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Apr-23-2012 23:00printcomments

Disempowerment and Suppression of Freedoms in Ethiopia

Meles’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is in fact a dictatorship masquerading under the guise of a democracy.

Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia
Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia Photo courtesy:

(LONDON) - The increasingly paranoid regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is systematically tightening its monopoly over information, suppressing free speech and suffocating media freedom. "Disempowerment is the aim, and 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."

Democracy denied

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.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, while talking the democratic talk to his Western friends, the African Union and donor countries, knows little of democracy, human rights or the manifestation of democratic principles. He rules Ethiopia with a heavy hand, severely restricting free assembly – a right written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), inhibiting the freedom of the media and in many ways denying the people of Ethiopia freedom of expression.

While media independence throughout the world is contentious at best, autonomy from direct state ownership and influence is crucial in a free society. Yet, the Ethiopian state owns and strictly controls the primary media of television and radio. Access to information is also limited, 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. Increasingly, the Ethiopian government has been systematically tightening controls, restricting the political space available to the opposition and stifling independent civil society.

Owning information

The main sources of information for the majority of Ethiopians are (the state owned) television and radio. The print media is of little significance, due to low literacy of the adult population (48 per cent), high levels of poverty and poor infrastructure, making distribution difficult. The internet is also restricted, with access to the web the lowest in Africa. The World Bank estimates that only 7.5 per cent of the population has internet access.

The government of Ethiopia also controls all telecommunications and uses its control to deny 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 says, 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. “Party dictatorship” fits the Ethiopian government like a glove.

Meles’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is in fact a dictatorship masquerading under the guise of a democracy. Ethiopia’s citizens cannot speak freely, organize political activities or challenge their government’s policies through peaceful protest, voting or publishing their views without fear of reprisal.

Law breakers

According to Article 19 of the UNDHR, “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.”

The UDHR is not in a legally binding document but it provides a moral framework for states and offers a clear indication of what we as a world community have agreed to as the basic requirements of correct governance and civilized living. The preamble to the UDHR states that “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”.

Although the UDHR is not legally binding, its sister document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is. Article 19, paragraph 1 of the covenant states:”Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.” And paragraph 2 says: “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 11 June 1993 and is therefore legally bound by its articles. Not only is the Ethiopian government in violation of international law, but 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 of the Ethiopian constitution, 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 which, in fact, serve only as a mask of convenience and deceit, allowing the betrayal of the many to continue. HRW gently states that 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 reveal some of the worst aspects of the government’s decent towards greater repression and political intolerance. The first of these is the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) law which, according to HRW, is one of the most restrictive of its kind and will make most independent human rights work impossible. The second is the “Counterterrorism” law, introduced at the same time, which allows the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as terrorism.

The Ethiopian government has used these laws as a pretext for all manner of human rights violations and to justify suppression and control. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, among other travesties of justice, the legislations “permits a clamp down on political dissent, including political demonstrations and public criticisms of government policy. These laws are clearly in violation of the ICCPR and blatantly contravene the much-championed Ethiopian constitution. That is why the UN Jubilee Campaign has called for their repeal - see the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Ethiopia.)

The “Counterterrorism” 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. Under this law, media organizations that disagree with the EPRDF party line run the risk of being branded “terrorists”, 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 foul of its wording. All opposing voices to government policy are stifled; journalists are frightened and the facility to expose and criticize the many serious violations of human rights facing the country are denied, all independent voices have been virtually silenced and freedom of speech and opinion are denied.

Control flows from fear, the greater the dishonesty, corruption and greed the more extreme the controls become. The UN, in its human rights report, says that the suppression of dissent has become the primary source of concern regarding the future of human rights in Ethiopia. As with all dictatorships, the Meles regime seeks to centralize power, deny dissent and freedom of expression, and suppress the people by intimidation, violence and fear. It has created an atmosphere of apprehension and extinguished all hope of justice, true human development and freedom from tyranny. Disempowerment is the aim, and 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.

Graham Peebles is Director of the Create Trust, a UK registered charity supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need.

Special thanks to Redress News & Analysis

Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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seyoum777 April 24, 2012 7:23 am (Pacific time)

 Editor: With regard to this apologist's comment, it appears Propaganda 101 is still an active class in Ethiopia.  That said, our readers know about the various truths that have been outed and they know the trail of bodies that your national leader has left in his wake.  We carry this writer frequently because he is credible and honest, your president could learn a lot from it. 

If you want to know about Ethiopia's sitting president, read this fascinating article, where African nations were graded from 'A' to 'F' and well beyond, How Long Can a Patient Stay in ICU? - Kiflu Hussain  Your Meles Zenawi's land maintained the same ICU status.  That is far worse than an 'F'.  I recommend reading our article and following the links, which will open a PDF with the full report card.  With countries like Ethiopia being graded, we can't call it a 'progress report'.

Conspiracy Theory-101(2nd Edition) 1. Allow Africans relief assistance in the form of food, and medicine, which will not alleviate their chronic economic problems but address the temporary issues. As much as possible development aids which can bring about strategic transformation to the African Economy should not be given. Request for aids and loans for infrastructures like roads, and dams should be turned down. 2. Impose the policies of lending institution on the sovereign governments of Africa with the intension of keeping the continent dependent for years to come. 3. Develop policies and strategies and implement same to maintain brain drain from Africa. Inculcate in the mind of the Diaspora elite their continent is a hopeless case and will remain dark for years to come and going back is unadvisable. Entice the Diaspora to lead the Wester way of life by giving them whatever they need on credit basis repayable over a number of years such that they will not have excess money to invest in their mother land. Create a disagreement between the Diaspora intellectuals and those intellectuals who chose to stay in their mother land and contribute to the development efforts, such that the two groups will not have a common agenda of nation building. 4. Influence the curriculum of academic institutions such that such institutions will not be able to produce visionary and innovative minds. Make sure some former colonizer language is used as a medium of instruction in the school, colleges and universities of Africa. So that under the guise of scholarship the best students of Africa will be taken and after giving them the necessary subtle brainwashing and training and are lured to stay in the West. (Pls note all developed nations teach their students in their national language. Imagine the challenges our students face in our schools and colleges today. Where I live, speaking some foreign language is a sign of being educated. Please note the extent to which we have been deceived. Almost all gradates from our universities and colleges nowadays copy from the internet for their graduation paper, for they have note been prepared for critical analysis and they don’t adequately know the language to express their thoughts). 5. If some how a visionary leader emerges and sees through the machinations and decides to bring about a change, he will be heading towards a head on collusion with the interest of the neo-colonialist. Hence, wage a smear campaign against this leader or leaders through the main stream medias, like the BBC, CNN and VOA. Call him names like: dictator, tyrant….etc. Incite mass protest by organizing tugs and accuse the leader for shooting civilians. If the leader resists, then accuse him of genocide against humanity and take his case to ICC. 6. Establish a foreign language service in the mainstream media like the BBC, DW and the VOA and propagate against any government that stands in the way of the interest of the West. Use these medias to defame visionary leaders of Africa and accuse them of human right abuse and violation of the free press. 7. Protect and fund the private press and sometimes give the owners of these presses awards in the form of money and token gifts. 8. Establish and fund organizations like the Human Right Watch, Amnesty International and the CPJ and accuse visionary leaders of Africa and obstruct their quest to free Africa from age old backwardness and poverty. 9. Spread to the continent endemics like Ebola, Aids… etc in order to check the ever growing population of Africa. (Pls note. Don’t you ever wander why the endemic Aids which started in the United States ended up becoming the major health problem of Africans. Pls also recall, after the European colonizers occupied the Americas they exterminated the native Indians by distributing to them blankets infested with small pox and T.B.) 10. Advocate multi party system in Africa. The intension here is not to promote democracy but to put in power a party that is subservient to the West. The puppet party shall be given political and money support. Allow personal gifts to party leader(s) and for the seemingly bright ones provide a scholarship in one of the prestigious universities of the West. Encourage the employment of dissidents in international organizations, preferable in humanitarian and main steam medias. 11. Incite racial hatred by pitting one against the other. Keep the continent in perpetual conflict with itself. So that Africa will remain a store house of rich natural resources waiting to be explored by the neo-colonialist, a cheap labor source for their mechanized plantations and mineral fields. (Pls note. This is the 21st century they don’t have to chain Africans slaves and forcefully transport them. We pay our own hard earned money for the plane ticket that will take us to Western cities). Africa Wake up. Stop the infighting. Solve all you internal problem by dialogue and by your own traditional means. Don’t look to the West for arbitration lest you would fail in their snare. Africa needs more than ever the coming together of its sons and daughters irrespective of religion, and ethnicity, towards creating a continent that is free of poverty and equal opportunity for its citizens. This is my observation which I dare to put it in the form of conspiracy theory. Most of us are victims of the Western machination. I wish I am wrong. Seyoum Wubshet, Addis Ababa Ethiopia

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