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The Times
  • Kent Bush: Skyping could have landed me in jail

  • When in Ethiopia last January for the court work involved in adopting our son, we spent about half an hour one evening using the program Skype to tell students in Kansas about our trip and talk to friends and family who were taking care of things for me at home. According to a rule enacted last week, that conversation could have landed me in an Ethiopian jail for 15 years.

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  • It is always fun to find out that you have done something that could have landed you in jail.
    When in Ethiopia last January for the court work involved in adopting our son, we spent about half an hour one evening using the program Skype to tell students in Kansas about our trip and talk to friends and family who were taking care of things for me at home.
    According to a rule enacted last week, that conversation could have landed me in an Ethiopian jail for 15 years.
    Ethiopia is a very important country for United States national security concerns because of its proximity to Northern African terrorism hotspots. It is also a key cog in the work to stabilize the region’s economy and famine prevention.
    But in his almost two decades in office, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has proven himself to be authoritarian when it comes to controlling the press in Ethiopia.
    Eskinder Nega knows that. He has been in jail since Sept. 2011 on charges of terrorism. In Ethiopia, terrorism is loosely defined which broadens its use for those in power to be able to punish their political enemies.
    Nega was a political enemy of the ruling party.
    He has been jailed seven times in less than 20 years. In 2005, he and his wife were jailed and their newspapers closed down because they refused to stop reporting about disparities in the controversial national election.
    Now the government has included a provision that makes voice over internet protocol communications using software like Skype illegal.
    The reasoning behind it is that those communication methods are much more difficult for the government to track and would be a great tool for terrorists. Of course, the fact that the government owns the telephone service in the country and sets the prices and enjoys the revenue from long distance calls is just a coincidence.
    It also gives the government another weapon to attack its enemies.
    Ethiopian journalists claim the government has sought to control the use of Internet-based telecom services for several years. They have cracked down on Internet cafés that offered Web-based telecommunications services and requiring them to keep records of the names and addresses of their customers, according to local reports.
    One student was even arrested in December for showing a customer how to use Skype.
    Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said, “The United States and Ethiopia share important interests, and the Administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget requests $350 million in assistance for Ethiopia. However, to the extent that any of that assistance is intended for the Ethiopian government, the importance of respecting freedom of the press cannot be overstated. What happens to Eskinder Nega and other journalists there will resonate loudly not only in Ethiopia, but also in the United States Congress.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Nega was to hear his verdict June 21, but the proceedings were delayed – as many court proceedings in Ethiopia are.
    I appreciate Leahy’s desire to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to operate with openness and fairness.
    But withholding funds from the country won’t have the desired effect. The impoverished people of Ethiopia watch their leaders cruise past them in Range Rovers to palatial estates and lavish office buildings. Those in power will merely withhold more funds from those who need it most.
    Answers to problems in Ethiopia are tough. The country battles an AIDS epidemic that has given rise to a total of more than 5 million children living without a parent. The government controls almost all property leading to a repressed economy with limited opportunities. The leadership – if not corrupt – is certainly willing to keep a lion’s share of the wealth for itself.
    I don’t know what the answer is, but I understand Leahy’s feeling that we can’t let these injustices and abuses of power go unchecked.
     
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