Government charges against one of Ethiopia’s last remaining independent newspaper editors on Friday and a recent forced shutdown of that paper’s presses capped a grim month of media repression in a country already deemed one of the most restrictive in the world by press freedom advocates.
On August 1, 12 days after authorities shuttered Feteh and seized 30,000 printed copies to prevent them from reaching readers, Temesgen Desalegn, the editor of the Amharic language weekly, said the Ethiopian police summoned him for an interrogation. He was charged on three counts: encouraging youth rebellion against the government and its constitution, defamation, and agitating the public by spreading false reports, he wrote in a statement posted (in Amharic) on Facebook.
This latest crackdown on free press in Ethiopia was provoked by reports about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s health. On July 21, a day after Feteh failed to hit newsstands, Desalegn learned that authorities had put a stop on the paper’s distribution and further publication for printing items that, according to government prosecutor Berhanu Wondemeagegn, were deemed detrimental to the country’s national security. Feteh’s unseen last edition carried articles about Zenawi’s illness, allegations of power struggles inside the ruling party, and about the growing Ethiopian Muslim protests in the capital, Addis Ababa, Desalegn wrote.
The Ethiopian government, an authoritarian regime and close ally of the United States, has been repeatedly criticized by international rights groups and the UN for instituting draconian laws to stomp out opposition and that nation’s fledgling free press.
“The ban on Feteh’s latest issue illustrates the depth of repression in Ethiopia today, and authorities’ determination to suppress independent coverage of the prime minister,” Tom Rhodes, an East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a blog post. Ethiopia is one of the leading jailers of reporters in Africa—only Eritrea holds more journalists in jail, according to CPJ. Ethiopia also has more exiled reporters than any other country in the world. Seventy-nine Ethiopian journalists have fled the country since 2001.
The illness and whereabouts of Ethiopia’s longtime leader has been a source of rampant online speculation for weeks, including at least two reports that he died. The government confirmed Zenawi’s illness but says he is now on a sick leave and refuses to give any more details. Government spokesman Bereket Simon went one step further on August 1, saying that the premier is “on vacation and his health is getting better by the day,” without specifying where he was “vacationing.”
Zenawi, who has been in power for 21 years, was last seen in public on June 26 receiving Somali president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed in Addis Ababa. At his last international appearance during the G-20 summit in Mexico, the prime minister appeared “thinner than usual and pale.” His apparent weight loss, which authorities blamed on a long flight to Mexico and “the herculean task he’s been shouldering for so many decades,” was first spotted by Addis Voice blog, igniting speculation about his ailment.
In the wake of Addis Voice’s posts on the prime minister’s health, state-run Ethiopian television aired a critical program focusing on the role of social media in newsgathering and distribution.
The program commentators said, among other things, that social media is bad for health, that it hampers productivity, and that it undermines citizens’ rights. Journalist Daniel Berhane, who runs a pro-government blog, tweeted, “Why bother about each rumor, when you can slow down its medium (the internet).” Activists worry that the commentary, as well as Berhane’s tweet, could be hints of a regime plan to block social networks in the country, though Berhane later retracted his comments, saying, “it was just sarcasm.”
Ethiopia already blocks diaspora-based dissident websites and blogs. Last month, local journalists reported, the social media curation tool Storify became the latest victim of Ethiopia’s tightening grip on the free flow of information. With virtually all Ethiopian-run websites and blogs and some international websites blocked in the country, social media platforms have become a gateway for information exchanged between the diaspora and activists in the country, and now activists are worried that those sites may be the next in line for blocking.
Two months ago, when the Ethiopian parliament quietly passed a Telecom Fraud Offences law, which was meant to criminalize services such as Skype and Google Voice, exiled Ethiopian journalist Abiye Teklemariam wrote on Facebook, “now that independent opinion leaders are emerging and fragmentation is receding, [Zenawi] will shut down Facebook. I give it a year and half.” Some predict a shutdown will come sooner. Should this take place, the only information available to most of the 94 million Ethiopians, including the one percent that is connected to the Internet, will be that which is circulated through state-owned media.
And beyond social media, the government is increasing the number of international websites it blocks. In the past month, Al Jazeera’s main site and the Washington Post joined a long list of websites blocked in Ethiopia. Al Jazeera was blocked following a forum it conducted on the ongoing Muslim protests in Ethiopia, featuring diaspora-based activists and religious scholars. The Washington Post made the list after the paper wrote about the prime minister’s whereabouts.
Ethiopia’s recent efforts to muzzle the free press within the country, including the banning of Feteh, has received scant coverage internationally. In another recent instance of repression, on July 13 an Ethiopian court handed down lengthy prison terms to journalists and opposition leaders, including award-winning journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for violating anti-terrorism legislation through his writings. And another Feteh staffer, columnist Reeyot Alemu, was sentenced earlier this year to 14 years in prison, after her conviction under a vaguely worded national anti-terror law. Alemu, winner of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2012 Courage in Journalism and Lifetime Achievement Award, was charged for lending support to an outlawed diaspora-based opposition group. Earlier this month, an appeals court reduced Alermu’s sentence to five years and dropped some of the terrorism charges against her.
Hours after Feteh editor Desalegn was charged on August 1, he described the details of his interrogation in a note posted on his Facebook profile. He said authorities are considering eight charges against him, based on stories that appeared in Feteh going back to 2010. “I spent more than two hours and a half responding to each accusation,” he wrote. In another post, he added: “We will not bow for this kind of intimidation, my colleagues and I are ready to pay any sacrifice to see our struggle [for free press in Ethiopia] fulfilled.”