President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in late July was heralded as a success by both leaders, who trumpeted “productive meetings” on issues of trade and investment, development, climate change, security and good governance. The latter topic purportedly enjoyed significant attention during the leaders’ private discussions, resulting in Prime Minister Hailemariam’s press conference claim that “We have reiterated once again that [Ethiopia’s] commitment to democracy is real, not skin-deep.” Bolstered by such rhetoric, human rights advocates might be tempted to hope that Ethiopia, notorious for being one of Africa’s leading jailers of journalists, has begun to turn over a new leaf in its respect for civil society and basic freedoms. Indeed, the rhetoric has been accompanied by promising action; on July 8, in anticipation of President Obama’s arrival, the country freed five bloggers who had been imprisoned for circulating articles critical of the government.
However, while the release of these five bloggers is laudable, the international community would be wise to hold off on celebrating Ethiopia’s new-found dedication to good governance and human rights. The five freed bloggers were part of a larger group of bloggers and associated journalists who were rounded up last year in anticipation of the 2015 national elections. The bloggers had hosted an online forum for independent reporting (known as Zone 9) through which they staged social media campaigns in support of the rights to free expression and free assembly. In April 2014 the government arrested six Zone 9 bloggers and three socially-connected journalists, accused them of “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and agreeing in getting financial and intellectual assistance to incite public violence through social media” and charged them under the widely criticized Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. At the same time that Prime Minister Hailemariam was standing next to President Obama and suavely fielding questions about the importance of a free press, four of these Zone 9 bloggers sat stagnating in prison, awaiting further prosecution.
So, despite Prime Minister Hailemariam’s public proclamation that “[a]s far as Ethiopia is concerned, we need journalists”, independent voices remain at particular risk in Ethiopia. Take, for example, the case of Eskinder Nega, a prominent Ethiopian journalist (and well-known critic of the government) who, in 2011, was sentenced to 18 years in prison on treason and terrorism charges. Mr. Nega had been writing about the Arab Spring protest movements raging through North Africa and the Middle East and, although he clearly emphasized the importance of non-violence in his public writings and speech, his support of the protestors and critique of his home government drew the government’s ire. (Ironically, Mr. Nega was arrested just days after publishing an article discussing the misuse of anti-terrorist laws to stifle dissent.) The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Mr. Nega’s detention to be illegal under international law and called for his prompt release—a call which the Ethiopian government promptly failed to heed. Effectively silenced in jail for three years now, Mr. Nega still has 15 years left in his sentence to serve.
President Obama’s staffers are well aware of Ethiopia’s democratic and human rights failings. Recently, Susan Rice, the President’s national security advisor, in discussing the troubling nature of Ethiopia’s recent election, noted that “the Prime Minister of Ethiopia was just elected with 100 percent of the vote, which I think suggests, as we have stated in our public statements, some concern for the integrity of the electoral process.” However President Obama himself seemed less attuned to his host’s faults; during a press conference in Ethiopia he blithely, and repeatedly, referred to the country as a democracy, sending a disconcerting message to those activists who have agitated to focus attention on the abuses of Ethiopia’s authoritarian regime. However, despite President Obama’s optimism and Prime Minister Hailemariam’s assurances, where 100 percent of the electoral seats go to one party, and the journalists who would cover such electoral abuses (as well as other human rights abuses) remain incapacitated in jail, it seems clear that Ethiopia has a long way to go before its reality lives up to its rhetoric.
Any step towards greater freedoms is a step forward and the recent release of five of the Zone 9 bloggers remains encouraging. We should hope that the increased global attention paid to Ethiopia will lead the government to tread more carefully around the rights of its citizens. However, if the Ethiopian government really wants to “[commit] to deepen the democratic process already underway in the country, and work towards the respect of human rights and improving governance”, as claimed by Prime Minister Hailemariam, it must immediately release those journalists, bloggers and other prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars and throw its weight behind nurturing and protecting a free press and unconstrained civil society.