Ethiopia’s economy is booming. The government is very proud about it. ETV cannot get enough of showing a BBC broadcast talking about Ethiopia’s fast growing economy.
Ruling party officials, through every means possible, love to talk in detail about the fast growing economy. Even when they were condemning Eritrea’s alleged role in the recent attacks on tourists, they stressed the economy which they said would not be deterred by the attacks. Don’t get me wrong; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We should all be proud of our economic success and work to sustain it. My worry is rather the other news item becoming as frequent as stories of economic progress. What is the other news about Ethiopia dominating the international and even local media? Indisputably, it is the continuing prosecutions against members of the independent press.
Especially for those looking from outside, it feels like there is some sort of a war in Ethiopia that authorities have waged against journalists and it is worrisome for everyone who appreciates the vital role of a free press in any genuine free society.
In the past few months if there is any major news broadcasted from, ETV’s favorite, BBC or even in American media outlets which don’t usually have an appetite for Ethiopian related coverage; it is definitely Ethiopia’s prosecutions against journalists that seem to secure a spotlight everywhere.
The first widely heard story was the news of the jailed two Swedish journalists’; a case that came in handy to, once again, associate Ethiopia and the country’s authorities with human right abuses and oppression.
The two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, are currently serving an 11-year prison sentence after entering into Ogaden area illegally and also due to a very unfortunate, in my humble opinion a very wrong conviction allegedly supporting terrorism.
“Schibbye once woke up to find a rat mussing his hair,” read an op-ed published on January 28 on the widely read The New York Times.
The New York Times reportedly has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization in the world and its website is the most popular American online newspaper website, receiving more than 30 million visitors per month. So, the latest “publicity” Ethiopia’s image has received from this influential media, in a time the country was hosting the African Union Summit and acting like the regional police to counter aggressive Eritrean acts in the sub region that should be supported by the diplomatic community, is rather condemning one.
More stories criticizing the Ethiopian government are definitely continuing to pop out especially from places Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will visit.
“I’m in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, and so is Meles. I’ve been pursuing him for the last few days, trying to confront him and ask him about his worsening pattern of brutality,” wrote The New York Times’ Nicholas d. Kristof in the January 28th op-ed column.
Similar stories were written when Meles was in Norway and other countries.
Last year in London in a high profile conference opened by Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, investors were confused with two images – emerging and stable Ethiopia wonderfully portrayed by Zemedeneh Negatu of Ernst & Young and the fragile state under oppression protesters outside were crying about.
In both events the Ethiopian government officials were supposed to market Ethiopia. Well, it is fair to say let alone marketing Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s allies themselves are increasingly being asked to justify aid they provide us.
More prosecutions and reactions promise to follow.
Wubeshet Taye, former editor in chief of the recently closed Awramba Times Amharic weekly newspaper was last week sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and a 33,000 birr fine. Another journalist Reyot Alemu, a columnist at Feteh Amharic Newspaper, which continued its publication, was given 14 years imprisonment and a 33,000 birr fine.
Reactions? Another round of statements by rights groups and more condemnation of Meles’ rule.
As Meles quoted them himself, right groups have led to today’s Eritrea’s widely recognizable definition – a country which is serving as one big prison for its own citizens.
But when it comes to jailing journalists or sending them into exile, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ethiopia even “outperforms” Eritrea. Meles, according to the CPJ, is responsible for forcing more journalists to flee than any other leader in the world.
Writers like Kristof, who take time to appreciate Meles’ achievement in improving poverty levels and goes to the extent of recognizing his cabinet minister such as the health minister Dr Tedros Adhanom as a “superb” and “excellent” official, will unfortunately continue to talk more about what they see as human rights abuses and oppression of the free press in Ethiopia.
“It is difficult to understand the Ethiopian justice system’s stubborn insistence on strictly applying an anti-terrorism law that has been accused of infringing on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and on convicting journalists who have not been proved to have done anything more than make contact with opposition figures,” said the Paris based right group Reporters Without Borders after the latest round of prosecutions and launching a fact finding mission into the trend.
Charges against a few other fellow journalists are pending. Who knows who will follow Awramba Times and close its publication next?
As previously argued the recent mother of problems is the 2008 Anti Terrorism law which draws a very thin line between doing journalism and terrorism.
The controversial antiterrorism bill that the ruling party saw as an answer to condemning local violent and extremist groups is hurting journalists and more importantly the free press more than anybody else. The “terrorists” are either in the bush, understanding the risks, or some of them surprisingly are in the United States and they don’t even face extradition requests from Addis Ababa as analysts say Meles’ government wisely choose not to do so in order not to initiate a debate about its policies with Washington lawmakers’ circle which could surface in an event of such requests.
There have been handful outcries from both within and abroad about the antiterrorism law’s increasingly very clear conflicts with the constitution. It is becoming clearer by the day that the government in its latest moves is only discouraging the press but not its targets – the armed groups.
But all such arguments put aside, since the government heard of them repeatedly, my plea is please stop prosecuting journalists at least for the sake of the country’s image.
We came to learn the American policies have pretty much nothing to do with what Ethiopian authorities do with regards to human rights or the press. The Europeans cannot stand by their own; they feel weak by themselves that they emulate Washington just for the sake of being invited to Meles’ office for coffee. And it is also clear that the government can sustain pressure from the West, though as the Europeans professed, their job is no longer “to influence” the 21st century ideals of humanity.
So, just for the sake of public relations, the country’s image and to better market Ethiopia’s economic potential to the world without Meles and his colleagues being deterred into questions, let’s pardon all the jailed journalists, close the pending cases and talk about further fighting poverty, which should be a focus of a real war.
Otherwise the world will continue to wonder how come the country breeds more journalist-terrorists than any other country in the world. And also as The New York Times’ headline: ‘What’s He Got to Hide’, the international press will continue to ask why Meles prosecutes, jails and forces more reporters to flee than any other leader in the world.
I say Meles has much better things to do, instead of showing off his argumentation skills to defend the imprisonment of the journalists, such as marketing Ethiopia’s economic potential, for instance.