UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai and Human Rights Ambassador Lionel Veer reported at the debate that Ethiopia has adopted a legislation that leaves human rights organisations unable to keep their heads above water, and critical journalists are put behind bars for many years as ‘terrorists’.
Maresha Mammo is himself an Ethiopian journalist and one of the founders of the independent Ethiopian newspaper Addis Neger (2007). When in 2009 the Ethiopian government prepared criminal charges entailing heavy imprisonment against all six co-founders of the paper, Mammo went into exile in Uganda and now resides as guest writer in Amsterdam city of refuge.
Read his testimony Refusing to be Cowed about the conditions of human rights and freedom of expression in Ethiopia.
(Amnesty meeting agenda below)
Refusing To Be Cowed
On the occasion of Amnesty International’s political debate:
Who’s Afraid of Civil Society
5 June 2014
My mom means the world to me. She was my pioneer teacher. When I asked her why she was evicted from her birth place, she would say: “Because I didn’t give in to the oppressor.”
She lost her own mom when she was just 18 months old. When she was three, her father’s whereabouts became obscure. At age five, she lost her grandma - her only guardian. It was then that her mean aunt took her in. At her aunt’s, my mom's voice was muted. To be a human bird scarer became her 24/7 chore. She endured the work load, but she revolted against her silencer. So she ran away to Addis Ababa at age 13. From my mom’s story I learnt a lifetime lesson: to say no to the oppressor. Hence we are generational victims of eviction, my mom by her aunt, me by the Ethiopian government. Such eviction comes with excruciating pain.
My agony quadruples for I am separated from my newly-wed wife and my son. I fled when we were three months pregnant. I wasn’t there when they needed me most. I was evicted from my land and my family for the sake of freedom of expression.
In my country, those who demand freedom of expression have many names. Nowadays they are called traitors and terrorists. 42 days ago, the Ethiopian government accused three journalists and six bloggers with attempting to incite violence and have since imprisoned them without charge. One of them I know intimately: Tesfalem Waldyes, a journalist, a colleague and friend for over a decade.
The last time I saw him was in Uganda when I tried to convince him not to go back and that freedom of expression was already dead in Ethiopia. He was the optimist and he argued that “there is still room to say things and thrive”. He believed the government wouldn't mind as long as he kept to that fine thread of neutrality. So he did go back. He believed there was media-space for his kind of writers. He used to be the first to tweet anything of importance from the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia. To report local news fresh and as it was, that was the goal of his life.
Now Tesfalem is in the Ethiopian gulag, being tortured. He is decorated with the terrorist medal. For me, jailing Tesfalem is like hitting the last nail on the coffin of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. I shrink with shame at this funeral ceremony in Ethiopia. For two reasons. First, I am from a nation that jails its journalists as terrorists. Second, I am among European and American citizens whose tax money is used to silence Ethiopians in the name of stability and security of the Horn.
I don’t have the kind of soul that forgets Eskinder Nega, who was among the first to be thrown into the grave of Ethiopia's freedom of expression. He was incarcerated several times for his belief, branded traitor and terrorist. He relinquished his American Green Card in order to be an Ethiopian journalist. He knew beforehand that journalism is a deadly profession in Africa, but he was willing to pay the price. He chose to inspire generations by his defiance and invincible spirit. When compared to Eskinder’s sacrifice, my choice to flee my land is cowardly. It is also the road most travelled by. But in becoming a voice for the muted voices of Eskinder, Tesfalem and others, I find some consolation for my guilt.
I am here before you as a voice for the voiceless Ethiopian journalists. For their help, I thank a number of humanitarian organizations. Among these is Amnesty Netherlands. Journalists or bloggers aren’t the only victims of the silencing and oppression. Numerous are those whose human rights are violated in Ethiopia. I will shout for them too. I will cry till my land is free from the shackle of tyranny. I will scream till the oppressors are no more.
European and American taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be invested to silence Ethiopian journalists and bloggers. As Amnesty says, human rights know no borders. Human rights abuse anywhere is the concern of people everywhere. If you all shout with me, we shall be heard.
Who's Afraid of Civil Society?
When: Thursday 5 June 2014
Where: International Press Centre Nieuwspoort, Lange Poten 10, 2511 CL,
Moderator: Sandra Rottenberg
- Welcome and introduction by Eduard Nazarski, Director of Amnesty International’s Dutch section
- Worldwide trend toward restricting the room to manoeuvre for NGOs and human rights defenders, by UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai
- Dutch foreign policy in relation to economic diplomacy, by Dutch Human Rights Ambassador Lionel Veer
- Discussion on, among other things, the effectiveness of Dutch human rights policy and on breaking the trend of limited possibilities for NGOs and activists
- Spoken column by Ethiopian journalist and writer Masresha Mammo. Mammo resides in the Netherlands at the invitation of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, in the context of the ‘Amsterdam Vluchtstad’ (City of Refuge Amsterdam) residency program
- Reactions and questions from the audience
UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai and Human Rights Ambassador Lionel Veer reports: Ethiopia has adopted legislation that leaves human rights organisations unable to keep their heads above water. Critical journalists are put behind bars for many years as ‘terrorists’. In China, a new civic movement is outlawed, and human rights defenders are imprisoned for endangering public order or state security. In Indonesia, new laws give the authorities many unnecessary possibilities to monitor civil society organisations and, for example, crack down on peaceful demonstrations on the Maluku Islands.
The Netherlands maintain good relations with Ethiopia, China and Indonesia. A degree of stability in these countries is important in order to build fruitful trade relations. However, when these countries try to guarantee this stability by restricting the room to maneuvers for NGOs and human rights defenders, how does this relate to Dutch human rights policy, which instead focuses on supporting these activists and on freedom of speech?