The International Community in Ethiopia is Wrong: It Can Do Much More to Protect Ethiopian Journalists and Freedom of Speech

Tesfalem Waldyes, a journalist from Ethiopia, snaps a picture in the countryside during a tour of drought-stricken areas organized by the World Food Program.” Photo: Nicholas Benequista.

There is a common perception in the international diplomatic community in Addis Ababa that putting public pressure on the Ethiopian government to improve human rights and other basic democratic freedoms is likely to backfire. Ethiopia’s current government—which has been strongly influenced by Ethiopia’s unique history of independence in the colonial period and as well as its more recent origins as a scrappy guerrilla group —can indeed be unyielding, if not retaliatory, when faced with foreign pressure.

But too often this perception, true or not, is used as a pretense for silence, or inaction, when journalists and bloggers face intimidation or arrest for simply doing their job, or for exercising their right to freedom of expression under the Ethiopian constitution. A blogger who was previously jailed, Seyoum Teshome, was arrested again this week, adding to the ten journalists and bloggers already in prison, and to many other writers living in exile outside of Ethiopia.

Ambassadors and heads of agencies are undoubtedly concerned about such democratic restrictions, but feeling they have no other options carry out a tactful and quiet approach to diplomacy that does not jeopardize their joint interests with Ethiopia in security and commerce, or put at risk substantial aid portfolios that do genuinely hold the livelihoods of millions of Ethiopians in the balance. But they are wrong to think that they cannot do more.

  • Stop hiding from journalists and bloggers. International organizations and their senior officials are shy of the national press. To be fair, some embassies and some agencies are better than others, but more often than not, local journalists have received no welcoming gestures from international organizations, or worse, are treated rudely or ignored when they make an enquiry. I have heard enough stories to know this to be true, and I have also heard all the misguided excuses international officials make for it. They worry about being misconstrued by a poorly trained press cadre and about upsetting their government counterparts for merely having the audacity to speak publicly. Or they simply feel that they have no need or purpose to speak to the local press. Meanwhile, speaking to a blogger here is, for most international officials, inconceivable (in neighboring Kenya, donors invite prominent bloggers to their panels to look hip and to benefit from their influence). The folly of the international community’s attitude in Ethiopia has been frustratingly evident for years. Very few members of the international community know the names of the journalists and bloggers in jail. Several foreign officials I have conversed with this week were unaware that another blogger had been arrested. Building those relationships—with media owners, journalists, and bloggers—would send a subtle but strong message that they are valued, and ensure that the next arrest does not go unnoticed.
  • Talk with your government counterparts about the importance of press freedom to your programs. There will be no crackdown, or retribution, for speaking to the press about your rather dull water project. The repressive apparatus in Ethiopia is, by most accounts, quite separate from the levels of government concerned with building roads, irrigating fields, training health workers, etc. That said, working with the press can be damaging to a carefully cultivated relationship with a technocratic government counterpart. And that very counterpart might pay a hefty price in their career if they are viewed by their seniors as self-promoting; the nail that sticks out in Ethiopia’s bureaucracy is often hammered back in. But these are challenges that can and should be negotiated, and if not for the sake of supporting the press and democratic freedoms, then for the sake of the project. How can such thoughtful considerations of building institutional capacity through partnership not contemplate the importance of a gradual opening? Social accountability, now recognized as a critical component of successful development projects, is difficult enough without a vibrant civil society, but unworkable without independent press. Equitable food and livestock markets, resilience to climate change, gender equality: each and every developmental target will be compromised in Ethiopia’s information-scarce environment. Talk about these issues with your counterpart, and keep raising them at ribbon-cuttings and workshops until openness becomes an inevitable and accepted challenge of state capacity.
  • Be an advocate for access, and be a witness when journalists cannot. Without ever officially saying so, Ethiopia routinely designates large swaths of the country—areas of extreme hunger, conflict or protest—as no-go zones for journalists. International organizations can organize junkets and add to the pressure to get journalists through these invisible cordons. And in instances where this is not possible, international development organizations can make a much more concerted and systematic effort to be a witness. As a journalist based in Ethiopia in 2007 and 2008, I often relied on the accounts of international NGOs working in the Somali region. I know that such information gathering is done more or less with good intentions, though often in an ad hoc manner. Alternatively, reports are collected under the supervision of security advisors whose objectives are oriented more towards protecting staff than towards documenting abuses, or by political officers whose remit is merely to report to headquarters. There is no reason why this effort could not be better organized and coordinated by concerned technical staff, and that the information collected could not be deployed strategically.
  • Work with state media and diaspora media. Finally, there is a view that media development is not possible in Ethiopia, and that too is a misconception, spread by media development practitioners who overlook unorthodox opportunities. They overlook the possibility of working with state-controlled media, dismissing it as a propaganda machine, when in fact research has shown that many of the staff at state-controlled media houses want to serve a stronger public service function. This function may not extend to Western-style watchdog journalism, but it is a mistake to think that state media cannot be improved. Furthermore, diaspora-produced media are making new inroads into Ethiopia as internet access improves, but often without the ethics and practices that ensure reliable information is communicated. The growing chasm between the diaspora media and state-controlled media is exacerbating the tensions that are presently threatening the country’s stability, and media development practitioners could work on both sides of this divide to address the issue.

The actual implementation of these recommendations is, of course, fraught with many significant challenges and obstacles, but none that cannot be overcome with the appropriate expertise, knowledge, and skills. The international community in Ethiopia simply needs to decide that this is a priority. They cannot continue to cling to the same old excuses for not doing so.

Nicholas Benequista is the Research Manager & Editor at the Center for International Media Assistance.

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