People once feared that anti-terrorism laws could be used to jail journalists. Today, we know that this nightmare has become reality, and the fear of terrorists has turned into a fear of independent reporting. Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia have more in common than being part of the same continent: The fear of terrorists, or the misuse of power, has made these countries the worst jailers of journalists in Africa.
Jailing a photographer for taking photos may sound like a bad joke. Unfortunately, it is the horrifying truth. In Egypt, Shawkan is at risk of death penalty. The young photojournalist was arrested and jailed for covering protests in Cairo, where security forces behaved violently. The arrest made Shawkan one of a shocking number of 23 jailed journalists. He is jailed in the notorious Tora prison, where inmates has reportedly died due to medical neglect.
Fighting terrorism is good, but there are clearly different conceptions of what “terrorism” is. The Ethiopian regime use and abuse an anti-terrorism law to jail and silence journalists and other critical voices. The regime has thereby made it clear that they want the media to be a voice of the rulers rather than the people.
During this last year, hundreds of protesters have been killed or arrested for protesting against the government. The jailed are often transferred to the interrogation center Maekelawi, where they are tortured and forced to confess acts they have not committed. They most often end up in any of the prisons Kality, Kilinto or Zeway. There, they might stay for ages, often without sentence. One of them is journalist Eskinder Nega, who is imprisoned since 2011. He is sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Eritreans are one of the largest groups of asylum seekers in Sweden. Swedish readers are likely to have heard about journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been jailed in Eritrea for 15 years today. Amnesty International has recognized him as the only Swedish prisoner of conscience. But he is far from the only victim of President Isaias Afewerkis’ hunt on journalists. Eritrea is in the top ten of the world’s most censored countries. The state media is the only media allowed, but even the employees of the state media spend their lives in fear of arrest. Eritrea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The internet is controlled and the government is believed to monitor internet-users. Even in private discussions, people are on guard – fearing to be overheard by informants of the government. The oppression not only affects press freedom. People belonging to any faith other than the four allowed (Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Islam and Lutheranism) are heavily persecuted and face torture and jailing. Another major reason which drives people to flee the country is the forced military service; secondary school students are sent to Sawa Military Training Center, known for its harsh conditions.
Many countries are going towards a reality where only some are allowed to talk while others are silenced – where only one side of the story is told, while the other remains untold. That is a chilling development. Instead of aiming for openness, democracy and transparency, some governments take huge steps towards censure, secrecy, and corruption. The western world is very much aware and “concerned” of the situation in these countries. But evidently, they are not concerned enough to defend the rights of human rights defenders. Building strategic relations seems to be more important than human rights.
But changing the situation is not only a quest for governments. Each and everyone of us need to ask ourselves if we want to live in a world where we are unaware of what happens around us, where corruption remains unexposed, where no opposing views are told and where no one criticizes country leaders. Do we want to live in a world where the people are voiceless? What is happening behind these closed doors, I do not dare to think about. Egypt was probably inspired by Ethiopias anti-terrorism legislation. What country will be inspired by Egypt?
It is time to act. Everone can do something to stop this development. Let us begin by listening to those who have experienced human rights abuses first hand – and be warned. Read the first article about Eritrea, Eritrea the Country of the Oppressed, by Edoardo Iacobelli and CiLunas article Three Years of Injustice – We Want Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan”. Share the stories, because the more people that are brought to awareness, the more difficult it will be for this negative trend to spread.
Do your part.