Without a free press in Addis Ababa, Africans are being locked out of the important decisions being made in their de facto capital, writes Simon Allison
It’s not easy being a journalist in Ethiopia. In fact, it’s nearly impossible, according to a new 76-page Human Rights Watch report that documents the scale of the state’s censorship apparatus. As a journalist, it makes for highly disturbing reading.
“Ethiopia’s government has systematically assaulted the country’s independent voices, treating the media as a threat rather than a valued source of information and analysis,” says Leslie Lefkow, the organisation’s deputy Africa director.
“Ethiopia’s media should be playing a crucial role in the May elections, but instead many journalists fear that their next article could get them thrown in jail.”
The authors of the report spoke to 70 Ethiopian journalists, many in exile, who painted a dismal picture of the state of Ethiopian media. The government exerts control in many different ways – some subtle, some quite the opposite.
In November, a report from Reporters Without Borders said at least six publications had been forced to close in recent months and 30 journalists forced to flee abroad as the result of the biggest crackdown on privately-owned press since 2005.
“Most print publications in Ethiopia are closely affiliated with the government and rarely stray from government perspectives on critical issues,” said the findings from HRW, which explain how publications critical of Ethiopia’s government are regularly shut down, and printers and distributors of critical publications closed.
“Journalists critical of government policies and their families live in constant fear of harassment, arrest, and losing their livelihoods,” writes Lefkow, as “the state controls most of the media, and the few surviving private media self-censor their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of being shut down.”
We were publishing our magazine twice a week, and usually afterwards we would receive threats by phone and cars would follow us,
“We were publishing our magazine twice a week, and usually afterwards we would receive threats by phone and cars would follow us,” Thomas Ayalew, an Ethiopian journalist living in exile, told the organisation.
Senay Abate, another journalist who was forced to flee Ethiopia, experienced similar pressures. “I was receiving intimidating threats via text message to discourage me from doing what I was doing. It was obvious it was coming from government security agents,” he said.
Social media is also heavily restricted, and many blog sites and websites run by those living in the diaspora are often blocked inside Ethiopia. In April 2014 authorities arrested six people from the Zone 9 blogging collective, who have now been in prison for more than 260 days under antiterrorism laws.
Human Rights Watch says that this particular case has had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in the country, “especially among critically minded bloggers and online activists.”
Hub of diplomacy
This is bad news for Ethiopia, of course. It is rarely a good sign when a government attacks the press, but it’s also bad news for the continent as a whole.
The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is home to the African Union, the continental body tasked with driving African development and righting the continent’s many wrongs. This makes it the de facto African capital, a hub of diplomacy, a place where important people meet to exchange secrets and make deals.
If we want to know what’s happening in Africa, we need to know what’s happening in Addis Ababa. Without a free press, we can’t. How else are we going to figure out what our leaders are up to? They are certainly not going to tell us themselves.
If we want to know what’s happening in Africa, we need to know what’s happening in Addis Ababa
It’s not just media, either. Ethiopia keeps a close eye on NGOs and think tanks working in the country too, even those with continental mandates, and has the power to grant or deny access to the African Union by manipulating visas – if you don’t get a visa for Ethiopia, you don’t get to visit.
The result? Researchers and advocacy organisations are wary of being too critical of the current Ethiopian administration, even if they shout loudly about the failings of other African governments.
We’re getting a distorted picture of the Ethiopian story – a story that is a vital one in the context of African development
We’re getting a distorted picture of the Ethiopian story – a story that is a vital one in the context of African development. Ethiopia, along with Rwanda, is advocating a very specific developmental model, one that prioritises economic growth and socio-economic rights ahead of liberal luxuries such as democracy, participation and human rights. It sees the stifling of a free press as a justified causality in this process.
Can we trust the figures?
The figures suggest that this model might just be working. Ethiopia’s GDP is growing at about 10.4%. Over the past decade, the country has registered statistically significant growth in the welfare, education and health categories of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. But can we trust these figures?
A recent example from Rwanda, where free press is also non-existent, is instructive. On 15 January, David Himbara, a former economic adviser to President Paul Kagame, explained why he quit his job in an op-ed for Quartz.
“I resigned not only because he was tyrannising the nation, but also because he asked me to tamper with the truth about the economy,” he said.
In the absence of a free press, or a free civil society, this data goes unchallenged
Himbara argues that the apparent successes of Rwanda’s model for economic growth are illusory, and based on poor or deliberately misleading data. But in the absence of a free press, or a free civil society, this data goes unchallenged, and the Rwandan model is hailed as a success and eyed by other African leaders (especially those with an authoritarian streak) as a role model for their own countries.
So too with Ethiopia: without anyone to tell us otherwise, Ethiopia’s development approach looks like it is working, even if it’s not. In the absence of any kind of independent information we cannot gauge its effectiveness.
That’s why the absence of independent media in Ethiopia affects us all. Without the beady eye of a free press observing Addis Ababa, we really have no idea what deals our leaders are making at the AU, or why they are making them; and we run a real risk that the Ethiopian story will become the African story, without any real idea if that story is fact or fiction.