Statement delivered at the 53rd ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in Banjul, Gambia
Madame chair, ladies and gentlemen
Today, Ethiopia lives through the sword of the Damocles drawn against it. The scourge of the old days of the Red Terror grips the population. 90 million Ethiopians, a total population of a few countries in Africa put together, live in absolute fear. A simple test for the prevalence of unfreedom and absolute violation of freedom of expression is whether or not the population of a given country is gripped with fear when it comes to freedom of expression. That is the reality in Ethiopia today and no amount of claims on the contrary can change this fact.
What distinguishes humans from animals is not the capacity to think but the capacity of humans to express what they think in speech and writing. If that capability is deprived, humans are reduced to the level of animals. Today, the Ethiopian people are reduced to this deplorable level. Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa and considered as the symbol of African independence, has relinquished this prestige by muzzling its own people from expressing what they think. In as much as the population is subjected to live in fear, the government has also displayed its utter fear of the freedom of expression of the population particularly after the 2005 elections.
The government seems to have concluded that the 2005 elections gave it one major lesson: muzzling even the narrow space of expression that had existed. Muzzling the freedom of expression assumes another dimension: depriving the populace of alternative sources of information. This strategy necessitated closing down practically all private newspapers, jamming broadcasts from abroad and blocking websites that report on Ethiopia. The next step is to launch exaggerated claims on its work depicted as ‘achievements’. As a consequence: journalists who reported without fear were thrown to long term imprisonment. Eskindir Nega, an international award winning blogger, who defied the prevailing fear and wrote freely about freedom and democracy was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. A number of journalists who also won international wards are on trial. In appearance, it seems it is these journalists who are on trial. In actual fact however, it is freedom of expression and justice in general that is on trial in the Ethiopian courts today.
To jam radio and TV broadcasts from abroad, the government devotes a large chunk of the tax payers’ money. It is a paradox of immense proportion when a country that needs capital investment very badly devoting a huge sum of money for the purpose of depriving the population from acquiring information from alternative sources. A glance at the level of teledensity in Ethiopia and the fact that there is only one government internet server in the country of 90 million simply display the level of the restriction not only access to information but also in communication in general. When a government claims to hold the ultimate truth and resorts to muzzle others; that is tantamount to depriving people to think differently.
To reinforce the deprivation of freedom of expression and right to information, a new weapon introduced is the Anti-terrorism Law that was proclaimed following the defeat of the ruling party in the 2005 elections. In the 2005, the ruling party lost miserably that it resorted to massive rigging and stealing of votes. In order to consolidate this state of affairs made fait accomplit to the world, a series of new law were proclaimed. In addition to the Anti-terrorism law, extremely restrictive and prohibitive NGO and press laws were proclaimed. Once the government closed all avenues of popular expression, it went out to make wild claims such as on economic growth and winning the 2010 elections by 99.6%.
The government in Addis Ababa is not only at war with its own people on freedom of expression but also with international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organizations concerned with the continuous violations of human rights. The government’s image internationally has been tarnished for some time now. It is for no reason that the US based Parade magazine named the late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, as the “15th worst dictator in the world”.
It is a paradox of immense proportion that Ethiopia, as the seat of the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, instead of becoming a pace-setter and example for freedom and democracy, has become a symbol of unfreedom.
Despite the wild claims by the government, today in Ethiopia freedom is still a pie in the sky.