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Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia is a far cry from the Stalinist-style dictatorship that existed under Mengistu, who was overthrown in 1991. Privately-owned newspapers have helped to sustain intellectual exercise in the capital, Addis Ababa, and other growing regional cities. But the climate, which has significantly deteriorated since 2005, is hostile to media independence and self-censorship is very common.
The laws on media provide for long prison sentences for those found guilty of defamation or publishing false information, as well as for those found guilty of “terrorist activities” under the July 2009 anti-terrorist law. Foreign reporters based in Ethiopia apply utmost caution not to embarrass the government over their coverage of news or face harsh repercussions that include deportation. Despite hosting the African Union’s headquarters, Addis Ababa is not living up to its expectation to respect the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
As well as having to cope with a number of repressive laws, journalists with the privately-owned media are haunted by memories of the 2005 post-election crackdown in which a score of newspaper editors and publishers were arrested. Ever since, they have had to endure harassment, intimidation and “official or unofficial warnings” not to cross redlines. Many journalists get discouraged, some are reduced to routinely censoring themselves and some end up fleeing the country. The Meles government maintains a total control over the news put out by the public media, which has a monopoly of the broadcast sector in the country.
Use of security arguments as grounds for gagging dissenting voices increased sharply in 2011. Two journalists with Amharic language weeklies – Fitih columnist Reyot Alemu and Awramba Times reporter and deputy editor Woubeshet Taye – were arrested on security grounds in June. A month later, in a separate incident, Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were arrested after crossing from Somalia into the Ogaden, a southeastern region sealed off by the state to foreign and local media. All four journalists were charged with “terrorist activities” in September. The two Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years in prison and the two Ethiopian to 14 years’ imprisonment. At least three journalists left the country at the end of 2011 for fear of arrest.
The only Internet Service Provider in Ethiopia is the state-owned Ethio Telecom, which facilitates government control of online activity. But the government exercises relatively little control (just a few opposition websites are the victims of political censorship), partly because only 0.5 per cent of the population is online (around 500,000 Internet users in 2010).
Updated in March 2012
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