Freedom of speech suffers in tense Ethiopia

Reporters Without Borders put Ethiopia and Eritrea near the bottom of its 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

For more than 40 years, Ababa Tesfaye has been Ethiopia's answer to Mister Rogers, entertaining children on state-run television with magic tricks, fairy tales, and gentle words of advice.

But on June 2006, the grandfatherly Mr. Tesfaye was fired, after a young child on his program uttered a derogatory word for one of Ethiopia's main ethnic groups.

"After serving 41 years, it's a heartbreaking thing," recalls the 84-year-old Tesfaye. "I have told tales during the imperial government, with their censorship, during the military government's censorship, and during the present government. I keep wondering whether there is anything more I should have done [to reprimand the child]."

That a gentle soul like Tesfaye would be fired from his job illustrates just how ugly Ethiopian politics has become since the May 2005 elections, with a mixture of mob vengeance on one side and authoritarian rule on the other. In the past year, following contentious national elections and their violent aftermath, 111 journalists and opposition leaders have been thrown in jail for treason, inciting violence, and genocide; dozens of newspapers have been closed; and a new press law has put fresh restrictions on what can be printed. Government officials say the strong measures are necessary to prevent racial hatred from escalating into a Rwanda-style genocide. Critics say the government is exaggerating the threat to stay in power.

Very low on the Press Freedom Index

But what is certain is that the Horn of Africa region has become one of the most restricted places on the planet. Reporters Without Borders this year put Ethiopia and its neighboring rival, Eritrea, near the bottom of the list of its 2006 annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Few countries, such as traditional police states North Korea and Turkmenistan, were considered less free. But for their part, Ethiopian officials are unrepentant, saying such measures are necessary for the public good.

"Opposition leaders were provoking one nationality against another and inciting violence among different ethnic groups in the country," says Berhan Hailu, Ethiopia's minister of information. "Democracy is not lawlessness; it is a rule of law. Opposition politicians who stand against the law should be asked by the court why they are against the control, and the law, and the interests of the people."

During the elections, local newspapers allied with the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party regularly carried headlines urging readers to boycott certain pro-government businessmen. Pro-opposition activists also sent hate-filled text messages on mobile phones, urging supporters to attack ethnic Tigreans. (The ruling party is led primarily by former rebels from the Ethiopian province of Tigre.) These words did prompt action. After the May 2005 elections, nearly 193 people were killed in street violence, including seven policemen.

For critics, the mass arrest of the journalists, opposition leaders, and social activists, and their ongoing trials are seen more as a vendetta against an opposition movement that was finally starting to chip away at the ruling party's 14-year reign of power.

Temesgen Zewdie, one of 70 CUD members to take a seat in parliament, says that the opposition voice is needed at this time, with a Somali war approaching, but he adds that the government continues to treat CUD members as enemies. "They can charge us with treason, saying that we are aligned with criminal groups, but we are not allowed to go onto public [state-owned] media to defend ourselves," says Mr. Zewdie.

Journalists also complain about government interference and harassment, and dozens of working journalists in Addis Ababa told the Monitor about being beaten or detained on charges of inciting opposition mobs to violence. But newspaper editor Amare Aregawi says that the violence comes from both sides, from shadowy elements within the opposition movement as well as within the government.

"You have the government restricting you, and you have the opposition parties threatening you, and not just that, but we in the press were part of the racism, creating an atmosphere of intolerance," says Mr. Aregawi, editor-in-chief of The Reporter newspaper in Addis Ababa. "Yes, we are not going to forget what happened in Rwanda, but can you solve it in a better way, without throwing journalists and politicians in jail?"

A 'with us or against us' mentality

Some observers say that today's intolerance is rooted in a know-it-all culture of Ethiopia's student youth movement in the 1970s, with both opposition leaders and the ruling party seeing things in black and white, good and evil terms.

"It's always that 'you're either with us or you're against us' mentality in Ethiopian politics, on both sides," says a local newspaper editor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With both the opposition and the government issuing threats against perceived enemies, Addis Ababa has become a no-politics zone. Even comedians say they have had to change their material.

Hibest Asseifa, Ethiopia's only woman standup comedian, was one of a dozen comedians who performed on a best selling video CD that played in sold-out halls during the election time. Colleagues who told political jokes – almost entirely pro-CUD – have now fled the country. Even Ms. Asseifa, who sticks to relatively safe jokes about children and issues of class, has been physically assaulted for her humor.

Now, Asseifa is trying to come up with jokes for a new show this December at the Hilton Hotel. The hotel management has told her to avoid jokes about race and politics. "Generally, I don't do ethnic humor," says Hibest. "But now that they say to avoid it, I can't think of any other kinds of jokes."

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