On the Ground
Damon Winter/The New York Times
IN a filthy Ethiopian prison that is overridden with lice, fleas and huge rats, two Swedes are serving an 11-year prison sentence for committing journalism.
Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, share a narrow bed, one man’s head beside the other’s feet. Schibbye once woke up to find a rat mussing his hair.
The prison is a violent, disease-ridden place, with inmates fighting and coughing blood, according to Schibbye’s wife, Linnea Schibbye Steiner, who last met with her husband in December. It is hot in the daytime and freezing cold at night, and the two Swedes are allowed no mail or phone calls, she said. Fortunately, she added, the 250 or so Ethiopian prisoners jammed in the cell protect the two journalists, pray for them and jokingly call their bed “the Swedish embassy.”
What was the two men’s crime? Their offense was courage. They sneaked into the Ogaden region to investigate reports of human rights abuses.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!
So the only proper response is a careful look at Meles’s worsening repression. Sadly, this repression is abetted by acquiescence from Washington and by grants from aid organizations.
Those Swedish journalists will probably be released early because of international pressure. But there will be no respite for the countless Ethiopians who face imprisonment, torture and rape.
I’m in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, and so is Meles. I’ve been pursuing him for the last few days, trying to confront him and ask him about his worsening pattern of brutality.
He has refused to see me, so I enlisted my Twitter followers to report Meles sightings. I want to ask him why he has driven more journalists into exile over the last decade than any other leader in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City.
Meles has done genuine good in fighting poverty. He has some excellent officials under him, including a superb health minister, and Ethiopia’s economy is making progress in health and agriculture. Ethiopia is full of aid organizations, and it has a close intelligence and military relationship with the United States government.
Yet since 2005, when an initial crackdown left 200 protesters dead and 30,000 detained, Meles has steadily tightened his grip. A Human Rights Watch report this month noted that the government is forcibly removing tens of thousands of people from their rural homes to artificial villages where they risk starvation. Those who resist endure arrests, beatings or worse.
“The repression is getting worse,” notes Tamerat Negera, who fled to the United States after the newspaper he edited was closed down in 2009. “His vision seems an attempt to root out any dissent.”
Meles has criminalized dissent, with a blogger named Eskinder Nega now facing terrorism charges, which could mean a death sentence. His true crime was calling on the government to allow free speech and end torture.
Appallingly, the Meles regime uses foreign food aid to punish his critics. Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of development aid, receiving about $3 billion annually, with the United States one of its largest donors. This money does save lives. But it also “underwrites repression in Ethiopia,” in the words of Human Rights Watch.
Families and entire areas of the country are deliberately starved unless they back the government, human rights groups have shown. In Ethiopia, the verb “to starve” is transitive.
Look, I’m a huge advocate of smart aid to fight global poverty. But donors and aid groups need to ensure that their aid doesn’t buttress repression.
The Meles regime, run largely by a coterie from his own minority Tigrayan ethnicity, has been particularly savage in the Ogaden region, where it faces an armed uprising. When Jeffrey Gettleman, a colleague at The New York Times, went to the Ogaden in 2007, he found a pattern of torture and rape. The government then arrested Gettleman and two colleagues, detaining them for five days in harsh conditions.
The two Swedish reporters illegally entered the Ogaden and met a rebel group to examine that human rights wasteland. In December, they were sentenced to 11-year terms.
Steiner, Schibbye’s wife, said of the harsh conditions: “Eleven years in an Ethiopian prison is equal to life, because you do not survive that long.”
Amnesty International says that in the last 11 months, the government has arrested at least 114 Ethiopian journalists and opposition politicians. It described this as “the most far-reaching crackdown on freedom of expression seen in many years in Ethiopia.”
Prime Minister Meles, you may have dodged me in Davos, but your brutality toward Swedish, American and Ethiopian journalists will not silence the world’s media. You’re just inviting more scrutiny.