I am glad they are in Jail. Ethiopia is better without people like this couple!
    Good Job EPRDF!!!! Please do not interfere with coutnry you have no idea about refrain from Colonial mentality . The West is not an advocate to Africa but it is former colony!

  4. I AM REALLY DIS GUSTED BY WHAT THIS STUPED AND VORATIOUS GOV’T OF ETHIOPIA DID ON MS.ALEMU. AS WE KNOW “EPRDF” HATE ALL PEOPLE WHO TELL THE TRUTH.SHE IS IN JAIL B/C OF HER TRUTH….ONE DAY THE TRUE SUN STARTS TO RAISE …..WE PRAY FOR THE ALMIGHT.REEYOT,YOU ARE IN OUR HEART.. DONT FEAR ANY MORE…

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