Perlilous Path for Ethiopian Journalists

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen
International Affairs Editor
Business Day, South Africa
March 29, 2006

NEARLY a year ago Ethiopia was viewed by western donors as reform-minded, progressive, and on a path to growth and political liberalisation. Today it is state of repression and fear.

As a result of a massive crackdown on the opposition and the press, more than a dozen journalists are in prison on charges that could bring the death penalty, according to a recent report released by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

In recognition of the partial reform record and hope for Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zanawi was given a seat on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa.

Having Meles on the commission was important as Ethiopia with a population of 70-million is, after Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and a substantial regional power, whose example of reform could have acted as a beacon for other countries on the continent.

A few months after the commission drew a strong connection between political repression, poor governance and low levels of economic performance on the continent, Ethiopia held elections.

The opposition disputed the elections, although most observers said the vote which resulted in a third term for Meles was largely free and fair.

A wave of street demonstrations began. Full results of the elections were long delayed, and last November the security forces shot dead 46 demonstrators, with claims by Meles that the opposition was trying to overthrow the government.

Since the demonstration in November there has been a massive crackdown on the opposition and the privately owned press.

The government issued a “wanted” list of editors, writers, and dissidents, raided newspaper offices, and prevented some newspaper from publishing.

The effect, said the committee in its report, has been to force extensive self-censorship by journalists and halve to 10 the number of papers that can be found on the streets since elections last May.

“The press is a reflection of politics,” said Amare Aregawi, editor of The Reporter, in a report by the committee.

“There’s no tolerance. It’s you are either with us or against us and that is reflected in the media,” Amare is quoted as saying.

Earlier this month a committee delegation met government officials in Ethiopia, including the prime minister. Meles insisted at the meeting that the journalists would get their day in court, and that he could not interfere in the judicial process. But he said he would review the prosecution of journalists under other charges.

The delegation also met jailed journalists, all of whom pleaded their innocence. There are signs that international pressure may be working, but only for those journalists who are beyond the reach of Ethiopian law.

Last week the government dropped charges of treason and genocide against five journalists from the US government-funded Voice of America and another radio journalist being tried in absentia.

No reason was given for the dismissal of charges against the five, but sources have said that the US has brought pressure to bear on Meles. There are still charges against other journalists, who are outside the country.