Media Control in Ethiopia

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.  It is easy enough to speak of democratic values; to dismantle repressive methods and State practices that deny their expression is quite another.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Asres of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rules Ethiopia with a heavy hand of control, restricting free assembly — a right written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) — inhibiting the freedom of the media and denying the people 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.

In Ethiopia not only are television and radio owned and controlled by the state but also access to information, as is made clear by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,” which states:

The independent media has struggled to establish itself in the face of constant government hostility and an inability to access information from government officials.

The report continues:

Since the 2005 elections in Ethiopia the government has systematically introduced tighter and tighter methods of control.  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.

Owning Information

Since the end of Ethiopia’s 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. The print media, however, is of little significance due to the low literacy of the adult population (48%). 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 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.

The World Bank puts the figure a little higher at 7.5%.

In another demonstration of democratic duplicity, the EPRDF controls all telecommunications. Internet and telephone systems must run through the State-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation.  A World Bank Report, released in 2011  states that  82.40 percent of Ethiopians in 2010 live in rural areas and have no access at all to the world wide web.

By maintaining monopoly control of telecommunications, the Ethiopian Government is denying most 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 wrote:

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.

The EPRDF regime is, in fact, a dictatorship wherein its 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.

Law Breakers

Freedom of thought, of expression, and of information are basic requirements under the UDHR.

Article 19 states:

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 are the basic requirements of correct governance and civilized living.

As stated in the preamble:

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.

However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a sister document to the UDHR, 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 June 11, 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 — the government is in violation of international law.  Furthermore, 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, 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, indeed democratic in content and tone; however, words that sit filed neatly upon the shelf of neglect and indifference that serve only as a mask of convenience and deceit allowing the betrayal of the many to continue. Human Rights Watch 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.

State Suppression

In 2009 the EPRDF passed two inhibiting pieces of legislation that embody some of the worst aspects of the government’s descent 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.

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 Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals that the legislation, “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.“

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, is in violation of the ICCPR, and contravenes the much-championed Ethiopian constitution — idealised images of goodness remaining stillborn.

The anti-terror law is a pseudonym for a law of repression and control, made and enforced by a paranoid regime, 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 “terrorists” under this law, 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 afoul of its wording. Kebede said the regulations were a government campaign to oppress all forms of dissident activity.

This new law inhibits the 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, and provide a balanced view of the issues facing the country, are denied. The rights to freedom of expression and association are 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 that the Ethiopian government has restricted political space for the opposition, stifled independent civil society, and intensified control of the media.

Control flows from fear.  The greater the dishonesty, corruption and greed, the more extreme the controls become. Under the EPRDF governance, 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 that “The CSO law directly inhibits rights to association, assembly and free expression.”

The Meles regime seeks, 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, crude and unimaginative, are well known: keep the people uneducated, deny them access to information, restrict their freedom of association and expression and keep them entrapped.

Demanding justice

The people of Ethiopia, 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, and the will of the people must be done for justice and the rule of law underlies their demands for freedom, peace and the observation of their basic human rights.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.