9 Apr 2014

Two sides to Ethiopia: the plea for press freedom

Jailed Ethiopian journalists.
by Jean-Paul Marthoz.

There are two Ethiopias. Or better said there two narratives about Ethiopia.

On one side, there is the Ethiopia as celebrated by the international aid community and the European Union : a country which is growing fast and seriously fighting poverty, a country which wisely uses the considerable international assistance that it receives to channel it towards sustainable development.

On the other side there is the Ethiopia as criticized by press freedom and human rights groups. A country ruled by an authoritarian regime, the second largest jailer of journalists in Africa, a country which misuses laws on anti-terrorism and civil society regulation to chill speech and prevent journalists from doing their legitimate watchdog work. 

Press freedom groups do not deny the economic and social realities of Ethiopia, but they also warn about the negative effects and features of the current model that Ethiopia’s sycophants do not want to address.  

"In Ethiopia," writes Committee to Protect Journalists Africa advocacy coordinator, Mohamed Keita, "the leadership is often credited with fast economic growth, strides in health and education, and bold policies to modernize infrastructure and agriculture. Yet, this misses a wider context…Ordinary Ethiopians face a rising cost of living, joblessness, and a stranglehold on the economy by the ruling party…" 

In fact, adds Mohamed Keita, "the international perception of Ethiopia has been distorted by the government’s tight control of information, including the banning of independent journalists and the imprisonment of prominent journalists. " 

The troubling element in the first vision is that it seems to imply that the lack of a vibrant press and civil society to some extent explains the good economic fortunes of the country. If you want to grow, shut watchdog journalism under the accusation that it is irresponsible and inflammatory, and promote lapdog media, under the argument that it is contributing to development by writing positively about the government’s policies and hiding internal tensions and disagreements.

Opposing press freedom and development is a false choice. As Rob Mahoney, deputy CPJ director writes in an essay just published in Attacks on the Press 2014, "the broader role of journalists and media organizations, as a voice for the poor and powerless, a provider of information and ideas, a forum for politics and culture, and an engine of change is acknowledged by economists and political scientist as vital to economic development and democracy." 

This equation between freedom and sustainable development is  increasingly present in the international debate. The Report of the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda published in May 2013 underlines that in order to reach the goal of good governance, a condition of development, two conditions have to be fulfilled : "ensure that people enjoy freedom of speech, association and peaceful protest, and access to independent media and information." The theme will be addressed by UNESCO and international press freedom groups during the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2014.

Governments and especially democratic governments should bridge the gap between the two visions of Ethiopia. Citizens of a democratic state have the right to expect that their governments respect the values they proclaim in all and every international forum, like this week in Brussels, at the opening of the EU-Africa summit. "Realpolitik can integrate human rights," as renowned international lawyer Eric David said. "It just requires that governments decide to do so."

The EU in particular should be consistent with its own statements of principles : "An accountable government, built on free speech, democratic institutions, a vibrant civil society, and respect for human rights and the rule of law are crucial for peace and stability in Ethiopia », the European Commission states on its website. The EU and Ethiopia are engaged in dialogue in the framework of article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement on those important issues, aimed at building common understanding and commitment on these values."

As a major economic partner the EU has leverage in Ethiopia, as Ana Gomes has just stated. It should use it to ask the Ethiopian government to abide by the international rules and values that they have promised to respect by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1993, by joining the Cotonou Agreement and by being a member of the Human Rights Council. 
The EU should also relay the voices of these brave Ethiopians, like Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Negan and others who adhere to universal norms of freedom and justice. They share the values that the EU is bound to defend within its own borders and in its foreign relations.


Jean-Paul Marthoz is the Europe representative for Committee to Protect Journalists.

This is a guest post; views may not represent that of ECDPM

Photo Courtesy of CPJ.


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