Will the government pardon journalists currently serving severe sentences over terrorism charges?
Or are more crackdowns to follow against the press and politicians that the government argues support groups it has classified as terrorist organizations?
Remarks by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Wednesday at the House of Peoples’ Representatives have done anything but shed light about the next moves by the government.
At times angry, in other moments serene Prime Minister Meles appeared upbeat about his government’s economic performance despite the latest soaring inflation rates. The PM also vowed to continue to ‘enforce the full extent of the law’ including using the controversial 2008 antiterrorism law he defended as a legislation compiled from the world’s best practices.
Present at the federal parliament Wednesday’s special session, a day before lawmakers left for a month long midyear recess; Meles presented the six month federal government’s performance report. The PM later responded to MPs’ questions that ranged from economic performance, new land lease law to the jailing of a number of journalists and politicians that have been met with a wave of criticism from rights groups.
In a rare pinpoint against Girma Seifu, the soft spoken and sole opposition MP, Meles strongly criticized the MP during the session: “By citing multiple articles from the constitution you appear as one who likes (respects) it,” he ridiculed him.
100 % terrorists
“I can tell you in full certainty, with 100 percent, that there are members and leaders of Medrek who are members of terrorist groups,” Meles said during Wednesday’s parliament session.
The opposition Medrek coalition only won a single seat in the May 2010 national elections. Filled by Girma, who won a seat running against the capital’s mayor advisor in woreda six Autobis Tera areas, the single seat now represents the largest opposition in the House.
Meles says despite the government being certain about some Medrek members being terrorists, it doesn’t arrest them only because it lacks evidence to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt in courts.
“We saw some cases where individuals have been set free by the courts though we are certain of their terrorist activities. After looking at this now we are only pursuing those we can present clear-cut evidence against,” the PM explained.
From London to Paris and to Washington DC, various international rights groups have been recently accusing the government of taking measures to silence dissidents by imprisoning journalists and opposition politicians.
Likely a poke at the United States’ infamous practice of sending suspected terrorists to military camps where it is widely believed they suffer inhumane treatment and torture, Meles said Ethiopia’s prosecution against suspected terrorists is transparent. “We did not send these people abroad to other countries or military camps or military courts; we took them to independent courts and their trial has been fully transparent,” Meles said.
Meles’ press record
A number of journalists including two Swedes have been convicted of terrorism charges and were sentenced from eleven years to life sentences. Similar cases are pending against journalists including two editors of the closed down influential Amharic weekly Addis Neger who fled from the country in 2009. Most of the newspaper’s senior staff has fled the country claiming that they were tipped the government was putting together charges to prosecute them through the antiterrorism law.
At the time Meles dismissed the claims. Since then Bereket Simon, a senior cabinet minister and government communication affairs office head, accused the newspaper of being ran with financial aid from the former American ambassador to Ethiopia.
The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says during the last decade Meles is responsible of forcing more journalists into exile than any other leader in the world.
“Maybe PM Meles would be better served by following the steps of his predecessor who was very clear and adamant about what was tolerated and what was not tolerated. Maybe PM Meles Zenawi does not really want to break free from the media policy of the Derg. According to their policies it is only the Derg type of media they can tolerate,” said CPJ’s Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.
Meles says journalists in Ethiopia are facing crimes they commit; as it is seen in either London when journalists hacked into people’s phone or in Sweden where a journalist faces rape charges.
Meles wondered while the famous whistle blowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange charges of rape are seen as “law enforcement” but the two Swedes self professed crime of entering into Ethiopia illegally as “attack on press freedom.”
Meles offered two reasons for such a “double standard”.
Groups like the Human Right Watch are trying to discredit Ethiopia’s governance and force the country to adhere to the neoliberal ideology only because it is different from what they prescribe, Meles claimed.
“There was a case of one white man who came to Ethiopia a few decades back. From his experience in colonial territories like in neighboring Kenya he expected people to leave their seats when they saw a white man standing on bus rides. When he enters a bus here and people continued sitting though he was standing, he could not comprehend this “contravention”; similarly the fact we prosecuted two Swedish journalists for their self professed crime of entering the country illegally is being seen as a “contravention” by some people,” Meles explained.
Meles says such mindsets amount to requests for extraterritoriality – a state of being exempt from the jurisdiction of local law- colonials previously enforced in their colonies.
Non-colonized Ethiopia should not give in to such demands and the solution is “to take it to the Ethiopian people to explain the matter and see if they are willing to sacrifice to preserve their sovereignty. It is not always through blood one preserves sovereignty; in this case it is paying the price of the defamation campaign.”
Raising hopes for the first time for the two Swedes currently serving an eleven year sentence in Kaliti prison, Meles says his government can entertain a clemency request: “But one cannot beg forgiveness, which can be entertained, while arm twisting,” the PM added.
Coded from the West
Meles also defended the 2008 antiterrorism law that rights groups say is far reaching and is being used to silence critics.
“Since we saw no problem in learning from countries with vast democratic governance, we took the antiterrorism law word to word, even without omitting a comma, from laws of the Western countries,” Meles said.
While copying from the Western laws, Meles says Ethiopian lawmakers compiled the best practices. In Britain the PM’s office and in the United States their State Department are empowered to condemn a group as a “terrorist”; Ethiopia’s antiterrorism law bestowed the power to the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
The House however has not even once turned down any proposal or legislation sent from the executive for approval since both were established after 1995 elections.
Disputed now proven
The opposition Girma countered Meles’ performance report with opinionated questions which insisted the government missed its targets of holding inflation to a single digit, a key target Meles promised to realize in the ongoing five year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP).
The MP also said the government has employed a crackdown strategy to weaken opposition and silence dissidents.
“We are not able to rent offices to operate, get halls to hold meetings. Though the constitution guarantees such rights and stipulates that we should not be asked to obtain permission to exercise them, we are repeatedly requested to do so. And when we bring permission, we are banned with a phone call,” Girma said accusing the government of severely narrowing the political sphere more than ever.
Meles, responding to a number of questions including from ruling party MPs, appeared not to fully understand MP Girma’s question.
“If the cost of renting office is becoming too high for you to afford, aiding your party is an idea we can entertain as a government,” Meles replied. “But if it is claims of abuse, then you are cheating to paint a different reality.”
“As far as I know you have an office and also hold meetings. So this can be the usual accusation to swindle,” Meles also said.
“According to a recent study, since inflation rates have been so high, even if it goes to zero now its average for the five year GTP period will be high and this shows one of the GTP’s crucial targets has been missed. What is your take on this?” Girma asked.
Meles didn’t directly respond to the assessment by MP Girma but rebuffed what he calls ‘repeated rumors and unsubstantiated claims’.
But earlier in the six page performance report he read, he said prices have been improving over the recent months. “Following the government’s measures to curb inflation, prices of various commodities are slowly improving. The inflation rate reached 40.6 percent in August but it has been slowing step by step since September and has eased to 32 percent in January. If this trend continues, it is expected to drop to single digits by the end of the budget year,” Meles said in a report.
Meles also said all the data about the 2010/11 economic performance are in. “Earlier in the budget year we reached at a certain growth figure and our economy has registered an 11.4 percent growth,” Meles told the House. This current fiscal year, already half way through, would similarly register another double digit growth, Meles projected.
Latest annual economic performances have led to a dispute between the Ethiopian government and international financiers including the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“In 2010/11the mission estimates at 7.5 percent compared to an official estimate of 11.4 percent,” the IMF mission dispatched here last year said in a statement released on May 31.
For the current 2011/12 year IMF sees lower growth for 2011/12, at about 6 percent, on account of high inflation, restrictions on private bank lending, and a more difficult business environment.
Ragnar Gudmundsson, IMF Resident Representative in Kenya, says after projection differences between a country and the IMF it is always the country’s figures that will be adopted by the parties at the conclusion of the economic period; “We tend to take national accounts.”