The government says Human Rights Watch has got it wrong. Really?
INDEPENDENT voices in Ethiopia are finding it ever harder to be heard. Suffocated by an irascible government, the country’s newspapers are now the least informative in east Africa. Journalists deemed critical of the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, are pilloried. And they are not alone.
Foreign aid people and diplomats say a law pushed through parliament last month will curtail the activities of local human-rights workers. The new law means that independent local outfits that get more than 10% of their income from abroad will be classified as foreign. Once designated as such, they will not be allowed to engage in anything to do with democracy, justice or human rights. Real foreigners are already banned from doing so. As few home-grown charities and non-governmental organisations can stand on their own feet in a country as poor as Ethiopia, the government will be able to control domestic dissent more tightly.
The task of raising human-rights issues now increasingly falls to foreigners. A particularly bitter tussle is under way over allegations of atrocities by Ethiopian soldiers in the country’s south-eastern Ogaden region. This area abuts the border with turbulent Somalia and is populated mainly by ethnic Somalis traditionally hostile to the government in Addis Ababa, the capital.
Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, accuses Ethiopia of war crimes and crimes against humanity there. It says that Ethiopian troops burned down villages and killed, raped and tortured civilians in a counter-insurgency campaign against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front after its fighters had killed 74 Ethiopian and Chinese oil-exploration workers in 2007. Ethiopia’s government was so incensed by the description of “systematic atrocities” in the Ogaden that it commissioned a report of its own that dismissed Human Rights Watch’s allegations as hearsay and its methods as slapdash.
The government report found “no trace” of serious human-rights violations. People reported to have been killed or tortured were said to have been found alive and well. Villages marked down as torched were said to be unscathed. The sole admitted instance of torture was said to have resulted in a court-martial. According to the Ethiopian report, Human Rights Watch was one-sided, since it failed to document the guerrillas’ thuggery. Perhaps unwittingly, said the Ethiopians, it had made itself a propaganda tool of the separatists.
The Ethiopian investigation did not, however, examine all of Human Rights Watch’s accusations. Some executions listed by the group go unchallenged or are blamed unconvincingly on the guerrillas. The report skims over the Ogaden’s humanitarian emergency, which Médecins Sans Frontières, a French-based charity, lists as one of the world’s ten worst. The Ethiopian report flatly denies that the government blockaded separatist strongholds during a famine, thus starving civilians. The Ethiopians also lambast Human Rights Watch for not visiting the Ogaden, knowing that it was they who blocked the visit. They claim that the Ogaden has been open to anyone, yet most independent journalists have been banned from travelling there freely. Several aid organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have been kicked out. Aid workers there speak only anonymously, for fear of expulsion.
The government has a general election to win next year. A wave of arrests of political dissenters, including a prominent opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, suggests the government wants to keep all its opponents in check.
A simple way for it to win confirmation of its claim that Human Rights Watch’s accusations are false would be to let independent journalists, both foreign and Ethiopian, visit the Ogaden and see for themselves.
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Fear over Ethiopia poll media law
Addis Ababa – A new media code that sets guidelines for coverage of Ethiopia’s elections in May has drawn fire from embattled media staff, who face fines and jail time if found guilty of violations.
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia approved the framework two weeks ago, ahead of the May 23 polls, but journalists are already voicing their disapproval and fears over its restrictions.
The code bans journalists from carrying out interviews of voters, candidates and observers during election day, while it also prohibits predictions ahead of the announcement of results.
Transgressors face one year in jail for reporting on the latter.
“We stand against every article that is stipulated in the law. It simply puts an unreasonable amount of burden on any journalist,” Anteneh Abraham, head of the Ethiopian National Journalists Union, told AFP.
‘Rebellion and terrorism’
“We simply can’t work under those conditions. The strict restrictions have instilled fear in all media workers,” he added.
Further restrictions have also been placed on coverage from inside polling stations during the same day, in particular the limited access granted for photography and video footage.
However, an article on security has sparked the most concern due to what is seen as ambiguity.
“Media workers must refrain from reports that may incite rebellion and terrorism,” according to the article.
It bans the “preparation, publishing and distribution of reports that foment political instability and chaos along ethnic, religious, linguistic … lines.”
“It’s way too dangerous for anyone,” a reporter told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“I will simply avoid covering the elections as it is not worth the potential trouble,” he added.
Anteneh said he doubted the legality of the government’s decision to allow an electoral board to come up with a media law, and slammed its authorities for adopting the code “in secret” without consulting all stakeholders.
Human Rights Watch Report
Ethiopia is on a deteriorating human rights trajectory as parliamentary elections approach in 2010. These will be the first national elections since 2005, when post-election protests resulted in the deaths of at least 200 protesters, many of them victims of excessive use of force by the police. Broad patterns of government repression have prevented the emergence of organized opposition in most of the country. In December 2008 the government re-imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa for life after she made remarks that allegedly violated the terms of an earlier pardon.
In 2009 the government passed two pieces of legislation that codify some of the worst aspects of the slide towards deeper repression and political intolerance. A civil society law passed in January is one of the most restrictive of its kind, and its provisions will make most independent human rights work impossible. A new counterterrorism law passed in July permits the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as acts of terrorism.
Political Repression and the 2010 Elections
As Ethiopia heads toward nationwide elections, the government continues to clamp down on the already limited space for dissent or independent political activity. Ordinary citizens who criticize government policies or officials frequently face arrest on trumped-up accusations of belonging to illegal “anti-peace” groups, including armed opposition movements. Officials sometimes bring criminal cases in a manner that appears to selectively target government critics, as when in June 2009 prominent human rights activist Abebe Worke was charged with illegal importation of radio equipment and ultimately fled the country. In the countryside government-supplied (and donor-funded) agricultural assistance and other resources are often used as leverage to punish and prevent dissent, or to compel individuals into joining the ruling party.
The opposition is in disarray, but the government has shown little willingness to tolerate potential challengers. In December 2008 the security forces re-arrested Birtukan Midekssa, leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, which had begun to build a grassroots following in the capital. The government announced that Birtukan would be jailed for life because she had made public remarks that violated the terms of an earlier pardon for alleged acts of treason surrounding the 2005 elections. The authorities stated that there was no need for a trial as the move was a mere legal technicality.
In July the Ethiopian government passed a new anti-terrorism law. The law provides broad powers to the police, and harsh criminal penalties can be applied to political protesters and others who engage in acts of nonviolent political dissent. Some of its provisions appear tailored less toward addressing terrorism and more toward allowing for a heavy-handed response to mass public unrest, like that which followed Ethiopia’s 2005 elections.
Civil Society Activism and Media Freedom
The space for independent civil society activity in Ethiopia, already extremely narrow, shrank dramatically in 2009. In January the government passed a new civil society law whose provisions are among the most restrictive of any comparable law anywhere in the world. The law makes any work that touches on human rights or governance issues illegal if carried out by foreign non-governmental organizations, and labels any Ethiopian organization that receives more than 10 percent of its funding from sources outside of Ethiopia as “foreign.” The law makes most independent human rights work virtually impossible, and human rights work deemed illegal under the law is punishable as a criminal offense.
Ethiopia passed a new media law in 2008 that improved upon several repressive aspects of the previous legal regime. The space for independent media activity in Ethiopia remains severely constrained, however. In August two journalists were jailed on charges derived partly from Ethiopia’s old, and now defunct, press proclamation. Ethiopia’s new anti-terror law contains provisions that will impact the media by making journalists and editors potential accomplices in acts of terrorism if they publish statements seen as encouraging or supporting terrorist acts, or even, simply, political protest.
Pretrial Detention and Torture
The Ethiopian government continues its longstanding practice of using lengthy periods of pretrial and pre-charge detention to punish critics and opposition activists, even where no criminal charges are ultimately pursued. Numerous prominent ethnic Oromo Ethiopians have been detained in recent years on charges of providing support to the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF); in almost none of these cases have charges been pursued, but the accused, including opposition activists, have remained in detention for long periods. Canadian national Bashir Makhtal was convicted on charges of supporting the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in July, after a trial that was widely criticized as unfair; he was in detention for two-and-a-half years before his sentence was handed down, and he was unable to access legal counsel and consular representatives for much of that period.
Not only are periods of pretrial detention punitively long, but detainees and convicted prisoners alike face torture and other ill-treatment. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented consistent patterns of torture in police and military custody for many years. The Ethiopian government regularly responds that these abuses do not exist, but even the government’s own Human Rights Commission acknowledged in its 2009 annual report that torture and other abuses had taken place in several detention facilities, including in Ambo and Nekemte.
Impunity for Military Abuses
The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has committed serious abuses, in some cases amounting to war crimes or crimes against humanity, in several different conflicts in recent years. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any meaningful efforts to hold the officers or government officials most responsible for those abuses to account. The only government response to crimes against humanity and other serious abuses committed by the military during a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Gambella in late 2003 and 2004 was an inquiry that prosecuted a handful of junior personnel for deliberate and widespread patterns of abuse. No one has been investigated or held to account for war crimes and other widespread violations of the laws of war during Ethiopia’s bloody military intervention in neighboring Somalia from 2006 to 2008.
In August 2008 the Ethiopian government did purport to launch an inquiry into allegations of serious crimes in Somali Regional State, where the armed forces have been fighting a campaign against the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front for many years. The inquiry was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lacked independence, and concluded that no serious abuses took place. To date the government continues to restrict access of independent investigators into the area.
Relations in the Horn of Africa
In August the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission issued its final rulings on monetary damages stemming from the bloody 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Nonetheless the two countries remain locked in an intractable dispute about the demarcation of the heavily militarized frontier. Eritrea continues to play a destabilizing role throughout the Horn of Africa through its efforts to undermine and attack the government of Ethiopia wherever possible. The government of President Isayas Afewerki hosts and materially supports fighters from Ethiopian rebel movements, including the Oromo Liberation Front. Eritrea has also pursued a policy of supporting armed opposition groups in Somalia as a way of undermining Ethiopia’s support for the country’s weak Transitional Federal Government.
Key International Actors
Ethiopia is one of the most aid-dependant countries in the world and received more than US$2 billion in 2009, but its major donors have been unwilling to confront the government over its worsening human rights record. Even as the country slides deeper into repression, the Ethiopian government uses development aid funding as leverage against the donors who provide it-many donors fear that the government would discontinue or scale back their aid programs should they speak out on human rights concerns. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the United Kingdom, whose government has consistently chosen to remain silent in order to protect its annual £130 million worth of bilateral aid and development programs.
Donors are also fearful of jeopardizing access for humanitarian organizations to respond to the drought and worsening food crisis. Millions of Ethiopians depend on food aid, and the government has sought to minimize the scale of the crisis and restrict access for independent surveys and response.
While Ethiopia’s government puts in place measures to control the elections in 2010, many donors have ignored the larger trends and focused instead on negotiating with the government to allow them to send election observers.
A significant shift in donor policy toward Ethiopia would likely have to be led by the US government, Ethiopia’s largest donor and most important political ally on the world stage. But President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to depart from the policies of the Bush administration, which consistently refused to speak out against abuses in Ethiopia. While the reasons may be different-the current government is not as narrowly focused on security cooperation with Ethiopia as was the Bush administration- thus far the practical results have been the same. The events described above attracted little public protest from the US government in 2009.
Human Rights Watch is pleased to invite you to the launch of a new report, “’One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure’: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,” to be held in Nairobi on Wednesday, March 24, 2010.
n May 2010, Ethiopia will hold its first national election since the controversial polls in 2005. Using firsthand testimony and documentation collected over the past decade, ?One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure? examines the shrinking space for opposition parties, independent civil society, and the media, and assesses the potential impact of human rights abuses on the electoral process in 2010. In the report, Human Rights Watch calls on the Ethiopian government to take urgent steps to improve the electoral environment by immediately releasing political prisoners; supporting independent efforts to investigate and publicly report on abuses, including by international electoral observers; and ceasing attacks and intimidation on political opposition, independent civil society, and the media.
What: Human Rights Watch report release
“’One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure’: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia”
Who: Georgette Gagnon, Africa director, Human Rights Watch
When: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 10:30 a.m.
Where: Chester House, 1st Floor, Room 4, Koinange Street, Nairobi, Kenya
Source: Human Right Watch (HRW)
Fears over Ethiopia’s press code for poll coverage (By Aaron Maasho (AFP))