Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently sat down with the Financial Times for an in-depth interview regarding the state of affairs in his country. One comment he made suggested that Ethiopian journalists can freely criticise their government.

When the FT suggested that there exists “an atmosphere in which people do not feel free to speak,” Zenawi replied, “Have you read the local newspapers? Do they mince their words about government…”

However, others familiar with the media in Ethiopia say that the press in Ethiopia is not free to criticise the government. Despite Zenawi being seen as an ally by Western countries such as the US and the UK, his government has a bad record on press freedom. The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which is composed mainly of the ethnic Tigrayans, is reportedly harsh towards other ethnic groups.

Habtamu Dugo was a journalist in Ethiopia who was exiled in 2008 after several attacks and intimidations from Ethiopian security officials. Now a Senior Fellow for Human Rights with the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, Dugo told RAP 21 that the EPRDF carries out “ethnic apartheid.”

Regarding the media, EPRDF issues licenses to people from Tigre and Amhara ethnic groups and never to private broadcasting applicants from the vast majority of the South Ethiopian states (i.e. Afar, Ogaden/Somalia, Benishangul- Gumuz, Southern nations and nationalities), said Dugo. “The regime wishes to dominate these people and keep them under state-terror, fear and economic depravity for forever,” he said. “It won’t tolerate to allow the empowerment of these peoples as that would deeply threaten its own existence and speeds up its down fall.”

Also of concern is press freedom for the June 2010 elections. Within the past year, the Ethiopian government has passed three laws that aim to control the opposition and the press, said Dugo. One of the laws, the anti-terrorism bill, is in reaction to several terrorist acts in Ethiopia or to Ethiopian diplomatic missions. As the Ethiopian government has been working with Western governments, notably the US, to track Islamic militants in neighboring Somalia, this bill may be seen positively by Western governments who are trying to track down terrorists. However, according to Dugo, the bill can also be a tool for the EPRDF to keep a tight reign on anyone who may be opposed to them.

According to an Agence France-Presse article about the new bill, there is a clause stating “Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.” It is not hard to imagine that this clause could be used to imprison journalists who criticise the government, by interpreting their words as “encouraging terrorist acts.”

Mohamed Keita, Africa Research Associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told RAP 21 that the anti-terrorism bill is a threat to the press. “We’re concerned about very repressive provisions in the anti-terror bill, the fact that newspaper licensing is in the hands of a government-run agency which has denied licenses to three publishers that were formerly imprisoned,” he said.

Human Rights Watch also has criticised the bill. “Ethiopia’s draft counterterrorism law could punish political speech and peaceful protest as terrorist acts and encourage unfair trials if enacted,” the New York-based organisation said in a statement.

Dugo told RAP 21 that he hopes that Western countries that are allies with Zenawi will see beyond his rhetoric and acknowledge the undemocratic practices of the EPRDF. “Press freedom can never, ever go beyond rhetoric and empty words in Ethiopia under the power structure that prevails now,” he said.

Article published courtesy of RAP 21