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The Ethiopian government’s systematic repression of independent media has created a bleak landscape for free expression ahead of their May elections.
In a report released today, Human Rights Watch details how the Ethiopian government has curtailed independent reporting since 2010, and says legal and policy reforms are crucial in Ethiopia prior to the May 2015 elections.
In the past year, six privately owned publications closed after government harassment; at least 22 journalists, bloggers and publishers were criminally charged, and more than 30 journalists fled the country in fear of being arrested under repressive laws.
HRW interviewed more than 70 current and exiled journalists between May 2013 and December 2014, and found patterns of government abuse against journalists that resulted in 19 being imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, and that have forced at least 60 others into exile since 2010.
Most of Ethiopia’s print, television and radio outlets are state-controlled, and the few private print media agencies often self-censor their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of being shut down. Social media is also heavily restricted, and many blog sites and websites run by Ethiopians in the diaspora are blocked inside Ethiopia.
It is reported that journalists who publish critical articles may receive threatening telephone calls, text messages, and visits from security officials and ruling party cadres. Some said they received hundreds of these threats. If this does not silence them or intimidate them into self-censorship, then the threats intensify and arrests often follow.
The courts have shown little or no independence in criminal cases against journalists who have been convicted after unfair trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, often on terrorism-related charges.
“Muzzling independent voices through trumped-up criminal charges and harassment is making Ethiopia one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists,” deputy Africa director at HRW Leslie Lefkow said. “The government should immediately release those wrongly imprisoned and reform laws to protect media freedom.”
Most radio and television stations in Ethiopia are government-affiliated, rarely stray from the government position, and tend to promote government policies and tout development successes. Control of radio is crucial politically given that more than 80% of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas, where radio is still the main medium for news and information. The few private radio stations that cover political events are subjected to editing and approval requirements by local government officials.
The government has also used a variety of subtle but effective administrative and regulatory restrictions, such as hampering efforts to form journalist associations, delaying permits and renewals of private publications, putting pressure on the few printing presses and distributors, and linking employment in state media to ruling party membership.
The increased media repression will clearly affect the media landscape for the May elections, HRW said.
“The government still has time to make significant reforms that would improve media freedoms before the May elections,” Lefkow said. “Amending oppressive laws and freeing jailed journalists do not require significant time or resources, but only the political will for reform.”