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As Obama Visits, Rights Groups Decry Treatment of Media in Ethiopia

  • Anita Powell

Journalist Reeyot Alemu said U.S. President Barack Obama is unlikely to see the real Ethiopia during a historic state visit to the East African powerhouse.

Until earlier this month, the award-winning reporter said she experienced the dark side of her country by spending nearly five years in the bowels of an Ethiopian prison.

Reeyot is among at least nine journalists and bloggers who were arrested and charged with terrorism, though she and her lawyer say she did nothing but write critical articles about the government.

While in prison in 2013, she won the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

Jailed journalists

Five others were also released just weeks before Obama’s visit, and their charges were completely dropped. But at least 11 journalists and bloggers remain in prison, according to the the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reeyot has vowed to continue her work, but told VOA she won’t be among the media horde covering Obama’s trip.

She said she’s been deluged by visitors and well-wishers since her release and needs time to rest and recover.

But Reeyot wishes she could talk to the American president.

“I want to talk to him about Ethiopians’ conditions,” Reeyot told VOA News on the eve of his arrival. “He can’t know about it from government officials.

"He can’t know about it by looking only at the new buildings and the new roads, he must know about it by communicating with the real opposition party leaders, by talking to the private press journalists," she said.

Ethiopia has in recent years become the darling of the international development community for its effective use of aid money and for its rapid development.

Obama last year described the East African nation as a “bright spot” on the African continent.

“We have seen enormous progress in a country that once had great difficulty feeding itself,” he said.

But critics of the Ethiopian government say that is far from the full picture.

Grim situation

International watchdog Human Rights Watch, which the Ethiopian government accuses of bias, said the situation is grim.

The nation recently held national elections in which the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front won every single seat in parliament.

Opposition groups complained that they were denied equal treatment during the campaign, and claimed they were harassed and intimidated.

“Authorities use arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and perceived supporters of opposition political parties,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report. “Security forces respond to peaceful protests with excessive force, and detainees routinely allege torture and ill-treatment.”

Reeyot said she’s seen that up close.

'Human rights violations'

“There are many bad things, human rights violations in Ethiopia,” she said. “For example, if you take my case, I wrote articles that concerned this government. I didn’t do any crime. But they put me in prison and also they didn’t give me medical treatment, they don’t let you read political books, historical books. ...

"And there are also many human rights violations, and also my colleagues, many other journalists and opposition party leaders, they beat them, there are many bad things. There is no democracy in Ethiopia. There is no justice. Therefore he must know about it," Reeyot said.

While the Committee to Protect Journalists commended the decision to release Reeyot and the others, they say the media freedom landscape is still marred with problems.

"Obama's trip to Ethiopia is partly designed to 'strengthen democratic institutions' despite the fact there is no genuine democracy, free press within in the country. Serious discussions with the Ethiopian ruling party must be made to release Ethiopian journalists currently imprisoned on trumped up charges, being one of the leading jailers of journalists on the continent, if the U.S. administration is genuinely seeking a stronger democratic partner," said CPJ East Africa Representative Tom Rhodes.

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