Ahead of the Third international conference on the financing of development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian authorities have in the past 24 hours unexpectedly released journalist Reyot Alemu, two bloggers of the Zone 9 group and three journalists who had been arrested with them. Four other bloggers, as well as several journalists, remain behind bars.
Reyot Alemu, a onetime columnist for the now-closed national weekly Fitih, one of the 100 press freedom heroes according to RSF, was freed this morning. Convicted in 2011 of “participating in a terrorist organization and preparing a terrorist act,” she was originally given an 14-year jail term that was reduced to five years in 2012.
The justice ministry said her release was the result of a request filed by her lawyer arguing that she had already served two thirds of her sentence. Another journalist who was convicted at the same time, former Awramba Times deputy editor Woubeshet Taye, remains in jail.
Two members of the Zone 9 blogging collective – Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret – and three journalists who were arrested at the same time as them in April 2014 – Tesfalem Waldyes of Addis Standard, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis of Addis Guday, and Edom Kasaye, who used to work for Addis Zemen – were freed yesterday after all the charges against them were unexpectedly dropped.
Four other Zone 9 bloggers – Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, Abel Wabella and Natnail Feleke – continue to be detained and are facing up to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges.
These releases come just days before the UN-organized Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which is due to start in Addis Ababa on 13 July. US President Barack Obama is also due to visit Ethiopia at the end of the month.
“We can obviously only be relieved by the announcement of these releases, especially considering the conditions in Ethiopia’s jails,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.
“But we must not forget that four other bloggers are still held on the same trumped-up charges and that other journalists continue to be detained just for doing their job. Such releases must not be carried out just because it is convenient in the run-up to a major international conference. The new government must reverse policy on freedom of information and allow other releases so that journalists are able to work without threat of arrest. Freedom of information is an essential part of development.”
Although portrayed as a regional development model, Ethiopia is often criticized for its violations of civil liberties. The 2009 terrorism law is frequently used to gag government critics, especially journalists. Last year, threats forced six publications to close and dozens of journalists fled the country.
Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.