Obama should raise press freedom in Africa food talks

May 16, 2012

His Excellency Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
White House

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

As you prepare to host the G-8 summit and discuss the security of food supplies with leaders from Africa, we call on you to strongly consider the role of an independent press in identifying and assessing agricultural challenges and famine, and facilitating the national and international response to food crises.

Mr. President, as a central example, we urge you to consider the situation in Ethiopia. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia has made strides in economic growth and poverty reduction. However, Ethiopia remains one of the foremost recipients of U.S. humanitarian assistance as the country is mired in cycles of drought that leave millions of people vulnerable to hunger. The government routinely downplays the extent of the crisis by denying journalists access to sensitive areas and censoring independent news coverage. This undermines the ability of donor nations and aid groups to raise funds and make decisions about how best to mitigate the disaster. USAID has in the past called on the government of Ethiopia to improve access to those affected for assessing their needs and effectively distributing aid.

An independent press and civil society with the freedom to operate without fear or restriction are particularly necessary in Ethiopia to contextualize official claims about drought and food shortages, improve transparency in aid distribution, and alleviate hunger. During the 1980s, investigative journalists circumvented restrictions and censorship imposed by the then-government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in order to document a deepening famine that official statements denied altogether. As a result, millions of lives were saved.

Furthermore, the free flow of information and open debate could help Prime Minister Meles build national consensus and ensure that the government’s policies are the result of broad consultation with all segments of society. We believe such engagement would improve the impact of the government’s new strategies to reform Ethiopia’s agricultural practices.

Mr. President, we are deeply concerned that Ethiopia’s ongoing repression of investigative journalism fuels tensions that threaten the country’s relative stability and risk unraveling the economic and social progress registered in recent years. Since 2011, under the guise of a counterterrorism sweep, the government of Ethiopia has brought terrorism and anti-state charges against 11 independent journalists, including blogger Eskinder Nega, who may face life in prison for his writing about the struggle for democracy. Such policies deter reporting on all sensitive topics, including food security.

We request that in launching the G-8 food security agenda, you publicly acknowledge that poverty alleviation and inclusive growth require a free press and encourage Prime Minister Meles to end his repressive practices. Good governance, accountability, and adequate response to crises depend, after all, on listening to citizen voices and independent accounts.As you and your G-8 colleagues take vital steps towards advancing food security, we count on you to ensure that the free flow of information is a priority.


Joel Simon
Executive Director


H.E. François Hollande, President of France
H.E. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
H.E. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
H.E. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada
H.E. Mario Monti, Prime Minister of Italy
H.E. Yoshihiko Noda, Prime Minister of Japan
H.E. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
H.E. Yayi Boni, President of the Republic of Benin and Chairperson of the African Union
H.E. John Atta-Mills, President of the Republic of Ghana
H.E. Jakaya Kiketwe, President of the Republic of Tanzania
H.E. Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia
Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States of America
Michael Forman, Deputy Asst to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs
Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, U.N. World Food Programme
Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development
Ms. Josette Sheeran, Vice Chairman, World Economic Forum
Rajiv Shah, Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development
Bono, Co-Founder of ONE and (RED)