Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu, a critical columnist who has been jailed since June 2011 on terrorism charges released on July 9 2015. Reeyot was sentenced in 2012 to 14 years in prison, which was reduced to five years on appeal. Reeyot told CPJ today that she was happy to be free and that her health was “okay,” but that she was still taking painkillers. The journalist suffered from breast tumors while in prison. Alemu’s release comes a day after the release of five other jailed Ethiopian journalists–editor Asmamaw Hailegiorgis; freelancers Edom Kassaye and Tesfalem Waldyes; and Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret, bloggers for the independent collective Zone 9. With at least 11 other journalists remaining in prison, including four other Zone 9 bloggers, Ethiopia is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to CPJ research. Most of the journalists face terrorism charges.
Reeyot Alemu, a teacher by training and profession until 2000, was a regular columnist at different newspapers including Feteh, a weekly Amharic critical of the ruling EPRDF which closed down publication nearly two years ago.
Reeyot was arrested in June 2011 and was charged on three different counts of plotting an act of terrorism by the federal high court 3rd criminal bench. Reeyot was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison. An appellate court later paroled her sentence to five years in only one charge of using journalism to support a terrorist organization.
Reeyot was the recipient of the 2012 International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)’s ‘Courage in Journalism’ Award for her “refusal to self-censor in a place where that practice is standard, and her unwillingness to apologize for truth-telling, even though contrition could win her freedom.” And in May 2013, she was awarded the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Shw was awarded both in absentia.
“I believe that I must contribute something to bring a better future,” Alemu said in an earlier interview with the IWMF. “Since there are a lot of injustices and oppressions in Ethiopia, I must reveal and oppose them in my articles.” Alemu said one of her “principles” is “to stand for the truth, whether it is risky or not.”
To work for free media in Ethiopia is indeed a risk. The country has the second-highest number of imprisoned journalists in Africa, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, after notoriously oppressive Eritrea. Late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly attacked non-state members of the press, calling them “messengers” of terrorist groups. Increasingly, “terrorist” is a label attached to any entity with an opinion on politics, social issues or human rights that does conform to government rhetoric. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, Alemu worked for numerous, often short-lived independent publications. At least four news outlets to which she contributed were forced out of business by the Ethiopian government. Her reporting explored the root causes of poverty, lack of balance in national politics and gender equality. In 2010, she founded her own publishing house and a monthly magazine called Change, both of which were shuttered.
In the months prior to her arrest, Alemu was slandered in government-run media for her reporting, a common tactic to intimidate journalists. According to a colleague, Alemu also received threatening phone calls. “Reeyot was able to speak about issues even the most mature and outspoken political opposition leaders were unable to voice,” said a friend of Alemu’s who works at an Addis University. “Until this day, she has…faced up to the challenges that many have bowed down to.”
Alemu taught English classes at an Addis high school. She gave part of her salary to her students from poor families. It was at the school that she was arrested in June 2011. Her home was raided by police and a number of her personal documents were seized. At the time, she was working as a columnist for independent daily newspaper Féteh.