Freedom of expression under attack in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government bolstered its image as a global leader in stifling internal dissent last week with the convictions of 24 prominent critics on conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism charges. Eskinder Nega, an influential journalist repeatedly detained over past years for challenging regime policy, is among those awaiting sentence, along with five other journalists tried in absentia.

Employing new anti-terrorism legislation, widely condemned by rights groups as draconian, the move reinforces Ethiopia’s status as one of the most inhospitable environments for press liberty worldwide.

“Freedom of speech can be limited when it is used to undermine security and not used for the public interest,” said Judge Endeshaw Adane in court. The dissidents face potential life terms in prison.

The 27 June ruling unleashed an outcry from rights groups, who condemned the charges as part of a systematic campaign to eliminate political and social opposition.

Analysts say those convicted acted in accordance with rights enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution and international law statutes.

“These individuals were targeted for peaceful activities and calling for reform to take place,” said Claire Beston, Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International, while emphasising the need to alter the language of the anti-terrorism bill. “Since this legislation was passed, but particularly over last 12 to 18 months, there have been significantly more incidents of suppressing dissent.”

Since claiming power in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front-led government has treated the independent press as a threat. The Nega case prosecutor claimed those convicted have connections to outlawed organisations, such as US-based Ginbot 7, an organisation that calls for the overthrown of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime.

Former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Horn of Africa expert, David Shinn, says the convictions do not represent a significant change in the government’s approach towards the press. Shinn termed the effort to stifle media voices “cyclical”.

“There’s obviously been a long history of cracking down on journalists in Ethiopia,” said Shinn, who served as ambassador from 1996 to 1999. “It goes back to the very beginning of press reporting in the country.”

In mid-June, prominent US Senator Patrick Leahy threatened to withhold USD $500,000 of military aid to Ethiopia should the country fail to improve its human rights record. Considering the relatively small sum, the gesture is merely symbolic and world powers seem reluctant to implement stern measures to curb the harassment of dissidents.

With the US as a primary backer, Ethiopia is a beneficiary of billions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid on an annual basis. Beston says imposing financial restrictions on assistance is an effective yet severely under-utilised mechanism to ensure improvement in the government’s attitude towards human rights.

“There’s been no strong response, no significant criticism… there are no questions being asked about the humanitarian situation in the country,” said Beston. “[Foreign powers] have influence and they should be asking questions about the ever-decreasing space for press freedom, among other things, in the country.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claims Ethiopia sends more reporters into exile than any other country across the globe. Those that remain are shackled and isolated. The government, according to critics, recently unveiled a sophisticated new technology to censor web content, dubbed the Deep Packet Inspection. CPJ claims the filter blocks heavily trafficked local and international sites, and places Ethiopia in the censorship lead among African countries.

“As the technology develops in order to assist civilians and activists to get around censorship, the government is introducing additional technology to prevent that,” said Beston. “There’s also very high level of surveillance. People are scared of sending emails with any type of criticism.”

Since November Ethiopian courts have charged 11 journalists with terrorism, including two Swedish reporters apprehended in the volatile Ogaden region of the country. The charges triggered a diplomatic row but the journalists remain in detention.

The government prevents all independent observers from entering Ogaden, a large swathe of territory bordering Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya. The Ethiopian Army has deployed in the region in recent years to quash local rebel groups, primarily the Ogaden National Liberation Front. Despite the media blockade, rights groups claim both sides commit atrocities. The situation there is steadily gaining attention.

“The accusations certainly require media and other independent investigations,” said Beston. “The US should be pushing for that. They should be ensuring their aid is not used to commit crimes that violate international law.”

Over recent years, however, the Zenawi regime has provided a critical ally to the US and European powers. In a vitally important area prone to unrest, the Ethiopian army frequently engages in peacekeeping missions and military campaigns in conjunction with global partners.

“You go back to the issue of how far you can push [human rights abuses] and risk losing what the Ethiopians do in the region,” said Shinn. “They were asked to step in in Abyei as peacekeepers and they did that, like any other number of incidents where they’ve done similar things in the region.”

But to innumerable Ethiopians, last week’s arguably erroneous convictions will likely serve as a deterrent to push for reform in a country seemingly in dire need of it.

“The evidence presented…criminalized their individual rights to freedom of expression and their legal conduct as journalists and political oppositionists,” said Beston.

Brian Dabbs is an internationally published print and photo journalist based in Nairobi

South Sudan: Independence has not brought freedom for press

In November last year, Ngor Garang was illegally detained and repeatedly tortured for 18 days in South Sudan’s national security headquarters, located in the country’s interim capital, Juba.  His crime: he was the chief editor for a newspaper that published a column criticizing the marriage of President Salva Kiir’s daughter to an Ethiopian national.

In the wake of the incident, authorities shut the doors on Garang’s English-language daily Destiny. Six months on, Destiny remains out of circulation, banned by a South Sudanese government increasingly chided for its suppression of independent media.

Garang, however, is continuing the fight. Upon release he leveled toxic criticism against those responsible for his detention. Now writing for the Sudan Tribune, he still practices the trade despite being routinely targeted by state officials. In late March, he was dismissed from a ruling party council meeting in an incident authorities deemed inadvertent.

“These people thought they could silence us by intimidating me and breaking the law,” Garang told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in the aftermath of his detention. “But I told them even if they killed me they could not kill the freedom of the press.”

When South Sudan officially seceded from the north in July 2011, international and domestic parties alike had high hopes for press liberty in the world’s newest country. But that prospect has not come to fruition. South Sudanese journalists like Garang routinely face harassment, intimidation and violence for pursuing stories that tackle everything from corruption to security concerns. Some analysts anticipate an exacerbating situation.

“What is particularly disappointing is that the environment for press freedom has declined and deteriorated since secession,” said Robert Herman, Sub-Sahara Africa expert at Freedom House. “There are serious concerns about commitment on the side of the government of Salva Kiir. Despite what they’ve said and promised to donors, we’ve seen backsliding.”

A relatively muzzled media is not the only problem South Sudan is struggling to address. In the nine months to follow country’s historic partition, South Sudan has faced enduring crisis. Ethnic clashes in remote areas are common. More notably of late, South Sudan is embroiled in a row with the north over oil revenue sharing and territorial sovereignty. South Sudan shut down oil exports in January and has since felt the economic repercussions. Oil accounts for 98 percent of the poverty-stricken country’s state revenue. Since November, inflation has skyrocketed.

The disputes have also erupted in the largest scale clashes between the two national armies since independence. Last week, South Sudan seized a major oil field in territory the international community recognizes as north of the demarcation line. South Sudan claims the move was in response to weeks of aerial bombardment targeting its oil assets. Observes say the crisis may lead to greater government oppression in the south.

“Now that were getting to more confrontation with the north, my fear is the small freedoms that South Sudanese have received will be quashed,” said CPJ Africa consultant Tom Rhodes.

That would not be an uncommon consequence of escalating conflict and tensions. In conflict arenas throughout the globe, infringements on liberties are pervasive.

“When there are those kinds of external threats it creates an environment that is less conducive to the free flow of information and more constrained in terms of criticism,” said Herman.

Media legislation in South Sudan has been in the works for years but parliament has failed to pass a series of three bills. The legislation in its current form would significantly enhance press freedoms, according to observers. But those freedoms may prove elusive.

“The future of press freedom in South Sudan is uncertain especially with the delay of the media bills,” said Edward Terso, Editor of the Juba-based weekly Daily Mentor, in an email response to questions. “We have the feeling that the media bills will be passed only after deleting clauses that favour freedom of journalists. There is fear that more powers will be given to the security to control or even muzzle the press.”

The legislation faces resistance from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) dominated parliament and the executive branch, according to analysts. Rhodes says the SPLM’s aversion to opposition is typical of other rebel movements that eventually claim the reigns of power. North and South Sudan engaged in two enduring civil wars after colonial powers departed the country. The most recent 22-year conflict ended in 2005 with the SPLM and the Khartoum government brokering a deal that fostered partition.

“The problem is you have a military government taking over a country that during the war had only sympathetic voices. They’re used to PR, not critical voices. That’s new to them,” said Rhodes. “Like other former rebel movements throughout the continent, the SPLM assumed the role of liberators. And then they don’t like to take any criticism.”

Despite state suppression, the media landscape in South Sudan is expanding. In recent months and years, the number of independent and private media houses operating in the country, from web-based content to print dailies to broadcasting, continues to rise. Media ownership, however, is an issue.

“When you look at the majority of the owners of the publications and broadcasters, they are either owned or heavily sympathetic to the SPLM,” said Rhodes. “So you have to wonder how many unbiased journalists there are in South Sudan.”

Analysts say corruption is endemic in South Sudan. This is, however, one of the most inaccessible areas of reporting for journalists. With the massive influx of international aid entering the country on a daily basis, the South Sudanese population would benefit substantially from greater transparency.

“Independent [media] in South Sudan is giving the best service by uncovering grievances in order to create a transparent, just and accountable society,” said Terso. “This service seems not to augur well with some individuals in government.”

Brian Dabbs is an internationally published print and photo journalist based in Nairobi

The plight of journalists who flee Al-Shabaab

As Elmi Mohammed Waare ambled through an outdoor market in the central Somali town of Beledweyne in December 2007, two casually-dressed, non-descript members of the  Al-Shabaab militia group abruptly blocked his path. He had been threatened twice before in anonymous phone calls. The face-to-face confrontation was forthcoming.

“They said ‘you know what you have done. You have insulted us. We are giving you the last warning. You must leave the city in seven days or be killed’,” Waare recalled.

As a radio journalist in his hometown of Beledweyne, Waare, now 26 years old, reported on the policy initiatives of the former provincial governor at the time that Al-Shabaab was gaining momentum. Now notorious for the brutality afflicted on central and southern Somalis for the past five years, the militant group violently muzzled dissent and objective media coverage as it accumulated power.

“Three days later I left. I did not tell many people I was leaving because I could be intercepted,” said Waare, from his temporary home in the Eastleigh district of Nairobi, Kenya. “Even when I was leaving, I left the city hiding.”

Waare’s story epitomises the experiences of dozens of Somali and regional journalists forced into exile by government and militia repression and threats posed by conflict. Kenya is the preferred destination for journalists in East Africa and the Horn of Africa region facing adverse conditions. “Compared to its neighbors, Kenya is relatively welcoming. There are fewer security issues here,” said Neela Ghoshal, Human Rights Watch Africa researcher based in Nairobi. “People also don’t have a great fear that Kenyan security is in league with security forces from neighbouring countries.”

According to US based Committee to Protect Journalists, Kenya ranks second to the United States among global destinations for exiled journalists, harbouring at least 66 members of the media. Those forced to flee are overwhelmingly from neighbouring countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. In those countries, state and militia suppression of independent and objective media is endemic.

“Kenya has a robust media. We really have to appreciate the change in media landscape since [current President Mwai] Kibaki came to power,” said CPJ Africa consultant Tom Rhodes, while conceding some press freedom issues remain in the country, mostly relating to media monopoly, political influence and isolated incidents of intimidation and violence against journalists.

Kenya represents a beacon of regional press freedom, and the majority of regional journalists are able to continue to work in the media field without harassment. Independent press, according to Rhodes, is only one of many reasons journalists flock to Kenya. “Like in any country, refugees look for their own kind. This is especially true for Somalis here.”

There is also a strong, if overburdened, United Nations presence in Kenya. They lend critical assistance to refugees throughout the region.

There are many exiled journalists currently residing here,  and Somali journalists in particular have networks to vent frustration and design a path forward.

But life in Nairobi is by no means glamorous. Waare and other exiled journalists face cultural adversity and minimal employment opportunities. The overwhelming Somali Eastleigh district where Waare resides is plagued by government neglect. Roads are derelict, property is vulnerable to intrusion and subject to skyrocketing inflation. For Waare, however, the most distressing aspect of life here is the time he wastes unemployed and inactive,  and unable to  provide for his wife and children back in Somalia.

“I haven’t paid any bills for my family. I sleep and I wake up. Then I go to mosque and I go home,” said Waare. “I do nothing else. Life now is very difficult. I’m fed up with this situation.”

After spending more than three years in Kenya illegally, Waare currently holds a UNHCR refugee mandate and a Kenyan refugee status certificate. He now shares a miniscule room with two other Somalis in a concrete slab building. His sister provides food and his $35 monthly rent from money her Somali-American husband sends her.

In Somalia, Waare was employed with Voice of America and other local media outlets. After arriving in Kenya, he had a brief stint with Frontier FM, a Somali language station that broadcasts in Nairobi and throughout Kenya’s Northeast province. Now, with no means of income, he is constantly plotting his return to Beledweyne.

That prospect is arguably more attainable now than it has been at any point since Waare’s departure. Suffering from a concerted international military and diplomatic offensive, Al-Shabaab is now at its most debilitated state in years. After an initial foray into Somalia in January, Ethiopian troops ousted the militant group from several major urban centers near the border and now occupy Beledweyne. Although the Ethiopians have imposed strict curfews and local economies are in shambles, life may be on the path towards peace.

“The Ethiopian presence there is a good thing. But the menace is still there. They are hiding,” said Waare.

Ethiopia is ostensibly fighting alongside Kenyan and African Union peacekeepers that support Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Tom Rhodes says stronger TFG control in southern and central Somalia may lead to enhanced media freedom.

“There was zero independent reporting under Al-Shabaab. Potentially there will be more press freedom if the TFG takes greater control,” said Rhodes. “The TFG on the surface seems more sympathetic to the press. We see signs it is investigating murder cases of journalists that took place last year.”

Nonetheless, Somalia remains the most oppressive media environment across the globe. According to the CPJ, four of the 13 journalists killed internationally in 2012 have been Somali. Fortunately Waare escaped the war-torn country unscathed and his flight was less traumatic than some. One colleague of his tried to reach South Africa overland but was detained in a Tanzanian jail for seven months for illegal entry. His health, according to Waare, was in an abysmal state upon his release.

Other colleagues tried to begin new lives in Ethiopia but failed due to the harsh conditions. As difficult as life appears to be for Waare, Kenya has  provided him the best opportunity available.

“There is no freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Some of my friends have gone to Ethiopia and they say you can’t live as a journalist there. Its not allowed,” he said. “That’s not the case in Kenya.”

Brian Dabbs is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He writes for The Atlantic, World Politics Review and Think Africa Press, among other publications.