Reeyot Alemu: praised abroad, jailed at home

Reeyot Alemu: praised abroad, jailed at home

Denied the chance to visit her in prison, DCMF recently met with jailed journalist Reeyot Alemu's family to express support for her cause.
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Labelled a terrorist, UNESCO's Guillermo Cano Isaza World Press Freedom Prize winner Reeyot Alemu continues to languish in Kality prison (UNESCO)

Reeyot Alemu is a 34-year-old female Ethiopian journalist. She was a high school teacher until 2000, when she started working as a columnist for several local newspapers including the independent weekly magazine Feteh. In 2010, she founded her own publishing house and became the editor in chief of her own monthly magazine called Change, both of which were closed. Reeyot’s articles covered social and political affairs as well as poverty and gender issues. In June 2011, she was arrested by Ethiopian authorities on charges of terrorism, for which she was convicted to 14 years of imprisonment and a fine of 33,000 birrs (USD 1,500). Last year, the charges against Reeyot Alemu were reduced and she is currently serving a five-year term at Kality prison, where her colleagues Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, Yusuf Getachew and Solomon Kebede are also held on charges of terrorism.

While attending the African Media Leaders Forum in Addis Ababa last week, a DCMF delegation met with the family of Reeyot Alemu to inquire about her health.

DCMF also wrote a letter personally addressed to Reeyot to express the Centre’s support for her ongoing struggle for press freedom in Ethiopia. The letter was shared with her a couple of days after we met with her family.

“The last time I saw her was two months ago, on the September 8. Now, only her father and her mother are allowed to see her.” Sileshi Hagos is convinced that the decision to prohibit him from visiting his fiancée, Reeyot Alemu, is an attempt by the authorities to break her willpower. “They are trying to terrorise her but she is strong,” he says, smiling sadly. “They cannot imagine how strong she is, she will never give in.”

Reeyot Alemu is one of the seven Ethiopian journalists in jail. Earlier this year she was awarded the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to honour her “exceptional courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression.”

Her father, Alemu Gobebo, is a lawyer by profession and shows us a copy of the Ethiopian constitution. “According to Article 21 of the constitution, she should be allowed to have close relatives, friends and religious counselor visiting her. However, since September, they have stopped allowing other visitors. Prohibiting her fiancée and her sister from visiting her is simply unconstitutional. Only my wife and I can visit her. And I can only visit her as her father, not as her legal counsel.”

Alemu is deeply concerned about his daughter. Her health is deteriorating. In addition to suffering from sinusitis and gastritis, she has a benign tumour in one of her breasts. “She should have gone to the hospital three weeks ago. Her breast is bleeding. She is complaining every day with the prison authorities and insisting to have medical care, but they don’t take her to the hospital.”

Several human rights and press freedom organisations have insisted that Reeyot Alemu should immediately receive adequate medical care to avoid the possibility of her tumour becoming deadly. “She refuses to ask for a pardon, that is why they try to break her,” says her fiancée, who himself also works as a journalist for the independent weekly Ethio-Mihdar.

“She will not ask for pardon because that would mean recognising she committed a crime. But she did not commit any crime. She was just trying to be a voice for the voiceless”.

(Alemu Gobebo, Reeyot's father, DCMF director, Jan Keulen and Sileshi Hagos, Reeyot's fiancé)

Journalists or terrorists?

According to her father, her arrest was illegal to begin with: “She was accused of being a terrorist. For the authorities there is no difference between journalism and terrorism. But in fact, she is a real journalist. She wrote a lot of articles and all of them have been compiled into a book.”

“The Minister of Communication says she is not a journalist but the document which proves Reeyot is indeed a journalist was awarded to her by the Minister himself,” her fiancé adds while showing us Reeyot’s training certificate in basic legal education for journalists dated from 2010.

Sileshi Hagos remembers what happened when his fiancée was arrested more than two years ago. Reeyot had taken a photo in the street of a board with the word “enough” in Amharic, allegedly written by the opposition party. Later on, she reported in one of the newspapers “the opposition party says enough,” Sileshi explains. A few days later, she was arrested and taken to Maekelawi prison for interrogation. “Police authorities at Maekelawi prison kept her in the investigation room for nine days without food or water. For an additional 13 days, she was put in a cold and dark room in solitary confinement. She was accused of participating in a terrorist organisation.”

In the report prepared by the High Court, Reeyot Alemu is accused of reporting news and taking pictures. “The judges considered these to be subversive.” At first she was sentenced to 14 years in prison on three charges: “conspiracy to change the existing government by force or by a terrorist act, participating in a terrorist organisation, and helping to promote or communicate terrorism”. But in August 2012, the Federal Supreme Court dropped two of the charges against her due to lack of evidence and the sentence was reduced to five years. The only charge upheld concerns “helping to promote or communicate terrorism.”

Life at Kality prison

Reeyot’s father was only allowed to visit her two and a half months after her arrest. “Her body trembled. She was weakened and could barely stand on her legs. They did terrible things to her. They forced her to stand naked outside in the rain, in the cold. They don’t respect the constitution and the laws which all call for a humane treatment.”

Sileshi knows exactly what his fiancée went through. Three months after the arrest of Reeyot, he was also held at Maekelawi prison for a month and 12 days. “For a woman, it is not simple to stay in that room. Because they did not give her any water or any food for 13 days, Reeyot started vomiting blood and as a result, she now suffers from gastritis.”

During the African Media Leaders Forum (7-8 November) the deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonen asserted that there are no journalists in jail in Ethiopia. “That is right, because Reeyot Alemu and the six other jailed journalists are considered as terrorists” her fiancé says, “that is also the reason why they are treated so badly”.

Reeyot Alamu is in a prison room with 66 convicted women, all common prisoners. They share two toilets and one bathroom. “No one is allowed to talk to her or share food with her because she is a ‘terrorist’. She is completely isolated”

Reeyot is only allowed to read fiction and religious books. “Even Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom is not allowed because they say it’s a terrorist book” Sileshi laughs cynically.  Asked about whether Reeyot is permitted to write in her cell, her father responds: “Of course not. She has no newspaper and they check her room every week so if there is anything she has written, they take it away”.

Family stigma

“My wife goes to Kality every day to bring her food. But she is getting older and her legs are in bad condition. I am really concerned because, if my wife can’t go there anymore, who will bring her food every day? Who will take care of her?” he asks. 

Reeyot’s family is also suffering from the stigma of being related to a “terrorist.” “We are being punished. The Intelligence Service is following us, listening to our phones. They spy on our family on a day-to-day basis, but this has become a routine for us. I am still a lawyer but, being labelled as the father of the terrorist, I have only very few clients. Most of my clients left after the accusations were made against Reeyot,” Alemu explains. “All my family is now associated with terrorism so it is very difficult for us to continue with our jobs.”

A few months ago, Reeyot Alemu and her family appealed to the Supreme Court to drop all the charges against her. Unfortunately, the appeal was rejected. Commenting on the verdict, Reeyot’s father says “we have tried everything … there is nothing we can do now.”

On November 10, 2013, a DCMF delegation went to Kality prison to visit Reeyot Alemu but was refused access to the jailed journalist. Reeyot’s father, sister and fiancé were also present but only Mr Alemu, her father, was granted access to his daughter. The prison guards explained they could not allow anybody else than her father to enter because “there was no official present at Kality on this day to take such a decision.” 

After Alemu visited Reeyot, he informed DCMF that she was feeling strong and had been informed she would be taken to the hospital for treatment this coming month. When she asked the prison guards why they still hadn’t taken her to the hospital, they replied that she had got the information wrong: they were not supposed to bring her for treatment three weeks ago but somewhere during the month of November. As of now, Reeyot is still waiting to be taken to the hospital to treat her breast tumour.

On the way back to Addis Ababa, the DCMF delegation sat down with Sileshi, Reeyot’s fiancé. He had just received a letter from Reeyot. In the letter, Reeyot said she was still feeling strong but was increasingly concerned for her family’s safety as opposed to her own.

All rights reserved, Doha Centre for Media Freedom 2013

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