ADDIS ABABA — Ethiopian journalists have little to celebrate during World Press Freedom day Friday, with the arrest last week of nine bloggers and journalists, the continuous harassment of those working in the media and 11 journalists in jail.
The East African country is frequently criticized by international organizations for harassing and arresting journalists, and using a 2009 anti-terrorism proclamation to imprison journalists.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the recent arrests. Ethiopia researcher for the human rights organization Felix Horne said the media environment in the country is one of the worst in Africa.
“The recent arrests of the journalists and the Zone9 bloggers underscore that the media environment is actually getting worse ahead of the 2015 elections instead of getting better. What we see is that independent journalists continue to flee Ethiopia, publications continue to close down, journalists continuously practice self-censorship afraid of the reprisals that may result if they are critical of government policy or perspectives. And we see that independent media sites are frequently blocked,” said Horne.
Human Rights Watch believes the international community should do more to push Ethiopia to open up its media space.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Ethiopia this week and was asked by local journalists if his concern about press freedom was real or "just lip service," as the matter is frequently raised without any real change.
Kerry said he met one of the bloggers last year and called for the release of the arrested bloggers and journalists when speaking to Ethiopian officials such as Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgen.
“I make clear to Ethiopian officials that they need to create greater opportunities for citizens. To be able to engage with their fellow citizens and with their government by opening up more space for civil society. And we shouldn’t use the anti-terrorism proclamations as mechanisms to be able to curb the free exchange of ideas,” said Kerry.
With 11 journalists imprisoned, Ethiopia ranks 143 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom index for 2014. Last year, UNESCO’s World Press Freedom prize was awarded to imprisoned Ethiopian journalists Reeyot Alemu.
Government officials have repeatedly said that whenever journalists are involved in criminal activities, they will go through the same process as any other criminal.
Tamrat Gebregiorgis, the managing editor of the English weekly newspaper Fortune, said that the truth is somewhere in the middle when it comes to the perception that the Ethiopian government is brutal to the media.
“There are too many elements - society, culture, history. Those are all factors that affect to the extend journalists are operating. This is not an ideal environment where you can publish anything you want and get away with. It’s not as doomy and gloomy as many critics of the government tried to portray. That there is no room to criticize the government and report stories that deem negative to the authority or power that be. It is possible, at the same time it is difficult, it is somewhere in the gray area,” said Gebregiorgis.
Ethiopia’s human rights situation will be assessed next week by the United Nations, known as the Universal Periodic Review. Despite Ethiopia’s poor human rights record, it is part of the U.N. Human Rights Council.