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Censorship and surveillance of journalists

In their work as journalists, Lemma and her colleagues test boundaries on a daily basis. She knows that her phone is being monitored. People follow her on the street, they sit next to her in the café, they don’t even hide, she says. She should know: We are watching you closely. Every day Lemma receives e-mails with threatening messages. “We know where your children go to school,” it says, for example. Even advertisers of the monthly Addis Standard get calls, the magazine earns less and less money.

Yet it is considered the government’s flagship project, says Lemma, and that is the ugly part of their work. Ministers presented their magazine to international diplomats and said, “Look how high we hold press freedom here.” Unknown people nevertheless intimidate the 23 editors daily for their critical comments.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists ten imprisoned journalists for Ethiopia. About 60 journalists have fled the country, only in Syria the number is higher. Only two years ago, the Ethiopian government banned five independent magazines and one newspaper. And according to Human Rights Watch, the only printing press with the size to print a large circulation of a daily newspaper belongs to the state. On the CPJ list of the most censored countries, Ethiopia ranks fourth in the world.

Opponents accused of terrorism

Since 2009 the government has systematically used an anti-terror law against journalists: they are accused as allies when they report on groups that the state classifies as terrorist – like bloggers of the collective Zone 9.

The group consisted of nine university graduates who initially reported online on social issues. Over time, they became increasingly politicized, demanding the rights they were constitutionally entitled to. They took part in events organised by international human rights organisations, trained an international NGO to communicate safely on the Internet, and visited the imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega. Nega is serving his fourth year of an 18-year prison sentence. His crime: He had criticized the government for using the anti-terror law also against opposition members.

After being charged with Zone 9, a member fled the country. Two other bloggers, including Soleyana S. Gebremichael, were abroad. Soleyana applied for asylum in the United States. The remaining members spent more than a year in detention and were released shortly before and after Barack Obama’s visit to Ethiopia last year. A journalist from Addis Standard, who was in custody with them, reports of four by four meter cells containing more than ten political prisoners. “We called it Siberia because it was so cold,” he says. They were only allowed to go outside for ten minutes a day. Last Tuesday, authorities briefly arrested another blogger. He has to face a trial because he had held the government responsible for the deaths of Debre Zeyit in a conversation with friends.

The government is reacting to the new protests in the country not only with arbitrary arrests. It is also trying to prevent demonstrators from arranging meetings and is temporarily blocking mobile internet access. Ethio telecom, Ethiopia’s only Internet provider, belongs to the state. Access to telephone connections, the censorship of opposition websites or the blocking of Tor, software for encrypting and anonymising Internet connections: State intelligence services are implementing this. They also spy on computers of political opponents, sometimes with software from German companies.

Ethiopia’s narrative of economic recovery disrupted

Ethiopia is surrounded by shattered states: In Eritrea dictator Afewerki rules, thousands flee annually from an unlimited military service. Civil war has been raging in Somalia for two decades, and militias are again fighting in Southern Sudan after five years of independence. Ethiopia received hundreds of thousands of refugees from both countries – one reason for Merkel’s visit. On her three-day trip to Africa she wants to conclude cooperation agreements to prevent migration to Europe. Ethiopia is also fighting Islamist terrorism in Somalia. Germany is therefore “very cautious about criticising human rights violations,” says ethnologist Zitelmann.

Ethiopia is regarded as a stable partner of the Western community of states – despite numerous documented human rights violations and censorship that otherwise only exists in North Korea and Saudi Arabia. The European Commission signed a “Strategic Partnership” with Ethiopia in June; the EU has promised the country 745 million euros in development aid for 2014-2020.

Ethiopia – one of the poorest countries in the world – has experienced strong economic growth in recent years. The government has been authoritarian in enforcing this development. Deaths and people being displaced – this does not fit into the positive narrative of Africa’s fastest growing economic power. The new protests show the opposite side. On Wednesday, the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee will discuss the Ethiopian government’s brutal response to the recent conflicts.