Gagging the media in Ethiopia 

Ethiopia media repression

By Graham Peebles

Nobody trusts politicians, but some governments are more despicable than others.

The brutal gang ruling Ethiopia is especially nasty. It claims to govern in a democratic and pluralistic manner; it says it observes human rights and the rule of law, that the judiciary is independent, the media open and free, and public assembly permitted as laid out in the constitution.

But the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) systematically violates fundamental human rights, silences all dissenting voices and rules Ethiopia in a suppressive violent fashion that is causing untold suffering to millions of people throughout the country.

There is no freedom of the press in Ethiopia. Journalists are persecuted, intimidated and arrested on false charges, so too  are their families. All significant media outlets and print companies are state owned or controlled, as is the sole telecommunications company, allowing for unfettered government monitoring and control of the internet. Radio is almost exclusively state owned and, with adult literacy at around 48 per cent, it remains the major source of information. Where private media have survived, they are forced to self-censor their coverage of political issues. If they deviate from “approved content”, they face harassment and closure.

In many cases journalists are forced to leave the country,. Some are illegally tried in absentia and given long prison sentences or the death penalty. Human Rights Watch (HRW) states in its detailed report Journalism is not a crime, that Ethiopia has more journalists in exile than “any country in the world other than Iran”, and estimates that “60 journalists have fled their country since 2010 while at least another 19 languish in prison”. More than 30 left in 2014, twice the number escaping in 2013 and 2012 combined, and numerous publications were closed down, revealing that the media situation and freedom of expression more widely are becoming more and more restrictive. “If they cannot indoctrinate you into their thinking, they fire you,” said a dismissed journalist from state-run Oromia Radio, summing up the approach of the ruling party to press freedom and indeed democracy as a whole.

With the upcoming elections in May the media should be allowed to perform their democratic responsibility – revealing policies and the incumbent regime’s abuses, providing a platform for opposition groups and encouraging debate. However, the guilt-ridden EPRDF government, desperate to keep a lid on the human rights violations it is committing, sees the independent media as the enemy, and denies them the freedom, guaranteed under the constitution, to operate freely.

Tools of control

Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, President George W. Bush made his now-notorious speech in which he reaffirmed Ronald Reagan’s 1981 declaration to initiate a worldwide  “war on terror” against terrorism and nations that “provide aid or safe haven to terrorism”. Bush’s understandable if hypocritical political statement of intent allowed regimes perpetrating terror, like the EPRDF, to impose ever more repressive laws under the guise of “fighting terrorism” and “containing extremism”.

A year before the 2010 Ethiopian general election the government introduced a raft of unconstitutional legislation to control the media, stifle opposition parties and inhibit civil society: The Charities and Societies Proclamation introduced in 2009 crippled independent civil society, and created, Amnesty International (AI) says, “a serious obstacle to the promotion and protection of human rights in Ethiopia”. It sits alongside the equally unjust Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) of the same year, which is the sledgehammer commonly used to suppress dissent and silence critical media voices both inside the country, abroad and on the internet. Overly broad and awash with ambiguity, the ATP allows for long-term imprisonment and the death penalty for so-called crimes that meet the government’s vague definition of terrorism, and allows evidence gained through torture to be admissible in court, which contravenes the United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by Ethiopia in 1994. In 2012 the government added the Telecom Fraud Offences Proclamation to its arsenal of repression, criminalising “the use of popular voice over IP (VoIP) communications software such as Skype for commercial purposes or to bypass the monopoly of state-owned Ethio-Telecom”. Eight years imprisonment and large fines are imposed if anyone is convicted of “using the telecommunications network to disseminate a “terrorising message” – whatever that may be.

The anti-terror legislation violates international law and has been repeatedly condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also been condemned by a group of United Nations human rights experts, who in September 2014 urged the ruling party “to stop misusing anti-terrorism legislation to curb freedoms of expression and association in the country”. The eminent group went on to call upon the government “to free all persons detained arbitrarily under the pretext of countering terrorism”, saying “let journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents and religious leaders carry out their legitimate work without fear of intimidation and incarceration”. Their visit followed one made by members of the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Human Right who visited Ethiopia in July 2013 when they put pressure on the government to release journalists and opposition activists imprisoned under the ATP.

Wrapped in arrogance and paranoia the EPRDF disregarded these righteous demands as well as requests to allow a visit by the “special rapporteurs on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” to visit the country and report “on the situation of human rights defenders”. No doubt the people of Ethiopia would welcome such a visit; one questions the protocol that allows regimes like the EPRDF the right to deny such a request.

Keep quiet

The ATP has been widely used to punish troublesome journalists who criticise the government or publish articles featuring opposition members and regional groups calling for self-determination. Anyone who challenges the EPRDF’s policies or draws attention to the human rights violations taking place throughout the country are branded with the stigma of terrorism, intimidated and silenced.

The two most prominent journalists to be imprisoned are award-winning Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu Gobebo.

Arrested at least seven times, Nega is currently serving an 18-year sentence for doing nothing more than calling on the government to respect freedom of expression laws enshrined in the constitution (that the EPRDF itself penned), and end torture in the country’s prisons.

Reeyot Gobebo, winner of the 2013 UNESCO-Guilermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, is currently serving a five-year jail term (commuted from 14 years after two of the charges were dropped on appeal), after being charged with a variety of unfounded, unsubstantiated terrorism-related charges.

These two courageous professionals, Human Rights Watch relates, have “come to symbolise the plight of dozens more media professionals, both known and unidentified, in Addis Ababa and in rural regions, who have suffered threats, intimidation, sometimes physical abuse, and politically-motivated prosecutions under criminal or terrorism charges”. When an article critical of the government is published, writers or editors receive threatening phone calls and text messages (emails in my case) from government stooges. If publications and broadcasters persist in publishing such pieces they suffer persecution, arrest and closure.

The ERPDF’s paranoid desire to control everything and everybody inside Ethiopia is not restricted to the national media alone. Voice of America (VoA) and Deutsche Welle (DW), which both have a presence in Addis Ababa, are routinely targeted by the government, as is ESAT TV, a shining light of independence broadcasting in Amharic from America and Europe. Their satellite transmissions are regularly jammed and their staff and family members threatened and harassed. For example, on 11 January 2015 the wife of Wondimagegne Gashu, a British citizen, longstanding human rights activist and ESAT worker, was violently detained with her three young children for two days inside Addis Ababa airport. Before being deported security personnel threatened to kill her husband if he continues his associations.

The government also restricts access to numerous websites, including independent news and political blogs, opposition parties and groups defined by the government as terrorist organisations. The required technology and expertise to carry out such criminal acts is supplied by unscrupulous companies from China and Europe, companies that should “assess [the] human rights risks raised by potential business activity, including risk posed to the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, association and privacy”. In other words, behave in a responsible and ethical manner.

State terrorism

Freedom of the media and freedom of expression sit alongside other democratic principles, such as an independent judiciary, consensual governance, participation and freedom of assembly. Where these basic tenets are absent so too is democracy. If the state systematically crushes independent media and commits widespread human rights violations, as in Ethiopia, we see not a democratic government but a brutal dictatorship committing acts of state terrorism.

In Human Right Watch’s damning report on media freedoms within the country a series of common sense recommendations are made that should be immediately enforced. Chief among these are that all journalists currently imprisoned be released; that the government immediately cease jamming radio and television stations and unblock all websites of political parties, media, and bloggers; that all harassment of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression stops; and that the regime repeals or amends all laws that infringe upon privacy rights.

By essentially banning independent media and making freedom of expression a criminal offence, the Ethiopian government is in gross violation of its own legally binding constitution as well as a raft of international covenants. All of which is of no concern to the ruling party, which treats international law with the same indifference it applies to its own people.

Pressure then needs to be applied by those nations with longstanding relationships with Ethiopia: America and Britain come to mind as the two countries which have the biggest investment in the country and whose gross negligence borders on complicity. As major donor nations they have a moral responsibility to act on behalf of the people, to insist that human rights and the rule of law be observed, and to hold the EPRDF regime accountable for its repressive criminal actions.

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