In the interview I say that Egypt has very likely sneaked a look at Ethiopia, and has been impressed and inspired. Imprisoning journalists is a cheap form of censorship without any consequences. Diplomats and politicians from the West are expressing a cautious “concern” for developments in both Ethiopia and Egypt, but at the same time they are concerned about maintaining their strategic links with these geo-politically important countries.
Arresting journalists is also effective in terms of sending a message of fear on to the ones still free. Few or no journalists write about the political opposition in Ethiopia or write about the Ogaden region. Instead, uncritical reporting on foreign investment, double digit growth, or “the new Africa” have become increasingly common.
The mass detention of journalists in Egypt is unique in its sheer scale, but the alarms have been sounding for a while now. What was referred to ten years ago as a “wolf at the door” argument, namely that terror laws could be used against journalists, has now become a brutal reality in an increasing number of countries. In the annual statistics compiled by press freedom organisations, each set of figures is always compared with the year before. But if one zooms out, an interesting pattern emerges: the really significant increase in numbers of imprisoned journalists takes place after 11 September, 2001.
The rubber-band legislation created to get at terrorists is being abused in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and China to silence, persecute and incarcerate inconvenient voices.
The USA is also plummeting like a stone in last year’s press freedom rankings, as a result of its increasingly aggressive pursuit of whistle-blowers. The anti-terror laws which were used in the conviction of myself and Johan Persson, were copied word for word by Ethiopia from the British legal system, and have been enforced since 2009 to imprison journalists.
While the names of the journalists were Mohammed or Abdi, the phenomenon continued to pass under the radar of media coverage. But when the impact is felt by a Johan, a Martin and now also a Peter from Australia, the consequences of the hunt for terrorists are suddenly evident in relation to the people we know and the news channels we watch.
Therefore, on a day like today, let us not forget that the 14 months Johan and I spent in Kality Prison did not have any political or diplomatic repercussions for Ethiopia. The mock executions, the fabricated evidence, the abuse of terror legislation – all was allowed to pass. Sweden and Ethiopia turned a fresh leaf and moved on. Strengthened in their bilateral relations.
Colleagues of ours who are still in Kality Prison, such as Eskinder Nega, serving an 18-year term for protesting against the anti-terror laws, and Reeyot Alemu, sentenced to 5 years in prison for writing articles critical of the regime, are today no more than “irritant”, a term often used in diplomatic circles.
So, on day 400, I feel there is so much on stake her apart from the freedom of the Al-Jazeera staff. In the future, will foreign correspondents dare interview terror-stamped groups such as the Afghani Taliban, the Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Shabaab in Somalia?
We need these voices, so that our global understanding of issues is not cut in half.
If one more country gets away with prosecuting journalists, no one will be safe any longer. In countries where journalists are jailed no one is free.