News / Africa

Experts Believe Limited Press Freedom to Continue in Ethiopia

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.
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.
Rizwan Syed
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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Comment Sorting
by: Honesty from: Addis Ababa
August 26, 2012 12:35 AM
"Press freedom so far has not improved under Meles' successor" ... and the U.S. still subsidizing this terrorism?!?! ... nothing is sadder!!

by: Adv Trek from: Ethiopia
August 25, 2012 10:06 PM
How about reporters ALSO holding their own profession accountable...The hypocrisy is suffocating.

Barely a decade ago, there were many independent newspapers in Ethiopia, all fiercely battling for SALES GRABBING HEADLINES, printing inflammatory and derogatory ethnic gossip as news.

Western media licensing boards would never tolerate much of what went on in Ethiopia, gossip news printed as fact and opposition politicians working with newspaper editors...the Rupert Murdoch case in Britain is a good example with major newspaper company shut down…yet, many enjoy imposing such hypocrisy on developing nations.

by: Media Hypocrisy from: UK
August 25, 2012 9:18 PM
If today's negative media was genuine, they would've long ceased quoting a corrupt organization like Amnesty International, fundraising millions by badmouthing developing nations.

Amnesty International secret million dollar pay-offs to its two bosses:

by: Andom from: Ethioipia
August 25, 2012 7:58 PM

Indeed we Ethiopians are secretive. That is one of the tools we used to keep colonizers off of our boundaries. That is the true source of the internally motivated and independently executed development. Of course one day we will unleash the secret we kept on the death of our visionary and brilliant leader; that time shame will be on the USA.

Please refrain from pushing us to our limit. If you really care for human beings, you may need to start from improving the life of African Americans and Native Indians who unfortunately dwell under your racist administration. The world know what you are doing on them. So why are you trying to appear holy by condemning African leaders who still are working hard to find an antidote for the poision Europeans (and US) deep planted in Africa. And again you are demanding us not to be secretive. For what? To learn what more evil you can do on us? Thanks for what we learned from our late PM. He has made you clear for us. No u-turn anymore!
In Response

by: meiraf from: addis ababa
September 01, 2012 5:34 AM
If you don't show my comment where is VOA's press freedom within itself. SHAME ON VOA(your nonsense would never help Ethiopias transformation, if you are a real Ethiopian come and give your profession for the positive growth of Ethiopia)
How many years did it take for USA to achieve Democracy?(200)
In Response

by: AT
August 28, 2012 1:33 PM
Andom just listen to yourself, you are such a mooncalf. The US and EU bank roll Ethiopian budget, and remittance from Ethiopians abroad mainly in US and Europe sent to their family in Ethiopia surpassed Ethiopias number one export commodity which is coffee for third year counting, so i don't understand when you say our secretive culture kept colonizers off of our boundries, who do you think is running the show in Ethiopia, if you tell me its EPRDF, you are foolish...have you heared of the saying "beggars can't be choosers" that applies to our country

by: Behailu from: Norway
August 25, 2012 6:04 PM
The government is not only supressing press fredom, but also fredom to live freely. In recent years jobs open only for party members. Now, people are being forced to morn for Meles in Kebeles and workplaces. This is what we witnessed in Korea in Kim Il sung's death. Please, Watch ETV's live streaming and archive to prove this and where Ethiopia would be heading.
In Response

by: Mintewab from: Ethiopia
August 29, 2012 3:22 AM
AT, even though what you say is right, you have to think about the root cause of our poverty!and you have mentioned about the remittance again, I want you to think about what our country has lost along with her children, To Behailu from Norway ,I am not a party member but i am doing fine ,don't generalize on some particular cases.

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