Support human rights defenders in Ethiopia: CIVICUS interview with Betre Yacob Getahun

BetreYacobGetahunCIVICUS speaks to Betre Yacob Getahun a journalist, writer, and human rights advocate and the founder and president of Ethiopian Journalists Forum (EJF). Getahun is also a co-author of Nipo Nipo Tu, a book which discusses the human rights and humanitarian problems in Ethiopia. He is exiled from Ethiopia after receiving several threats for his work.

1. Tell us about the Ethiopian Journalists Forum

The Ethiopian Journalists Forum (EJF) is an independent journalist association founded in January 2014. It was established by 40 journalists concerned about the deteriorating state of press freedom and freedom of speech in the country. And its objective was to protect the rights of journalists and promote freedom of speech and of the press.

Ethiopia is a repressive nation where no independent journalist associations exist. Those associations established earlier in the name of journalists are aligned with the government and are doing nothing for journalists.

Sadly EFJ was disbanded by the government soon after its establishment. EJF was targeted by the authorities and accused of working to elicit violence and commit terrorism in the country with foreign powers including the United States and British governments, human right organisations and outlawed Ethiopian opposition groups. As its leader, I have also been subjected to harassment and threats, and was forced to flee the country as were three other leaders of EFJ.

2. How would you describe the situation for independent journalists and civil society in Ethiopia?

Freedom of speech and press freedom in Ethiopia is in a bad shape compared to any other previous period. Using repressive laws, the government has systematically continued to stifle dissent and independent voices. After Eritrea, Ethiopia is in the second-worst position of countries that jail journalists in Africa.

The media environment in Ethiopia is very hostile for journalists. Besides shutting down independent print media outlets, the government restricts access to numerous news websites including some international media. In addition to harassment, the authorities also regularly intimidate and threaten journalists and civil society members. There is a common practice of arresting these groups and charge them with often vague terrorism offences which result in sentences of several years. As a result of this continuing mistreatment, many journalists and bloggers operating in the country are living in fear knowing that continuing their work will land them in jail. Some hence decide to leave the country altogether.

Among those jailed are Eskinder Nega, Woubeshet Taye and Yusuf Getachew. These journalists are now suffering in Kality, the most notorious prison in Addis Ababa.

Although repression in Ethiopia has a long history, government’s attitude has drastically hardened in the past few years. Following the hotly contested 2005 election and the ensuing Arab spring, the press freedom situation of the country has seen a rapid decline. The past two years were the worst with several independent press outlets being shut down. In 2014 alone, more than six publications were closed and one independent journalist association banned.

3. What justification is the Ethiopian government using to stifle human rights defenders in the country?

The government uses a variety of techniques including legislative restrictions that are now hindering the development of a free and independent media in the country. 

The 2009 Anti-Terrorism law is one such legal instrument designed to target both journalists and bloggers and is extensively used as an instrument to stifle voices that oppose the government. Since that law came into effect in 2009, so many journalists and bloggers have been charged under it for simply publishing information.

The 2008 Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation is also another piece of legislation that has been used to restrict journalists. The 2005 Criminal Code also contains provisions that limit press freedom and freedom of speech.

The Ethiopian government is also hostile to civil society and freedom of association is severely restricted. The 2009 Proclamation is the product of this government hostility. The Anti-Terror law weakened the work of civil society organisations, particularly organisations working on human rights issues and those that advocate for democratic governance.

The Ethiopian government sees civic societies as an enemy to its power and always does its best to prevent the establishment of such entities, especially those working on human rights and democracy.The Charities and Societies Agency is always reluctant and unwilling to register CSOs whose objective is to advance human rights or democracy issues. One can only be successfully registered and get government collaboration if the goals of the organisation are not a threat to the government.

The government also interferes directly in the activities of those who managed to get registered in the past accusing them of being foreign agents and attempts to infiltrate the organisations with those who will feed information to intelligence operatives is commonplace. Unfortunately associations end up changing their objectives and programmes to conform to the interests of the government.

In addition to that, most CSOs are made unable to get funding from abroad due to restrictions and this has weakened their work.

Human rights defenders also face intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary arrests. Many of them are arrested and tortured by police and security officials.The well-publicised case of Zone 9 bloggers is a good example. After a series of intimidation and harassment, the bloggers were arrested in 2014 and spent more than 450 days in prison unlawfully. During their trials some of them reported to the court their gruesome experiences in prison which included torture. Although they were recently released, many of them live in fear and are unable to resume their work.

4. Do you believe the international community is playing a positive role in addressing human rights violations in Ethiopia?

There are some efforts made by the international community to address the human right problem in Ethiopia, but I believe it is not enough. The widespread human right violations in Ethiopia are the results of government policy and a deliberate action taken by the authorities. So, to overcome the problem is complicated. It requires serious attention especially from countries like the United States and United Kingdom who have strong ties with Ethiopia. Beyond condemnation, they should take practical actions that can force the Ethiopian authorities to respect human rights and abide by international laws. These actions may include strategic sanctions that selectively target the government.

In addition, it is important to support human right defenders operating in Ethiopia in this hostile environment and to give recognition to their work. Support such as financial help to training are key to build their capacity.

Follow him on Twitter @betreyacob