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