Author’s note: This is Part I in a forthcoming series relating my conversations with Reeyot Alemu and her amazing story in the defense of press freedom in Ethiopia. It is also about conversations with an extraordinary group of young Ethiopians living in Las Vegas who are dedicated to building good governance in a New Ethiopia founded on a strong foundation of democracy, the rule of law, human rights protections and accountability.
How I “met” Reeyot
When Reeyot was arrested and imprisoned by the personal order of the late T-TPLF capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) Meles Zenawi in June 2011, I was outraged but not surprised. I had no idea who she was; never heard of her name.
Following the 2005 election in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi ran around like a rabid dog biting every journalist who did not sing him praises. My policy has always been to defend any journalist attacked by Meles Zenawi and his T-TPLF. That is how I “met” Reeyot.
I became Reeyot’s No. 1 fan and self-appointed spokesperson in the court of international public opinion shortly after Meles Zenawi told his make believe parliament that Reeyot was a world class terrifying terrorist who had planned on attacking “infrastructure, telecommunications, and power lines in the country with the support of an unnamed international terrorist group and Ethiopia’s neighbor, Eritrea.” He said Reeyot is a “messenger” of terrorists, blah, blah, blah…
I laughed at Meles Zenawi’s allegations because I could prove beyond a shadow of doubt that his allegations were not only laughable but also demonstrably false.
At the time Meles made the allegation, his T-TPLF (Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front) regime had already destroyed Ethiopia’s telecommunications structure.
It is a historical fact that Emperor Menelik II was the first African leader to introduce the telephone and telegraph on the African continent in 1889, thirteen years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his “apparatus for vocal sounds”. When anxious clergymen told Menelik the telephone was the “work of Satan” and should be banned, Menelik declined and Ethiopia’s telecommunication infrastructure building began in earnest. Menelik insisted adoption of modern technology is vital “to enable us to exist as a great nation in the face of the European powers” and to meet our “need for educated people.”
In 2016, 127 years later, Ethiopia has the worst telecommunication infrastructure in the world.
Is it not incredible that, all things being equal, Ethiopia had a much better communications infrastructure in 1899 than in 2016? What a low down, dirty shame!
In 2013, Freedom House reported, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration in the world, as meager infrastructure, a government monopoly over the telecom sector, and obstructive telecom policies…”
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that while farmers in Ethiopia have cell (mobile) phones, “The trouble is, they have to walk several miles to get a good signal.” Ethiopia has the second worst internet service in Africa. Kenya, some 450 miles south of Addis Ababa, in 2012 had the second highest internet speed in Africa after Ghana, according to Freedom House. In 2016, growth in Kenya’s telecommunications sector is described as “nothing short of phenomenal.”.
It is the worst telecommunication system in Africa that Meles Zenwai claimed Reeyot was planning to destroy! Aye, aye, aye! Meles the “visionary”!
Anyway, following Reeyot’s arrest, I made sure I was kept informed on her situation in Meles Zenawi Prison (sometimes referred to as “Kality Prison”).
I am recounting my conversations with Reeyot in this series not to show the heroism of Reeyot and her extraordinary family (God bless her parents for giving us Reeyot and her sister Eskedar), but in the fervent hope that Reeyot’s story of commitment to truth, courage, patriotism, sacrifice, virtuousness, honesty, decency and humanity will inspire all young Ethiopians to stand up for their beliefs. She has certainly inspired me.
I am also recounting my conversations with Reeyot so the world can see through Reeyot’s eyes the crimes against humanity committed against her and continue to be committed against all political prisoners in Ethiopia. What happened to Reeyot happens to every political prisoner in Ethiopia. Reeyot does not feel she is some special victim of T-TPLF crimes against humanity. She is just one of many thousands of political prisoners held by the T-TPLF. Her struggle is not for her personal liberty; it is for the liberty of all Ethiopians without regard to ethnicity, religion, language, region, gender and so on.
It is hard and easy to describe Reeyot.
Reeyot is in many ways a larger than life figure. Meles Zenawi jailed her when she was 31 years old. When I met her in person a few days ago, she was beyond anything I had imagined her to be.
The way Meles Zenawi spoke of her to his make-believe parliament, I was expecting someone fearsome, fire-breathing, frightful and intimidating. I was expecting to meet a terrifying figure. (Maybe “terrifying” is the wrong word to use in this context.)
Reeyot is a young woman in a small frame.
When I first laid eyes on her, the first words I said to her were, “You are Reeyot?! I am not scared of you!” She busted out laughing.
I wasn’t really trying to be funny. I just blurted out the