By William Easterly, Mark Hamrick, Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth, and Joel Simon

Published in the New York Review of Books, January 12, 2012 edition

To the Editors:

On September 14, 2011, Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger, was arrested by the Ethiopian authorities shortly after publishing an online column calling for an end to torture in Ethiopian prisons, a halt to the imprisonment of dissidents, and respect for freedom of expression. The charges against him are punishable by death, and carry a minimum sentence of fifteen years in prison[1], where both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch warn that he is at risk of torture.

Previous to his current arrest, Eskinder and his wife Serkalem Fasil, both newspaper publishers, were charged with treason following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections, along with dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders, and spent seventeen months in jail. While in custody, Serkalem gave birth to their first child. Even after they were acquitted by Ethiopia’s Federal High Court, Eskinder and Serkalem were blocked from reopening their newspapers and the government continued to pursue civil charges against them.[2]

Eskinder also was detained earlier this year, after he published an online column asking members of the security services not to shoot unarmed demonstrators—as they did in 2005—in the event that the “Arab Spring” should spread to Ethiopia.[3]

Most of us would have fled into exile after such treatment—as have nearly all of Ethiopia’s significant opposition leaders and independent journalists since 2005. In all, eleven independent journalists and bloggers have been charged with terrorism this year, five of whom are behind bars. Ethiopia tops Iran and Cuba to lead the world in the number of journalists who have been forced into exile over the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[4]

Having spent a large part of his childhood in suburban Washington, D.C., and being in possession of a US residence permit, Eskinder could have easily followed. That he has not is testimony to his commitment to democratic values that Western governments say they hold dear.

America and its Western allies have aligned themselves closely with Ethiopia’s government in the fight against radical Islamists in the Horn of Africa and in efforts to prevent a repeat of the 1984–1985 famine. Worthy as these goals are, we should not allow them to blind us to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s increasingly authoritarian bent—as exhibited by his regime’s 99.6 percent election victory in 2010 and most recently the decision to prosecute Eskinder as a terrorist, along with seven other dissidents.[5]

We therefore call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s Western allies to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent. We also urge the US to ensure that our more than $600 million in aid[6] to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.[7]

William Easterly
Professor of Economics
Co-Director, Development
Research Institute
New York University
New York City

Mark Hamrick
President
National Press Club
Washington, D.C.

Aryeh Neier
President
Open Society Foundations
New York City

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch
New York City

Joel Simon
Executive Director
Committee to Protect Journalists
New York City

  1. See charging document (Amharic), at www.ethioforum.org/document/Court.pdf.
  2. See also “Ethiopia Reinstates Hefty Fines Against Publishing Houses,” Committee to Protect Journalists , March 10, 2010, www.cpj.org/2010/03/ethiopia-reinstates-hefty-fines-against-publishing.php.
  3. See also “Ethiopian Journalist Alleges Detention for Inciting Egypt-Style Protests,”Voice of America , February 17, 2011, www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/east/Ethiopian-Journalist-Alleges-Detention-for-Inciting-Egypt-Style-Protests-116412719.html.
  4. “Journalists in Exile 2011,” Committee to Protect Journalists. Available at www.cpj.org/reports/2011/06/journalists-in-exile-2011-iran-cuba-drive-out-crit.php.
  5. “Ethiopia Charges Opposition Figures, Reporter With Terrorism,” Voice of America , November 10, 2011, www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Ethiopia-Charges-Opposition-Figures-Reporter-With-Terrorism-133638658.html.
  6. See US foreign assistance figures at www.foreignassistance.gov/OU.aspx?OUID=171&FY=2012&AgencyID=0&budTab=tab_Bud_Planned.
  7. See Helen Epstein, “Cruel Ethiopia,” TheNew York Review , May 13, 2010, www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may/13/cruel-ethiopia/. See also Human Rights Watch , March 24, 2010, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom and Association in Ethiopia,” and October 19, 2010, “Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, www.hrw.org/news/2010/10/18/ethiopiadonor-aid-supports-repression.

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