Reeyot Alemu is an award-winning Ethiopian journalist. In 2011, she was arrested by Ethiopian security forces, falsely charged with terrorism and given 14 years in prison, a sentence later reduced to five years. Held in dismal conditions in Addis Ababa’s Kality Prison, Reeyot endured solitary confinement, a hunger strike, health problems and grossly inadequate medical care. She was released a year early in July 2015 with help from MLDI and is now based in the USA. Six months after her release, we caught up with Reeyot to get her thoughts on freedom and the future for journalism in Ethiopia.
How did you feel when you heard you were going to be released?
It was a sudden release. I didn’t believe them when they told me. After I was sure of my release, I was happy because I would be able to meet with the people I wanted to meet. I would be able to read the books I wanted to read. I would be able to walk on the streets. There were so many reasons that made me happy.
Tell us about your first days of freedom.
My happy feeling wasn’t long lasting. It was very short. There are many innocent people in prison. There is no real freedom and equality in my country. Because I continue to write articles and give interviews, I will be in prison again in the near future. These bad realities meant I could not enjoy my first few days of freedom.
You were rarely allowed to read in prison. How did that affect you?
Most of the time, the prison officials didn’t allow me to read books, especially the ones they thought were political and historical. My friends and family brought me books, but the officials wouldn’t give them to me in the name of censorship. If I wasn’t in prison, I got and read these books easily. If I wasn’t in prison, I was introducing myself to new technologies that would help my personal and professional life. Because of prison, I missed these kinds of opportunities.
And now you’re trying to catch up on everything you’ve missed?
Now I am trying to feel the gap created by TPLF/EPRDF [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] dictators over the last four years. I am trying to know today’s new technologies, information and knowledge. It makes me very busy and troubled to live today. Because it is dangerous for them to communicate with a ‘terrorist’, I can’t call or email my colleagues, friends and relatives back in Ethiopia – it is not safe for them, because they will also be labelled as a ‘terrorist’ by the ruling party. But thanks to those four worst years of my life, I have developed the attitude that enables me to handle these problems and challenges.
What did MLDI’s support mean to you?
MLDI took my case to the African Commission and to UNESCO. I was so grateful. Knowing that there are people and organisations working for justice gave me a great feeling. I didn’t lose hope because the world has not only bad people and organisations, it also has responsible organizations and kind people like MLDI and Nani Jansen, MLDI’s legal director. She was going above and beyond her job and she helped me and my family in every respect.
Is the situation for journalists in Ethiopia any better now?
The overall situation for journalists in Ethiopia is still very difficult. For example, journalists Fikadu Mirkana and Getachew Shiferawu have recently been arrested in relation to protests against the government’s land grabbing from Oromo farmers. Journalists can’t write stories about hunger and the worst human right violations; they are forced to choose between self-censorship or imprisonment. The printing houses fear to publish the media outlets that criticize the ruling party. The newspapers and magazines that write about political issues have big problems in getting advertising, because companies fear to appear in them.
After everything you’ve been through, are you still determined to fight for freedom of speech in Ethiopia?
I am highly motivated not only to expose bad doings, but also to fight against the bad doings and their makers, because the time I spent in prison helped me to know more about my country and the ruling party. I am working to promote press freedom by exposing how journalism and journalists in Ethiopia suffer. I am touring different US states as a guest speaker at events organised by Ethiopian communities, sharing my experiences as a journalist and a responsible Ethiopian citizen.
What would you say to the next generation of journalists in Ethiopia?
My message for the next generation of journalists in Ethiopia is this: serve the people and the country in your profession. Be the voice for the voiceless.
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