This week, the Human Rights Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reviewed Ethiopia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including its press freedom record. Peppered with questions about an indefensible record of abuse–jailing the second largest number of journalists in Africa and leading the continent in Internet censorship–representatives of the Ethiopian government responded with cursory talking points and bold denials in contradiction of the facts.
Several committee members raised concerns about Ethiopia’s detention of several journalists on suspicion of terrorism, which is broadly defined in the country’s far-reaching antiterrorism law. (CPJ research shows a total of six journalists are being held.) “When we get reports that journalists get themselves arrested on grounds of violation of this particular proclamation, when seeking to enter the Ogaden or, even perhaps more recently, when engaging in Internet blogs purporting to criticize potential contributory responsibility of the government to the current drought,” said Sir Niger Rodley, “there does seem to be real problems of sweep and scope in that legislation.” Under the law, journalists risk lengthy prison sentences if the government deems their work favorable to groups and causes labeled as terrorists, including armed rebellions and banned opposition party Ginbot 7.
The government’s high-profile imprisonment of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, two Swedish journalists arrested in eastern Ethiopia while covering the activities of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front, which the government designated as a terrorist group, drew a lot of questions, particularly from committee member Krister Thelin. After being repeatedly pressed about the fate of the journalists and details of the legal procedures following their arrests, a flustered Ambassador Fisseha Yimer Aboye, head of the Ethiopian delegation, told the committee that no further information would be provided. Rodley pressed the delegation to explain the legal procedures surrounding the arrests of two other journalists, Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu, on suspicions of terrorism.
Christine Chanet, another committee member, told the Ethiopian delegation: “It’s a very vague definition that you have of terrorism. It seems the definition of terrorism is too vague, which allows the criminalization of acts that are not really acts of terrorism.” Chanet described the Ethiopian anti-terrorism legislation as “an issue of particular concern” because it “opened the door” to potential violations of rights under the International Covenant.
Then came the Ethiopian response. “Now, the fact that we have an anti-terrorist law, I can’t see how that could have a chilling effect on the media because the United Kingdom has an anti-terror law. I don’t think that has any chilling effect on the British reporters,” said Genenew Assefa, a senior political advisor with the Ethiopian Office of Government Communication
Affairs. “The mere fact that we have such laws does not necessarily imply that it would somehow curtail our liberties that are guaranteed under our
Assefa added: “From the outset, my government and I share the view that without an independent media, citizens cannot make informed decisions.” In fact, the May 1991 words of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi reflected this thinking as Zenawi, then a victorious guerrilla leader, chased from power the brutal Marxist Derg junta. “Now is the beginning of a new chapter. It is an era of unfettered freedom,” Zenawi promised Ethiopians. In 1992, a new law allowed for a free press for the first time in the nation’s history.
Then, Assefa lashed words of contempt at Ethiopia’s independent private press. “Unfortunately, for a good 10 years, in our democratic experience, the media did not, the private media that is, did not play such a role. There were serious problems of inaccuracy, irresponsibility, and shared naked political advocacy,” he said. “For 10 years, my government tolerated this because it was the beginning democracy.”
In fact it was far from “tolerance.” In 1994, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that “for the second year running, Ethiopia held more journalists in prison than any other country in Africa.” A March 1995 CPJ report noted that while the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had “substantially increased press freedom and improved the human rights situation shortly after coming to power,” the government had also “detained, imprisoned, and fined dozens of journalists” to silence critical reporting.
Referring to the more than 20 Amharic-language newspapers that authorities shut in 2005 for editorials criticizing the government’s brutal crackdown on post-election protests, Assefa said he challenged the committee members review the papers’ headlines. “They would not be tolerated to operate in any democratic country,” he asserted. “Citizens were not being informed. They were being almost forced to rise up and tear up the system.”
In fact, during the protracted politicized trials of 15 editors of the Amharic press, Ethiopian public prosecutors failed in their attempt to link newspapers headlines and editorials, strident as they were, to any violence, obtaining convictions only after the journalists waived defense and pleaded guilty to anti-state charges in anticipation of a conditional pardons.
With videos of the sessions available on the Internet, Committee Vice Chairman Yuji Iwasawa expressed concern about Ethiopia possibly preventing domestic Web users from accessing the recordings. “We have allegations that the broadcasting of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle is jammed in Ethiopia. Let’s hope that our webcast is available in Ethiopia to the viewers, not only the live webcast but the video archives.”
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several panels. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ.