My country’s government will fall by its obsessive need for control

From afar, Ethiopia might seem like a success story—from the famine of the 1980s to a country in which the west and China are only too happy to invest. But the real threat to the country comes from the government’s fear of genuine debate and the lack of real freedoms of speech and the press, writes journalist Argaw Ashine

April 8 2015 Text: Argaw Ashine

My friend, Tesfalem Woldyes, was arrested in April 2014 for tweeting about the Ethiopian military ethnic composition as reported by pro-government local news outlets, after the Ministry of Defense submitted a report to the Parliament. Tesfalem is one of the nine “Zone Nine” bloggers and journalists sent to prison and later charged under the infamous anti-terrorism law. Ethiopia ranked 142 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2015 Press Freedom Index. Currently 17 journalists, including my friend Tesfalem, are in jail and more than 65 journalists have fled the country in the last 4 years. Let alone publishing a newspaper, updating your Facebook status could also be considered a crime by the Ethiopian government.

Keep in mind that the government has already blocked several critical websites run by Ethiopian diaspora and jammed international radio and television satellites that broadcast services targeting Ethiopia. Why are Ethiopian authorities so hostile towards independent media? Why is it scared of what its journalists say and its citizens hear?

To begin with, it’s not a simple confrontational and hostile relationship between the media and the government as we have seen in many other countries in the last couple of years.

Legitimize the Repression
The international community, in most cases, sympathizes with Ethiopians for the past dark episode of history, including the great famine 31 years back in 1984, which is continuously associated with Ethiopians. Most Westerners keep telling us to change the country and to ensure food security and other basic needs for human life. There is nothing wrong with this type of positive assertion, I guess, however it doesn’t mean we don’t need good television, or stand-up comedy shows or uncensored access to the internet. On the other hand, the Ethiopian Government has been shamelessly trying to legitimize its oppression as a necessary measure to ensure stability in the country and to achieve economic prosperity. This is an absolute lie.

The Ethiopian Government’s narrative about press freedom emerges from its lesser known history. Its ideological stance evolved from the Ethiopian ruling party’s older Marxist origin. Due to Ethiopia’s geopolitical significance in the region, Western governments allied with the Addis Ababa government to fight terrorism, while the regime is assisted by the growing Chinese interest in Africa.

The Ethiopian ruling party core group, Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), had subscribed to the little known Albanian communism as a role model during 1980’s until the end of the Cold War. After they won a guerrilla war in 1991 against the military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam, the rebels became a government. Victorious, the Ethiopian ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), allowed multiparty politics and independent press in the country for the first time in Ethiopian history. During that time, EPRDF never had a chance to reap the fruits of such multiparty politics and independent press, as the Cold War ended and many African dictators and military leaders were wiped out by popular revolution. EPRDF’s strategic choices at the time were so crucial for its survival and grip in power, as well as, to impress the Western world for the formation of new alliances. Only the first 3 years were enjoyable for the emerging Ethiopian independent press. For the first time the country had more than 60 newspapers and magazines being published. Most journalists at the time were not properly trained, there were no sufficient flow of investment to the media industry. As a result, the quality of the new press industry was not impressive and easily trapped in legal dispute and government crackdowns. Since then, the relationship between the Ethiopian media and the government is surrounded with mistrust and hostility.

After the 2005 disputed elections, the government imposed more restrictions against the press and any other form of dissention across the country, shutting down 26 newspapers, while several journalists ended up in jail in one night. Later, the government introduced new legislations, including anti-terrorism laws, a new press freedom and access to information act, and a number of other directives to further eliminate dissident voices.

The Ethiopian authorities portray their political stance as a revolutionary democratic political ideology that you couldn’t find in any political dictionary. Most recently they tried to articulate their political ideology as a “developmental state” which prioritizes economic growth, and the dominance of one party rule as an important way to achieve that economic growth. This narrative was intended to copy the 1970s Asian Tigers economic success story. Sadly this ideological narrative has labeled the independent press, civil society and opposition as a threat to sustainable economic prosperity.

One to Five
The Ethiopian Government’s Office of Communication Affairs (equivalent to the Ministry of Information in other countries) has an army of cadres deployed across the country to facilitate the control of the flow of information as well as to identify dissent at any level, from social media pages to a small rural village church. Those cadres (minders) closely work with various district level government offices, police and security forces. In many cases the government has recruited them from colleges and high schools as a shortcut option to getting a job after schooling.

“One to Five” is a North Korean-style strategy in urban areas, which means five households are supervised by one cadre assigned by the ruling party. The purpose of this initiative is clear, to prevent anyone either journalist or researcher, accessing information from the grassroots community, which may expose government failures. Keep in mind, the Ethiopian ruling party, EPRDF, has more than 6 million members, and this massive recruitment is aimed at controlling every aspect of society.

EPRDF and Chinese Communist Party delegations have organized frequent meetings and seminars, which primarily focus on how to realize the hegemony of the ruling party in Ethiopia.

Apologists

Ethiopia is the poster-child for African development. Despite its poor freedom of press record, Ethiopian government officials are accorded a red carpet welcome in major Western nations and have benefited from billions of dollars of global multilateral and bilateral development aid. World Bank, the United States and the European Union are among key donors for humanitarian and development projects. Of course, the Chinese and other emerging nations also finance the regime using a form of loan and grants.

Here is the misunderstanding: the Ethiopian Government is frequently credited for its development success by Western donors, and it is a rare success story for multilateral donors and Western nations after decades of failed development initiatives in developing nations. So, donors are keen to duplicate Ethiopia’s success story to the rest of the poor countries as a “role model”.

As an Ethiopian, I am greatly depressed to see this hypocrisy of the “donors world”, which ignores the importance of basic human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the media as comprehensive elements.

The fault of the economic success narrative is how the rest of the world trusts the whole “cooked data” originating from the Ethiopian government state machine. As far as I know, UN agencies and international financial institutions do little sampling of their own personnel for economic ratings. Even foreign media reporters based in Addis Ababa are restricted from travelling to the countryside to gather information. If any foreign reporter tries to sneak out of the capital city, then obviously that person risks being kicked out of the country or losing the media accreditation issued by the government.

The crucial part of the development process is the participation of the poor and marginalized sector of society. Independent press may give a voice and empowerment to the poor and marginalized sector in prioritizing their demands without fear and influence. It is obvious that without democratic instruments and the participation of the wider public, the so-called “economic success” would be hard to trust. Apart from Ethiopia’s 10 percent economic growth in the last 9 successive years, donors and financial institutions are blinded to the fact that around 30 million Ethiopians are still living on less than $1 a day. It’s a bitter truth, but every other year 2.5 million Ethiopians are dependent on food aid to survive.

It is true Ethiopia has changed a lot in the last two decades. Skyscraper buildings, new highways and hydro-electric dams are built as the government enjoys massive development aid and loans. But that is not a complete picture of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian regime is cruel towards its own people, and a large number of poor people go to bed without food every other night.

War on Terrorism
Ethiopia is an ally with the West to fight the threat of terrorism, particularly in Somalia, since the early 2000’s. The Ethiopian authorities tapped this opportunity to boost its foreign policy leverage by sending its troops to Somalia to fight Al Shabaab militants, as well as, sharing intelligence and providing drone bases for the US military. In short term advantage, Ethiopia has done the job well and remains an important ally in the region.

However, unless freedom of expression and freedom of the press are ensured in the country, in the long term, with 92 million people and a highly polarized population among ethnic and religious lines, plus high numbers of youth unemployment, Ethiopia will be at high risk of instability.

Argaw Ashine is an exiled journalist and co-founder of Wazema Radio, which is run by Ethiopian exile journalists. He is also the founder of several journalists’ associations and networks in the country and around the continent. In addition to his 17 years as a journalist, he is also a specialist on security and development.