Ethiopia's new climate of fear

By David Dadge / May 19, 2009
 Ethiopia is ruled by an authoritarian government with virtual impunity
Vicious Dictator

Despite the generosity of donor nations, Ethiopia is ruled by an authoritarian government with virtual impunity


The European Union, United States and other major donors will pump about $2.5bn (1.6bn) into Ethiopia this year, a sum that does not even begin to include the cost of medicines, famine relief and countless other services provided by non-profit groups in one of the world's most impoverished countries.

That help is needed, because Ethiopians are prone to malnutrition, disease and natural calamity. Its burgeoning population far outstrips the country's ability to feed itself. So desperate is Ethiopia that celebrity causes from Bob Geldoff's Live Aid famine-relief concerts to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's adoption of orphaned babies supplement what donors cannot possibly provide.

But for all this generosity, an authoritarian government rules Ethiopia with virtual impunity. Prime minister Meles Zenawi, in power for 18 years, has crushed the opposition. His ruling party dominates public institutions. Worse still, in a vast and predominantly rural country, the prime minister's underlings control broadcasting and maintain a choke-hold on other media.

Four years ago this month, Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) suffered its worst loss at the polls since the former guerrilla overthrew a ruthless, Soviet-backed regime in 1991. Rather than accept its losses, the EPRDF-run government responded with a brutal crackdown, claiming outright victory and accusing the opposition of trying to stage an insurrection.

Security forces attacked peaceful protesters, jailed opposition leaders, sent thousands of their supporters to gruesome detention camps and accused independent journalists of treason a crime punishable by death. Some journalists and politicians sought asylum in other countries. During several months of unrest, roughly 200 people were killed. It was a disgraceful snub for donor nations that had invested time and capital in supporting Ethiopia's democratic transition.

Many of the journalists and opposition figures were eventually released or granted clemency, but there has been no letup to the torment. In late April 2009, security forces arrested 40 opposition figures, accusing them of trying to topple the government.

Meanwhile, the authorities continue their assault on independent media through capricious licensing rules, interrogations and, on occasion, revoking the permits of reporters for international broadcasters like the Voice of America. Leading journalists have been assaulted, the culprits never found. "There is only fear, not freedom, of expression in Ethiopia," says one leading journalist.

Ethiopia's journalists are not entirely innocent. Some newspapers have stoked the country's ethnic and regional animosities and can be wildly inaccurate in their reporting. Yet badgering or jailing journalists is no way to resolve what could be handled through a voluntary media council or independent ombudsman. Furthermore, the government effort to portray independent journalists as vicious enemies unfairly condemns the many Ethiopian reporters and editors who take their responsibilities seriously.

Zenawi has largely escaped sanction from his western allies, in part because the erudite ex-Marxist had a friendly relationship with the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, and co-operated closely with the Bush administration in counter-terrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa.

There has not been total silence. Donald Payne, a leading member of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal and head of the EU's observation team in the 2005 elections, have sought to tie non-humanitarian aid more closely to Ethiopia's conduct on press freedom and other human rights. Britain and some other European governments responded to the post-election crackdown by temporarily withholding aid.

But Ethiopia poses a dilemma for anyone who cares about human rights and democracy. Cutting off aid could have calamitous humanitarian consequences for the nation's 80 million people. It could also destabilise a fragile region, sparking fresh wars with neighbouring Somalia and Eritrea.

Nevertheless, there are ways to pressure Zenawi:

The aid that Ethiopia receives from its friends may be a small price to pay to keep Africa's second largest country from descending into chaos. But Ethiopia's people deserve more from their government. Press freedom is a start, not just because it is a fundamental human right, but also because vigorous media are essential to keeping societies alert to the kinds of crises that are all too common in Ethiopia.


David Dadge is Director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, the global network for free media (
The Guardian)

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