Ahead of elections this year, the Ethiopian government is cracking down hard on any kind of free press – shutting down publications, jailing journalists and harassing their families. This is not just Ethiopia’s problem, however. As the home of the African Union, and as an oft-punted role model for African development, Ethiopia’s censorship problem is Africa’s too.

By Simon Allison |

It’s not easy being a journalist in Ethiopia. In fact, it is nearly impossible, according to a new Human Rights Watch report that documents the scale of the state’s censorship apparatus. As journalists ourselves, it makes for highly disturbing reading (and once again highlights why the South African media fraternity’s fight against the proposed secrecy bill is so important – the distance between that and the Ethiopian situation is not so far as one might think).

“Ethiopia’s government has systematically assaulted the country’s independent voices, treating the media as a threat rather than a valued source of information and analysis,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopia’s media should be playing a crucial role in the May elections, but instead many journalists fear that their next article could get them thrown in jail.”

Ethiopia's PM Hailemariam Desalegn

Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn

The authors of the report spoke to 70 Ethiopian journalists, many in exile, who painted a dismal picture of the state of Ethiopian media. The government exerts control in many different ways – some subtle, some quite the opposite.

According to the report, “Most print publications in Ethiopia are closely affiliated with the government and rarely stray from government perspectives on critical issues. Private print publications face numerous regulatory challenges and regular harassment from security personnel. Publications critical of government are regularly shut down, and printers and distributors of critical publications are closed. Journalists critical of government policies and their families live in constant fear of harassment, arrest, and losing their livelihoods. The state controls most of the media, and the few surviving private media self-censor their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of being shut down.”

This is bad news for Ethiopia, of course. It is rarely a good sign when a government attacks the press – as South Africans in particular we can appreciate the dangers of a single, state-sponsored narrative.

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