Simegnish “Lily” Mengesha is a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed here are her own.
For any ordinary person, engaging in discussion with the world’s most powerful leader feels close to impossible. But I experienced the impossible when I met President Barack Obama on World Press Freedom Day to speak about media restrictions in Ethiopia.
My invitation to the White House came a few days after Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman issued a startling statement praising the Ethiopian government: “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward,” she said.
And so my excitement at meeting President Obama was tempered by my concern over the seeming contradiction between the United States highlighting repression in Ethiopia on the one hand, and its public praise of the Ethiopian regime on the other.
On the one hand, the president’s offer to speak with an Ethiopian journalist about media restrictions and his remarks about the growing number of journalists silenced by death or imprisonment sends a message. This act seems to show a recognition by the United States of Ethiopia’s increased use of legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of persecution to suppress independent reporting.
During our private discussion, my first question to President Obama concerned the grounds on which the U.S. government believed that the election in Ethiopia will be fair, free, credible, open, and inclusive. None of these words represent the election that will be held in a few weeks’ time. Furthermore, I asked the president if his government would also issue a strong statement criticizing the restrictions on political rights and freedoms in Ethiopia.
In his response, President Obama acknowledged my concerns and said, “In any statement we make, there should be an acknowledgment that there have been issues surrounding freedom of the press, and that unless and until there is free reporting of all views in an election, and opposition voices can be heard, the elections themselves are not going to embody fully the meaning of democracy.”
I appreciate the president’s acknowledgment, but still question why his government needed to publicly laud the upcoming election as a step forward, while simultaneously failing to point out and strongly condemn the repressions in my country.
I was a journalist in Ethiopia for over 10 years. I witnessed the closure of more than half the newspapers and magazines once published in the country because of direct or indirect orders from the government. Self-censorship became predominant among those of us who strived to work in the remaining space available.
The Ethiopian government uses its infamous 2009 ‘Anti-Terrorism Law’ as its tool to throw many of my colleagues and close friends in jail. Those who are not jailed suffer from continued harassment and intimidation. New reports show that in 2014 alone, 30 journalists fled the country following the 2014 arrest of three independent journalists and six bloggers.
The U.S. administration is well aware of all these pressures and restrictions and yet chooses to maintain its friendship with the Ethiopian regime because, as the Under-Secretary said in a letter to the Washington Post, “Ethiopia is a valuable partner in a critical region.”
That is another concern I raised during my discussion with President Obama: how the United States can better prioritize support for human rights and democracy in a closed country such as Ethiopia, where regional security concerns tend to take precedence in U.S. engagement.
Under-Secretary Sherman pointed out in her letter that the United States maintains a frank discussion with Ethiopia regarding democracy and human rights. In her meetings with Ethiopian officials, she said she expressed concerns about restrictions on political space, arrests, and imprisonment of independent journalists, as well as the use of anti-terrorism legislation to stifle political dissent.
The journalists, bloggers, and political prisoners suffering in jail do not care about what Sherman’s government expresses behind the scenes or how she tries to balance her statement in a small letter to the editor in the Post. What matters to them is what is said and done publicly.
In our discussion, President Obama said, “We recognize that our criticisms in some cases may fall on deaf ears.” He is right. The Ethiopian authorities don’t listen to what is said behind the curtain. They care what the United States says boldly and upfront, like Under Secretary Sherman’s statement during her visit.
President Obama also talked about the balance his government tries to find when attempting to create space for freedom of the press. He said the United States doesn’t want to be heavy-handed, so as not to create a backlash, but it doesn’t want to say nothing either.
Then where lies the balance the United States is trying to strike? Where is the consistency? Which voice is heard most: the loud voice praising repression or the hushed concern behind closed doors?