A new report by Human Rights Watch accuses the Ethiopia's government of systematically cracking down on media ahead of the May 2015 elections. The report, released Thursday, details how Ethiopia has restricted independent reporting since 2010.
Researcher Felix Horne says there are patterns of government abuses against independent journalists.
“After articles are written, harassment comes from government officials, security officials and cadres in the form of threatening phone calls and SMS messages [text messages] and in person visits trying to get the individual to tone down the writings to comply with government perspectives on different issues," Horne notes. "The next level is threats and harassment against family members, quite often arbitrary detention to intimidate and to pressure the journalist into censoring their writings. If that doesn’t work, the next step seems to involve criminal charges.”
According to the report, “Journalism Is Not A Crime”, six independent publications closed down in 2014 because of government pressure, 22 journalist, bloggers and publishers were criminally charged and more than 30 journalist fled the country. Most journalists are charged under the widely criticized anti-terrorism proclamation. Currently there is a high profile terrorism case going on in Ethiopia against bloggers of the Zone9 group.
HRW says the repression described in the report is leading to self-censorship. The rights group also claims that citizens and junior government officials are afraid of speaking to media, out of concern of being disciplined.
Horne says the repression has led to a reality where alternative views about the upcoming elections are rarely discussed in the media.
“It is crucial and critical that there will be a vibrant and flourishing independent media that can contribute to the political discourse and the political dialogue within the country that can provide critical information and critical analysis about the political issues of the day," Horne says. " But sadly, given the decimation of private media that we’ve seen since 2010, that’s just not happening.”
The ruling party, which has been in power since 1991, won over 99 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections, with only one parliament seat going to the opposition.
Responding to the report's accusations, Getachew Redda, Special Advisor to Ethiopia's Prime Minister said "HRW had lost their credibility long time ago, even by their own supporters, so there is no point for us to respond to their remarks."
Asked about the issue of imprisoned journalist, Redda responded that "You can be anything, a journalist or pretending to be a journalist, but being involved in criminal activity is still a crime and they will be held responsible."
HRW is calling on the Ethiopian government to release those imprisoned journalist and bloggers and to amend legislation such as the anti-Terrorism proclamation.