2 June 2010

Society silenced by repressive state structure; independent media gagged around elections

Last week's Ethiopian presidential election result was no surprise, with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's governing party winning nearly every seat. Harassment and intimidation of voters and journalists, and the absence of a free, independent media was behind this smooth victory, report Human Rights Watch and the International Press Institute (IPI).

In the months leading up to voting day on 23 May, officials and militia went house to house telling citizens to vote for the ruling party or face losing their homes or jobs. The state then issued codes of conduct for the media, preventing independent local and foreign journalists from speaking to anyone in the election process, including voters. But "government journalists were transmitting live from within polling stations," said a local journalist. President Zenawi has created an "insidious apparatus of control" in order to hold onto power, says Human Rights Watch.

After the last parliamentary election in 2005, the government brutally suppressed post-election protests, almost 200 died, and tens of thousands were arrested, including opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists.

Since then, the government has ruled with an iron grip, using several strategies to silence dissent, restrict the media and independent society, says Human Rights Watch in its March 2010 report: "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Free Expression and Association in Ethiopia." Ethiopians cannot speak freely and challenge the government without fear of reprisal, says the report.

Harassment goading people to vote for the ruling party in this month's election was most intense for people living in government-owned housing, and those living in poor neighbourhoods. "Intimidation to register and to vote for the ruling party is everywhere," a resident of Addis Ababa, the capital, told Human Rights Watch. "If the local administration is against you, they'll be after you forever. They can come and round you up at will."

News reports say government party members chanted slogans against Human Rights Watch at a rally last week in Addis Ababa.

Authorities make every effort to eliminate critical voices. According to IPI, two opposition members were shot dead by police after the election. Broadcast media are completely state run and self-censorship is the norm among journalists. In December 2009, the most prominent independent newspaper was closed. Recently, the government began jamming Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, and many publications shut down in 2005 remain closed.

Meanwhile, local journalists continue to be arrested, harassed and intimidated, and since 2005, several foreign journalists have been detained or expelled from the country for covering sensitive issues. Also, a broadly defined anti-terror law has been used to threaten rights activists and journalists with prosecution. In 2009, several Ethiopian journalists fled the country; and more civil society activists and journalists have left in recent months.

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