In Ethiopia, prime minister's words, actions not in step

By Mohamed Hassim Keita/Africa Research Associate on June 26, 2009 5:15 PM ET


This week, in an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi suggested that the press in his country freely expresses dissent. In fact, that is hardly the case. The Horn of Africa nation remains one of the world's worst backsliders of press freedom.

Asked whether a series of recent arrests of political dissidents and legislation on civil society organizations and terrorism had "contributed to an atmosphere where people do not feel free to speak," the prime minister responded: "Have you read the local newspapers? Do they mince their words about government?"

A multitude of private, political newspapers filled the newsstands in the capital, Addis Ababa--until November 2005. Then, in the midst of deadly unrest following disputed elections, authorities imprisoned the editors of these publications on antistate charges, blaming the violence on their headlines. The government either banned the titles or induced enough fear that printers were dissuaded from printing the newspapers.

When I put the prime minister's response to Dawit Kebede, who launched the weekly Awramba Times after spending nine months in prison for his critical coverage in 2005, he chuckled softly. "The facts and his argument are totally opposite," he said, citing self-censorship among the handful of authorized private newspapers venturing into current affairs coverage these days. "Before the 2005 elections, there were a lot of newspapers. Today, we can say there are may be two or three genuinely independent (political) newspapers for a population of 80 million." Independent in this sense means media outlets not owned by the government or its supporters.

The comments of the prime minister (who, by the way, also told the Financial Times he wants to step down if his supporters will let him) are often out of step with his government's actions. "I don't think people have any qualms about criticizing the government or rejecting its policies, or expressing dissenting views in any way," the business weekly Addis Fortune quoted him as saying in 2007. Yet, since then, the government has threatened, harassed, and imprisoned journalists, blocked the distribution of newspapers and access to Web sites. Speaking to Newsweek in April 2008, Zenawi said the government was enacting "a new press law that we very much hope will put our legislation on par with the best in the world." Instead, the law was hastily passed with repressive statutes that fall well short of international standards.

In 2007, Zenawi declared that pardons issued to imprisoned journalists and dissidents showed the government had "no sense of revenge." Its tolerance, though, is limited: The government has denied licenses to three publishers who were among those once imprisoned. 

Other independent journalists in Addis Ababa spoke to me on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals--a practice that has apparently become the norm for many of their sources. "If you want to interview a university lecturer (on a sensitive issue), one of the first things you hear is, 'Don't mention my name. I don't want to say these things in public,'" according to one veteran reporter. "Always we say 'person doesn't want his name to be mentioned.' It's a challenge." Another reporter told me that this practice has led some readers to doubt the credibility of stories in the newspapers. "The government always says they're trying to be transparent and make a comfortable environment for media. Practically it's not the case," the veteran reporter said.


meles continues to lie. the election was a sham. the country is now a breadbasket for the middle east.

Meles knows very well how to manipulate whom he use as free press publishers, who is his real perceived enemy, and using his own law to intimidate opponents, most of free pree he is claiming if any is only in Finfinne (addis Abeba)just to tell western world how democratic he is. For Oromiya since Meles came to power, not only free press, but if we stated there is no press, it is not overly stated; for exaple Humine Biqila, Tamam Amaan both VOA corespondents for VOA Afaan Oromo with many others have been bared from reporting in Oromiya, and other parts of Ethiopia. When journalists report the truth, government charge them with anti government or distebilizing pease to discourge free pree for a long time, there is not much Meles says about that. The fact is clear.

The “new breed of African leader” turned-out to be a street smart tyrant who picks the pockets of donors by threatening to starve his own people and the economy as racketeer.

The free press is another bargaining chip for Melse, as starving the people to milk western donors. The fellow is a professional hustler who ended up being invited in the G8 summit often. If people knew what he is capable as an assassin by listening to his victims, the modern day terrorism would be a child play.

I do not know how westerners who pretty much know well who he really is choice to unleash him on the people of Ethiopia. But, it is obvious, by the time he is done; I can see them come-up with all kind of excuse to say ‘we did not know’.

After 18 years of heinous record, starving a good portion of the population, not to mention genocide, assassination, violation of every conceivable rights of people, corruption…etc., .as the largest recipient of Aid in Sub Sahara Africa, I wonder what kind of evidence is needed to reject him than wining and dinning him in western capitals.

Something trouble is going wrong with westerners governments sustaining the worst tyrant in Africa by subsidizing him from dying a natural death. Could it be he accommodates them in poverty tourism?


Is a 21st century hustler. He know what strings to pull to advance his own end. Much to the negligence and indifference of the western superpowers,he has succeeded so far. He has succeeded to get the title of "The New Generation of African Leaders" together with his cousin Isayas Afeworki many years ago from President Clinton. He has also been a member of the much talked about but a lot of hot air initiative of Tony Blaire. He has also succeeded to be invited in so many international summit as a thoughtful and forward looking leader. But the truth is he just another rather brutal and cunning African leader with a multi thronged tongue. And the truth is coming to light now and the reality will hit him hard!

The outside world is just waking up to what we Ethiopians have known all along!

Samuel Habtu Belay July 13, 2009 1:45:21 AM ET

When he was dispatched to Somalia and his rag-tag militia slaughtered 16,000 innocent civilians and destroyed mogadishu or whatever was left from their 2 years of looting, it was ok with the West that paid for the venture. His atrocities against the Annuk people in Gambella, Ogaden, and Oromia are well decumented by the International press and there is no crying about it. I am glad the chicken came home to roost. How does one cheer for one atrocity & complain about another from two sides of their mouth.

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