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The release of columnist Reeyot Alemu is living proof that Barack Obama can bring some change to Ethiopia, with the US president urging more freedom for the press on a visit to the east African country.
Alemu, 35, is one of three journalists and two bloggers freed just three weeks before Obama’s arrival in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Alemu was sentenced in 2012 to 14 years in prison on terrorism charges. The sentence was later reduced to five years on appeal.
Surrounded by her family days after her July 9 release, Alemu told FRANCE 24 she was targeted for criticising Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government.
“I was writing about these political issues, most of them criticising the government,” she said. “They accused me of terrorism. But the real thing is, I criticised them and they don’t want to be criticised, because of that I was in jail for four years.”
During his visit to Ethiopia, the first by a US president, Obama on Monday praised Africa’s second-most-populous nation for its fight against terrorism. But he also challenged the government for its track record on human rights.
“There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do,” said Obama at a joint press conference with Desalegn on Monday. “There are certain principles we think have to be upheld,” Obama added. “Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues. We don’t advance or improve these issues by staying away.”
Desalegn, however, pushed back against criticisms that his government has suppressed opposition voices and press freedom.
“Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin deep,” he insisted, adding that Ethiopia is a “fledgling democracy; we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices”.
‘They’ll put her in prison again’
The winner of numerous awards – including the 2013 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize – Alemu has vowed to continue reporting. But for her family, that comes with certain risks.
Her sister, Eskedar Alemu, says she has faced discrimination due to her sister’s incarceration. “I was working before, but some officials came to my job and they said, ‘Her sister is a terrorist,’ so it’s hard to employ me. I left many jobs, like four or five jobs.”
Alemu’s mother, Aselefech Tekelmariam, says she supports her daughter, but worries for her safety. “I want her to live her passion, I respect it, but I fear for her. If she continues like that, they’ll put her in prison again, in even worst conditions.”
The family today is maintaining a low profile and insisted on speaking to FRANCE 24 in a tiny apartment that Alemu has just moved into. But the gutsy Ethiopian journalist notes that she has a simple choice: staying silent or speaking out – and she’s determined to choose the latter.
“I don’t regret it and I won’t regret it, because I did the right thing,” she insists. “That right thing [brought] many bad things on me, but I expected it. I must pay the price for a better Ethiopia.”
Still a long way to go
Ethiopia today has come a long way from the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when the Horn of Africa nation was convulsing from communist purges, wars and famines. Over the past few years, the country has maintained a 10 percent annual growth rate and millions of Ethiopians have been pulled out of poverty.
But Ethiopia still has a long way to go on freedom of expression and human rights.
Desalegn’s ruling party has wielded power for a quarter of a century and the opposition failed to secure a single seat in a May parliamentary election.
While the release of Alemu – and a handful of other journalists and bloggers – has been welcomed by the international community, human rights groups say pressure must be maintained to secure the release of nearly a dozen journalists still behind bars, including four members of Zone 9, a website also critical of the government.
Endalk Chala, a Zone 9 blogger currently in exile, has accused the Ethiopian government of waging a propaganda war and attempting to distract attention from the journalists and bloggers still in detention.
“The decision to release the two bloggers out of six is totally incomprehensible since the charges are exactly the same,” Chala said in an interview with FRANCE 24. But he isn’t giving up hope – not yet.
“I remain hopeful,” Chala said. “If the regime does not release the other bloggers and journalists, it risks shooting itself in the foot because this will expose the government’s inconsistencies.”