Disempowerment and suppression of freedoms in Ethiopia


By Graham Peebles

Graham Peebles looks at how the increasingly paranoid regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is systematically tightening its monopoly over information, suppressing free speech and suffocating media freedom. “Disempowerment is the aim, and the means are well known, crude and unimaginative: keep the people uneducated, deny them access to information, restrict their freedom of association and expression, and keep them entrapped.”

Democracy denied

Democracy sits firmly upon principles of freedom, justice, social inclusion and participation in civil society. Where these qualities of fairness are absent so too is democracy.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, while talking the democratic talk to his Western friends, the African Union and donor countries, knows little of democracy, human rights or the manifestation of democratic principles. He rules Ethiopia with a heavy hand, severely restricting free assembly – a right written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), inhibiting the freedom of the media and in many ways denying the people of Ethiopia freedom of expression.

While media independence throughout the world is contentious at best, autonomy from direct state ownership and influence is crucial in a free society. Yet, the Ethiopian state owns and strictly controls the primary media of television and radio. Access to information is also limited, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) makes clear in its reportOne Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia. Increasingly, the Ethiopian government has been systematically tightening controls, restricting the political space available to the opposition and stifling independent civil society.

Owning information

The main sources of information for the majority of Ethiopians are (the state owned) television and radio. The print media is of little significance, due to low literacy of the adult population (48 per cent), high levels of poverty and poor infrastructure, making distribution difficult. The internet is also restricted, with access to the web the lowest in Africa. The World Bank estimates that only 7.5 per cent of the population has internet access.

The government of Ethiopia also controls all telecommunications and uses its control to deny the majority of the population access to another key area of mass information. This is an additional infringement of basic democratic principles of diversity and social participation. As Noam Chomsky says, the most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision-making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions: kings and princes, priestly castes, military juntas, party dictatorships or modern corporations. “Party dictatorship” fits the Ethiopian government like a glove.

Meles’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is in fact a dictatorship masquerading under the guise of a democracy. Ethiopia’s citizens cannot speak freely, organize political activities or challenge their government’s policies through peaceful protest, voting or publishing their views without fear of reprisal.

Law breakers

According to Article 19 of the UNDHR, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The UDHR is not in a legally binding document but it provides a moral framework for states and offers a clear indication of what we as a world community have agreed to as the basic requirements of correct governance and civilized living. The preamble to the UDHR states that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

Although the UDHR is not legally binding, its sister document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is. Article 19, paragraph 1 of the covenant states:”Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.” And paragraph 2 says: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Ethiopia ratified this international treatise on 11 June 1993 and is therefore legally bound by its articles. Not only is the Ethiopian government in violation of international law, but by restricting the freedom of the media and inhibiting any hint of dissent, the regime is also in contradiction of its own constitution.

Article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution, entitled rather optimistically “Right of Thought, Opinion and Expression”, states:

1. Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.

3. Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements: (a) Prohibition of any form of censorship. (b) Access to information of public interest.

Clear and noble words which, in fact, serve only as a mask of convenience and deceit, allowing the betrayal of the many to continue. HRW gently states that the 1995 constitution incorporates a wide range of human rights standards, and government officials frequently voice the state’s commitment to meeting its human rights obligations. But these steps, while important, have not ensured that Ethiopia’s citizens are able to enjoy their fundamental rights.

State suppression

In 2009 the EPRDF passed two inhibiting pieces of legislation that reveal some of the worst aspects of the government’s decent towards greater repression and political intolerance. The first of these is the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) law which, according to HRW, is one of the most restrictive of its kind and will make most independent human rights work impossible. The second is the “Counterterrorism” law, introduced at the same time, which allows the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as terrorism.

The Ethiopian government has used these laws as a pretext for all manner of human rights violations and to justify suppression and control. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among other travesties of justice, the legislations “permits a clamp down on political dissent, including political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy. These laws are clearly in violation of the ICCPR and blatantly contravene the much-championed Ethiopian constitution. That is why the UN Jubilee Campaign has called for their repeal – see the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Ethiopia.)

The “Counterterrorism” law is a pseudonym for a law of repression and control, made and enforced by a paranoid regime that is determined to use all means in its armoury to quash any dissent and maintain a system of disinformation and duplicity. Under this law, media organizations that disagree with the EPRDF party line run the risk of being branded “terrorists”, arrested and imprisoned.

Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of Awramba Times, says, the law provides a pretext for the government to intimidate and even arrest journalists who fall foul of its wording. All opposing voices to government policy are stifled; journalists are frightened and the facility to expose and criticize the many serious violations of human rights facing the country are denied, all independent voices have been virtually silenced and freedom of speech and opinion are denied.

Control flows from fear, the greater the dishonesty, corruption and greed the more extreme the controls become. The UN, in its human rights report, says that the suppression of dissent has become the primary source of concern regarding the future of human rights in Ethiopia. As with all dictatorships, the Meles regime seeks to centralize power, deny dissent and freedom of expression, and suppress the people by intimidation, violence and fear. It has created an atmosphere of apprehension and extinguished all hope of justice, true human development and freedom from tyranny. Disempowerment is the aim, and the means are well known, crude and unimaginative: keep the people uneducated, deny them access to information, restrict their freedom of association and expression, and keep them entrapped.

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