In January 2012, Reeyot Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to five years, of which she has served two.
The reason that Alemu was imprisoned is that sheâ€™s a journalist in Ethiopia who speaks out against the government. In Ethiopia, the government routinely silences journalists by accusing them of terrorism, interrogating them without benefit of legal counsel, and holding a trial that inevitably convicts them. Only one other government in Africa, Eritrea, detains more journalists.
Alemu had been arrested seven months beforeâ€”in the high-school English class she taught; her house was then searched. Sheâ€™d been teaching, writing columns for a local newspaper, and planning her wedding. Her students and colleagues were shocked, to say the least. Since her arrest and assignment to the notorious Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa, Alemu has at times been punished with solitary confinement, denied medical care, and allowed no visitors. She has gone on a hunger strike to protest not being able to see her fiancÃ© and her sister. All these restrictions are forbidden in the Ethiopian Constitution, but that appears to be a mere technicality.
Much of this started when the Ethiopian government began to raise funds to construct a giant hydroelectric dam and started diverting the waters of the Blue Nile, prompting angry protests from its neighbor, Egypt. Alemu had already criticized the government for a variety of policies, including its â€œgrowth and transformation plan,â€ but this time she raised questions about the particulars of the funding campaign as well as the project in general. In Ethiopia, that was described as the planning and promotion of terrorist acts.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) disagrees: â€œWriting critical columns about the government is not a criminal offense,â€ wrote CPJâ€™s East Africa Coordinator Tom Rhodes, â€œand is certainly not a terrorist act. Reeyot should be released immediately.â€ And from Mohamed Keita, another CPJ official: â€œThe Ethiopian government has a longstanding practice of using umbrella charges of terrorism to silence critical voices. These acts are part of a pattern to punish the Ethiopian press for their journalistic work.â€
Alemu was offered clemency in exchange for providing information on other journalists. She refused. Alemuâ€™s father was asked if heâ€™d advise Reeyot to apologize to the government. Courage and principle clearly run in the family. His response, in part: â€œWe try as much as humanly possible to keep (our children) from harm . . . Whether or not to beg for clemency is her right and her decision. I would honor and respect whatever decision she makes. . . . I would rather have her not plead for clemency, for she has not committed any crime.â€
Reeyot Alemu herself echoes that sentiment:
â€œI knew that I would pay the price for my courage, and I was ready to accept that price.â€