Media Control In Ethiopia
by Graham Peebles | April 19, 2012 (Eurasia Review)
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, for the word is not the thing, to speak of democratic values is easy enough, to dismantle repressive methods and State practices that deny there expression is quite another. President Meles Zenawi Asres of Ethiopia knows little of democracy, human rights or the manifestation of democratic principles and much of repression and intimidation. The EPRDF government rules Ethiopia with a heavy hand of control, restricting completely free assemble – a universal right written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), inhibiting the freedom of the media and denying the people of Ethiopia freedom of expression in manifold ways.
Media freedom is a basic pillar of any democratic society. Freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are essential elements of a democracy. Whilst media independence throughout the world is contentious at best, autonomy from direct State ownership and influence is a crucial element in establishing an independent media. The Ethiopian State owns and strictly controls the primary media of television and radio. Not only is there no independent TV and radio in Ethiopia, but access to information is also tightly controlled, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) makes clear in its report, One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure. Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia, “the independent media has struggled to establish itself in the face of constant government hostility and an inability to access information from government officials.” Since the 2005 elections in Ethiopia the government has systematically introduced tighter and tighter methods of control, HRW continues, over the past five years the Ethiopian government has restricted political space for the opposition, stifled independent civil society, and intensified control of the media.
Since the end of the civil war in 1991 privately owned newspapers and magazines have been appearing and despite heavy regulation by the Meles government, this area of Ethiopian media is expanding. This the government reluctantly tolerates, knowing that print media is of little significance, due to low literacy of the adult population (48%), a shameful figure that the EPRDF is no doubt delighted with, high levels of poverty and poor infrastructure making distribution difficult, newspapers are not widely circulated or read, consequently the main source of information for the majority of people is the state owned television and radio, which serve as little more than a mouthpiece of propaganda for the resident regime, the EPRDF.
Internet media is also restricted, with access to the web the lowest in Africa; Research & Markets found “Ethiopia has the lowest overall teledensity in Africa. The population is approaching 90 million, but there are less than 1 million fixed lines in service, and a little more than 3.3 million mobile subscribers. The number of internet users is dismal – below 500,000 at the end of 2009.” 1 The World Bank puts the figure a little higher at 7.5% of the population. In another demonstration of democratic duplicity, the government of Ethiopia controls all telecommunications. Internet and telephone systems must run through the State owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation. The vast majority of the population – 82.40% in 2010, according to a World Bank report released in 20112, live in rural areas and have no access to the ‘worldwide web’ at all. By maintaining monopoly control of telecommunications the Ethiopian Government is denying 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 makes clear “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.”3 Party dictatorships fits the Ethiopian government tailor-made, although their arrogance and vanity would no doubt prefer the title of ‘kings and princes’, Emperor Meles perhaps, following in the brutal glow of that other conceited controller Halie Sellassie. The EPRDF regime is in fact a dictatorship and known as such to the majority of Ethiopians living inside and indeed outside the country, who are courageous enough to speak out and make their views known. Courageous indeed, for as with all cowardly brutal states, the EPRDF rules by violence, intimidation and fear, HRW again Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views without fear of reprisal. Such is democratic living under the Meles machine.
Freedom of thought, freedom of expression and of information is a basic requirement under the UDHR. Article 19 makes this clear “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.” Although the UDHR is not in itself a legally binding document, it provides moral guidance for states and offers a clear indication of what we as a world community have agreed as the basic requirements of correct governance and civilized living. In the preamble is stated “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.” Tyranny and oppression is the cloud under which the good people of Ethiopia are living and have lived for the twenty-year rule of President Meles and co. It is through the implementation and enforcement of international law, established to safeguard the people’s basic human rights that the suffering and injustices may and will be brought to an end. The sister document to the UDHR the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides such legal protection and is indeed legally binding. There we find, Article 19, paragraph 1 ” Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.” And paragraph 2 “ 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 11th June 1993, and is therefore legally bound by its articles. By imposing tight regulatory controls on media inside and indeed outside of Ethiopia, the case of ESAT TV based in Holland, whose satellite signal is repeatedly [illegally} blocked by the EPRDF, is an important case in question. Not only is the Ethiopian government in violation of international law, but by completely restricting the freedom of the media and inhibiting completely any hint of dissent, the regime is also in contradiction of its own constitution. Article 29, 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.4 Clear and noble words, indeed democratic in content and tone, however words that sit filed neatly upon the shelf of neglect and indifference, as the people suffer and cry out to their mother country, serve only as a mask of convenience and deceit allowing the betrayal of the many to continue. Human Rights Watch gently states, 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.
In 2009 the EPRDF passed two inhibiting pieces of legislation that embody some of the worst aspects of the governments decent towards greater repression and political intolerance. The controversial CSO law, is according to HRW, one of the most restrictive of its kind, and its provisions will make most independent human rights work impossible. A ‘counterterrorism’ law was introduced at the same time; this second piece of repressive legislation allows the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as terrorism. Since the introduction of these internationally criticised laws, the UN Jubilee Campaign in its report ‘Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Ethiopia’ recommends the adoption of this law [emphasis mine] be repealed,” the umbrella term ‘terrorist’, meaning anyone who disagrees with the party/state line continues to be used and manipulated as justification for all manner of human rights violations and methods of suppression and control – the aim of all dictatorships. What defines a terrorist or an act of terrorism remains vague and ambiguous, enabling the Meles regime to construct definitions that suit them at any given time. Amongst other travesties of justice the legislation, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals, “permits a clamp down on political dissent, including political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy, it also deprives defendants of the right to be presumed innocent.“5 A primary function of the media in a democratic society is to examine and criticise the government and provide a public platform for debate and participation. This law denies such interaction and freedom of expression. The law is in violation of the ICCPR and blatantly contravenes the much-championed Ethiopian constitution; idealised images of goodness, remaining un-manifest, stillborn.
The anti-terror 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. Media organisations that disagree with the EPRDF party line run the risk of being branded, under this law ‘terrorists’, arrested and imprisoned as such. 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 afoul of its wording. Kebede said the regulations were a government campaign to oppress all forms of dissident activity.” (Ibid) This new unjust law completely inhibits ability of the media to report anything that is deemed critical of the current government. All opposing voices to policy are stifled; journalists are frightened and the facility to expose and criticize the many serious violations of human rights, to provide a balanced view of the issues facing the country are denied. The rights to freedom of expression and association are completely restricted, all independent voices have been virtually silenced and freedom of speech and opinion are denied. Human Rights Watch makes clear its concern, over the past five years the Ethiopian government has restricted political space for the opposition, stifled independent civil society, and intensified control of the media.6
Control flows from fear, the greater the dishonesty, corruption and greed the more extreme the controls become. Under the neglectful corrupt governance of the EPRDF, Ethiopians are subjected to a range of human rights abuses and violations political opposition has been unofficially banned, making this democracy sitting in the Horn of Africa a single party dictatorship. The UN in its human rights report finds, “resistance to opposition has become the primary source of concern regarding the future of human rights in Ethiopia” and confirms the view of HRW, stating “The CSO law directly inhibits rights to association, assembly and free expression.” The Meles regime seek, as all isolated corrupt dictatorships do, to centralize power, deny dissent and freedom of expression and suppress the people by intimidation, violence and fear. Creating an atmosphere of apprehension, extinguishing all hope of justice, true human development and freedom from tyranny. Disempowerment is the aim, 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.
The downtrodden suppressed people of Ethiopia, living under the brutality of the Meles regime, whose human rights are being ignored, without an effective media, have no voice. The controls that deny media freedom and the people the freedom of association and expression, guaranteed under the Ethiopian constitution and international law, must be repealed, HRW in its detailed report makes a series of basic demands of the Ethiopian government, which reinforce this, key among them is the call to “Guarantee unrestricted access to Ethiopia to international media and independent human rights investigators, and cease harassment of Ethiopian media.”
The days of the dictator are over, no amount of repressive legislation can any longer safeguard a regime that rules through violence and inhibition. Meles and his cronies ensconced behind armed walls of duplicity, may well seek control, the fearful always do, the will of the people though is for freedom, justice and peace, enjoy your privilege President Meles, for your days are numbered, the will of the people must and shall be done for justice and the rule of law underlies their every call for liberty and the observation of their human rights.
3. Domestic Constituencies Noam Chomsky. http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199805–.htm
4. Constitution of The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. www.africanlegislaturesproject.org/…/Constitution%20Ethiopia.pdf
5. The bureau of investigative journalism http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/09/29/ethiopian-media-gagged-by-anti-terror-laws
6. Human Rights watch (HRW) http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/03/24/one-hundred-ways-putting-pressure-0
Graham is Director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity, supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org