Obama visit to Ethiopia highlights human rights and media clampdown

Source: The Irish Times


Irish and US governments ignore how human rights have been traded off in the interests of “development” and security.

On the last leg of his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia President Obama spoke out on behalf of journalists and human rights defenders. “When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance.”

This is a pretty accurate description of the situation in Ethiopia where human rights defenders are jailed and repressive legislation is used to shut down the media and independent civil society. Ethiopia was a pioneer in the use of repressive legislation to target human rights defenders, a practice now replicated in other states in the region.

The Charities and Societies Proclamation, enacted in Ethiopia in 2009, has severely curtailed the ability of independent non-governmental organisations to work on human rights. The law bars work on human rights, good governance, conflict resolution, and advocacy on the rights of women, children and people with disabilities if organisations receive more than 10 per cent of their funds from foreign sources. Organisations working on the promotion and protection of human rights have had to stop these programmes and move into service provision.

Meanwhile, the media remains under a government stranglehold. In 2014, six Ethiopian bloggers and three journalists associated with the Zone 9 blogging collective were accused of “creating serious risk to the safety or health of the public” and arrested under the country’s vague anti-terrorism law. While the recent release of five of those arrested is welcome, four remain behind bars.


Journalists increasingly face a choice between self-censorship, arrest, or exile. In 2014, many journalists and bloggers fled the country following threats and intimidation, while the owners of six private newspapers were arrested on charges of “incitement and dissemination of false rumours intended to cause a violent overthrow of the constitutional order and to undermine the public trust on the government”. The arrests followed harassment and intimidation to force them to change their editorial line.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association repeatedly expressed his concern at the misuse of anti-terror legislation to target civil society groups. But the Ethiopian government continues to use arbitrary arrests and prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and supporters of opposition political parties.


Governments, including both the Irish and US governments, which consistently laud Ethiopia for its progress towards achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, ignore the expediency with which human rights have been traded off in the interests of “development” and security. It is counterproductive to hold Ethiopia up as a model of good governance when the current government has created one of the most oppressive regimes in Africa and has largely shut down civil society and the independent media. It is questionable, however, whether progress on economic indicators can be sustained as long as a repressive one-party government, largely representing a minority group, continues to exercise power by force.

Mr Obama said, “Making sure to open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the Prime Minister has put forward.” However, the response of the prime minister leaves little room for optimism. “Ethiopia is a fledgling democracy that is struggling to embrace broader freedoms. We have to work on our limitations.” One of those limitations is the failure to recognise the vital role of human rights defenders as key agents of social change and effective and sustainable development.

The importance the US attaches to the strategic role of Ethiopia is clear. It remains to be seen, however, whether the US will give the same priority to human rights, and the role of human rights defenders.

Meanwhile, other countries in the region show signs of following the authoritarian direction of Ethiopia, with legislative proposals to restrict civil society and the media in Kenya, Uganda and Burundi. It is the consistent failure by governments to put human rights at the heart of plans and policies that is at the heart of the region’s cyclical problems of poverty and violence.

Only when they accept that the development and human rights agendas are inter-dependent, and that human rights defenders have a key role to play in the process, will we see any real progress in either – and neither should be traded off in the interests of “security”. Andrew Anderson is the deputy director of Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.



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