In 2003 the government wanted to solve the “problem” of Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (EFJA) once and for all. Unlike other civil society and professional organizations which already had surrogates implanted, it took time to infiltrate the Association. In many ways EFJA was more vocal than others. They also managed to rally international human rights groups behind them.
The Ethiopian Journalists Association (EJA),which is as independent as the state run media, was not helping matters either. Its docile leadership was good for nothing.
However, EFJA was still suspended on technicalities. The Ministry of Justice claimed the Association had not been audited and was operating without license. Hardly anyone bought that excuse.
So one of the solution to this perennial problem was to create an organization in the name of the private press. Some members who had issues with the leadership were used as Trojan horse. While EFJA was far from perfect, the intervention played in their favor. In the eyes of international press watchdogs they looked like a victim.
To that end, the government created its own “independent” media association christened as Ethiopian National Journalists Union (ENJU). The Union was to be led by an employee of TPLF owned Walta Information Center. Ever since its creation, the Union has been used as an attack dog whenever the ruling party needs their service.
Recently the President of ENJU appeared in the clueless national Amharic daily Addis Zemen to pour scorn on award winning journalist Eskinder Nega. Clearly the government is under pressure from all corners to release the jailed blogger who is serving an 18 year term on far-fetched accusations of terrorism. The leader of the Union didn’t hide his disdain to the person he was supposed to defend. For him the one time publisher was a terrorist, fascist and everything in between. Words were not enough to curse and maul Eskinder even to the level of saying they don’t know him as a journalist. It’s not clear then why he was part of the discussion at all.
The New York based press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was not spared the condemnation. Odd as it may sound, one of the reasons CPJ took the heat was for not helping ENJU.
Two of a kind
On the bright side though, the Union’s President talked about two imprisoned journalists – Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye – for whom they claimed to do everything “in accordance with the law” to secure their release. If bashing Eskinder will bring the freedom of the other two, so be it.
Reeyot has been in jail since June 2011. According to the sentence she should serve five years in prison. While the charges encompass a long range of sins connected to terrorist activities, what angered the rulers was a picture of graffiti allegedly taken by her and sent to a U.S. based website.
Woubshet has been an editor of the defunct Amharic weekly Awramba Times. The father of one was sentenced to a 14-year prison term, two of which served since his arrest. Last year just in time for the Ethiopian New Year, there was talk about his eminent release alongside two Swedish journalists pardoned on an 11-year sentence. However, a Ministry of Justice official quashed that hope when he said there was no request for his pardon.
Up with hope!
It is not certain whether the President was talking for the government. Could he be having some information about their release; and who knows if they are scrambling to get a little piece of credit when the two are finally set free.
It is customary to grant pardon during Ethiopian New Year that falls on September 11. That might as well be a sign that the courageous journalists may be walking out of jail as free persons. We will keep our fingers crossed.