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Ethiopia in the Spotlight

Ethiopia in the Spotlight

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Behind Ethiopia's fast-growing economy and Africa's second largest population, home to over 85 million people, is a troubled tale of balancing stability with human rights. The darling of donor countries, Ethiopia is a key Western ally and one of the world's biggest recipients of foreign aid money.

On average, the country receives some $3.5 billion per year – more than half of its national budget – according to the Oakland Institute.

Indeed, Ethiopia has seen impressive strides over the past decade in areas including education, health and food security. Its much-vaunted economic growth has also made it one of Africa's strongest performing economies with GDP growth of 9.7% from 2012 through 2013 (fiscal year ending in June 2013). And donor countries are never shy to prop up the success of its programme's such as decreasing the number of people requiring emergency food assistance, from 15 million in 2003 to 5.6 million in 2012, according to USAID.

Ethiopia is also an important ally to the United States in fighting terrorism. Bordering Somalia, Kenya and Sudan, Ethiopia is a crucial buffer zone in the volatile Horn of Africa between the West and hard-line Islamic groups operating out of Somalia.

But, human rights abuses run rampant as the country continues to wage its own war against a self-defined form of “terrorism” – journalism.

Eskinder Nega is a prime example of this paradox. On September 14, 2011, Eskinder was jailed and later sentenced to 18 years for discussing the misuse of terrorism laws used to jail journalists, academics, or any free thinking individual.

Eskinder is perhaps one of the most famous prisoners of consciousness locked away in Ethiopia. But he is not alone. The Ethiopian authorities continue to target any writer whose words are seen as tantamount to terrorism as a way to stay in power as long as possible, according to several Ethiopian journalists in exile.

Most recently, on April 25, the Ethiopian government arrested three local journalists and six bloggers with the site Zone 9, which publishes news and opinion pieces, sometimes critical of the government. The website's name refers to an Ethiopian prison where political prisoners are held. The jail itself has 8 zones, while the 9th zone refers to the oppression occurring outside the prison.

While no formal charges have been made, the nine journalists have been accused of working with an unnamed foreign human rights group and of using social media to incite violence in Ethiopia.

"Terrorism is now in the government's lexicon for whoever is a serious threat," says Ethiopian opposition politician and academic Berhanu Nega. "In the realm of ideas, struggling peacefully, an armed movement, it doesn't matter. Whether you are a terrorist, or not, or a religious movement, it doesn't matter."

In addition to Eskinder, at least six other Ethiopian journalists languish behind bars, making it the second worst jailer on the continent after Eritrea. Ethiopia's disdain for journalism has sent scores abroad, including at least 150 journalists into exile – a figure higher than any other country in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

There have also been no major policy changes since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012, and its broad, and dangerously vague anti-terrorism laws remain firmly in the books. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has embraced the same disregard for freedom of expression as he seemingly runs the country on “auto-pilot”, according to his critics.

The only positive sign to come out of this period of transition is the slow awakening of the West to the human rights abuses occuring in Ethiopia, according to Berhanu Nega.

"Westerners have started to see the naked picture since Meles died. People have started to question and the West has started to get a little bit weary because the instability is increasing," says Berhanu Nega.

He added that while the arrest of journalists and opposition figures might shock Western audiences, it has long lost that effect for Ethiopians. The question is no longer how did that harassment happen, but how do we change what is happening.

Journalism is so strongly correlated with an act of terrorism that Ethiopian journalist and human rights activist Zerihun Tesfaye says “people in Addis Ababa automatically tend to ask, 'is the suspect a journalist?' It seems like a joke, but it tells a lot how risky a place Ethiopia is for journalists.”

Tesfaye points out one of the anti-terror law's most nebulous and controversial aspects – Article 6. It is an oddly phrased clause that inherently says individuals who speak favourably of any opposition member or event, or a journalist who may cover them, could be convicted as a terrorist and jailed for between 10 and 20 years.

The government says the law is designed to prevent “terrorist attacks” as it fights with separatist rebel movements and armed groups.

But, Mesfin Negash, another Ethiopian journalist who now lives in Sweden, says journalists are easily caught in its dragnet as they work with a constantly shifting, invisible red line looming over their heads.

“It's is like swimming in a big water infested by crocodiles, or sharks and you have no information about how many are there and how dangerous they are,” says Mesfin. “So in a way it is very difficult to survive and you are not equipped or you not informed of what constitutes a crime in that situation. It all depends on the winds of the people in power.”

A far-stretching surveillance apparatus is also in place to watch over any perceived opposition members, journalists and activists. A Human Rights Watch report published in March detailed how the state monopoly over all mobile and Internet services through its state-owned telecom operator, Ethio Telecom, enables the government to sift through electronic and telephone records.

In 2015 Ethiopia will hold a general election. However, a look back at the staggering wins of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (E.P.R.D.F) in past elections – 99.6% of the votes in 2010 – does not exactly indicate the likelihood of change via the ballot box. The ruling party and its affiliated groups currently have 546 seats out of 547. There is one lone opposition member – and with rampant censorship, arrests and the inability to hold public demonstrations, varying perspectives are often blocked from reaching the country's population.

For example, in January 2013, a Freedom House report found that at least 70 independent news and opinion websites, some of which were based abroad, were inaccessible inside the country.

“As we stand now there is no sign from the government side that give us any hope of change. There is no hope so far. And there is no indication we’re heading in that direction,” says Negash. “They continue harassing journalists, activists, and political opposition members.”

Co-founder of the opposition group Berhanu Nega says that 2005 was the pivotal year for Ethiopia.

"No one takes elections serious anymore in Ethiopia," Nega said in a telephone interview. "How could you have an election if you can't have peaceful demonstrations, or you get killed or go to prison? What does that mean? How is that an election?

There are several key opportunities for the country's human rights record to be examined. US Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Ethiopia in the beginning of May and is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom in Addis Ababa to discuss efforts to advance peace and democracy in the region.

One week later, on May 6, Ethiopia's human rights record will be under the spotlight for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review.

After the death of Prime Minister Zenawi, there was an opportunity to move beyond the status quo and embrace human rights as part of Ethiopia's story. But as the recent arrests of nine journalists and the continued imprisonment of others show, it was a missed opportunity.

Alexandra Waldhorn


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2014-04-30 18:57

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