Arrests of journalists show Ethiopia's sterner side
From the arrest of more than 100 Ethiopian opposition activists, journalists, and columnists, to the arrest of two Swedish journalists, Ethiopia's government is showing its intolerance of dissent.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The arrests of two Swedish journalists – captured by security forces in early July after a firefight with ethnic Somali rebels – and the detention of a long stream of local journalists with critical views of the Ethiopian government is showing once again the ruthless streak of America’s biggest friend in the Horn of Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – president of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995, and premier of Ethiopia ever since – is praised for his economic vision in steering the country toward a path of economic growth and foreign investment, as well as his cooperation with the US’s counterterrorism efforts in Africa. But Mr. Meles’ decisiveness and vision is matched by an intolerance of dissent, critics say.
Over the past year, more than 100 opposition activists, local journalists and others have been detained under a catch-all anti-terror law that can mean up to 20-year jail terms for those who merely publish a statement that prosecutors believe could indirectly encourage terrorism.
Former president of the republic Negasso Gidada, who left the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 2001 to join the opposition, says that Meles and his followers still hold a belief agreed a decade ago that they are the only ones capable of leading the historically impoverished nation to prosperity.
"They decided then it is only the EPRDF which can lead the country to middle-income level in 20 to 30 years' time," he says. "All other organizations should to be brought on board or eliminated."
Little room for dissent
Meles' proven track record in overseeing economic growth and stability lead some to praise his rule. Human rights groups and journalist organizations complain that the government targets those who simply disagree with the ruling party.
Senior government spokesman Shimeles Kemal rejects rights groups’ claims that the pattern of arrests reveals an intolerance of dissent. He says that those arrested for terrorism – including the two Swedish journalists – have left behind evidence of links with banned militant groups. Ethiopia’s concerns over terrorist threats were bolstered recently by a recent UN report detailing an Eritrea-backed plot by rebels aiming to cause carnage in downtown Addis Ababa during an African Union summit in January this year.
Connections of some sort between opposition politicians and outlawed organizations such as Ginbot 7 are possible. Ginbot 7’s exiled leader, Berhanu Nega – sentenced to death in-absentia for his role in a tumultuous 2005 election – was a former colleague in the defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy.
But while exploiting such connections to crush the opposition is a predictable maneuver, the prosecution of the Swedish journalists Johann Persson and Martin Schibbye is a departure for the government.