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Experts Believe Limited Press Freedom to Continue in Ethiopia

  • Rizwan Syed

Officials move a portrait of Meles Zenawi shortly after the announcement of his death in Addis Ababa August 21, 2012.

Officials move a portrait of Meles Zenawi shortly after the announcement of his death in Addis Ababa August 21, 2012.

The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has raised questions about the state of press freedom in the country. After weeks of government silence over Meles' health, he died suddenly in a Belgian hospital on August 20. Journalists who had reported on his health had seen harsh reprisals from the government, such was the case with Temesgen Desalegn, editor of the prominent Ethiopian weekly newspaper Feteh who was jailed late last month.

Analysts say hardliners in the government, coupled with the country's one-party rule, will keep the Ethiopian press firmly under government control in the future. Mohamed Keita with the Committee to Protect Journalist's Africa Program says government prosecution and laws prevented a free press from developing under Meles.

"Systematic persecution and criminalization of news gathering activities, critical reporting, investigative journalism never had a chance to grow under his rule because access to information never became a reality and his government continually enacted laws that ever restricted the activities of journalists and criminalized these activities," said Keita.

The illness and whereabouts of Meles had been a source of rampant media speculation for weeks, including reports that he had died or gone on holiday.

Keita says this is because of the government's culture of secrecy.

"Because the government did not provide reliable information, refused to give details about his whereabouts and his condition," noted Keita. "This reflected the culture of secrecy within the ruling party and so in the absence of reliable information rumors ran wild and this is why there was so much speculation."

Meles has been succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn, who had been deputy prime minister. Keita thinks freedom of the press in Ethiopia will not improve under Hailemariam because of hardliners' influence in the ruling party.

"The ruling party, there are hard-liners in the party and they wield a lot of influence," Keita noted. "I don't think Hailemariam is a hard-liner, but I'm sure he's under a lot of pressure so I don't know if he'll have a chance to really break with the past."

VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein, who was based in Addis Ababa, says the government made it increasingly hard to report during his several years there.

"We saw a steady increase in the regulation of the news media and also the government is very clever in limiting the number of sources that are available to reporters," Heinlein explained. "People in Ethiopia are generally wary of speaking to reporters and many times I would go back to a source or a person I'd spoken to and interviewed for a second time and found that after they appeared on VOA the first time they were warned that this is not the thing to do and some of them flat out told me 'I'm scared to talk to VOA. I'm scared to talk to the foreign press.'"

Heinlein says it was difficult for the Ethiopian press to report accurately on Meles' deteriorating health because of the government line.

"The state media and the private media were more or less hewing to the government line," Heilein added. "It's very difficult to really suss out what the truth is in an environment like that."

Press freedom so far has not improved under Meles' successor. Feteh newspaper editor Temesgen Desalegn was denied bail Thursday after being jailed for reporting on the health of the prime minister last month.

Heinlein thinks press freedom will not improve under the new leadership.

"Hailemariam is basically the same government as Meles Zenawi," Heilein noted. "Ethiopia is a one party state defacto and the policies won't change. The policies are dictated by a small politburo known as the executive committee and that executive committee has not relinquished one iota of its policy-making authority now that Meles Zenawi is gone."

Amnesty International has condemned the government's detention of Temesgen, saying the arrest is a worrying signal that the government intends to carry on targeting dissent.

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