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Q&A: The brutal legacy of Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi

Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi granted and then squashed press freedoms, says an expert from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meles zenawi dead ethiopia pm dies 20120821Enlarge
A picture taken July 1, 2007 shows Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi and his wife arriving at the international conference center in Accra before the opening of the African Union summit. Meles Zenawi has died in hospital abroad, a spokesman for Ethiopia's government said on August 21, 2012. "Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away yesterday evening at around midnight," Bereket Simon said, adding that the 57-year-old "was abroad" when he died, without giving further details. Meles had not been seen in public for two months, and had been reported to have been sick in a hospital in Brussels. (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly after the news broke Tuesday that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had died, world leaders showered him with praise. The African Union said in a statement that "the death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons." The West was also quick to offer words of mourning. US President Barack Obama said that Meles's death was an "untimely loss," while British Prime Minister David Cameron described Meles as an "inspirational spokesman," according to Reuters.

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Indeed, many in the world viewed Meles as a charming, intellectual leader. But human rights activists say that Meles leaves behind a far more brutal legacy back home. "The US government has been very reticent to confront Meles Zenawi on his abuses," says Mohamed Keita, an advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program. "This is quite an embarrassment for the Obama administration."

A former opposition rebel, Meles died as a key ally of the US. He came to power after helping overthrow Ethiopia's brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. But by the end of his life, Melesi's hostility toward the press was hard to distinguish from the dictator he once toppled. GlobalPost asked Keita, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, to weigh in on the state of Ethiopian press. The following is an edited version of the exchange.

What problems did the press face under the Meles's ruling?

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was the first Ethiopian leader to introduce free press, but he was very quick to limit these freedoms, and the persecution of journalists began almost immediately as the first independent newspapers appeared. He showed that he was intolerant of criticism and his government continually persecuted journalists, threw journalists in prison. They were criminally prosecuted under false charges, like inciting the public to false rumors and essentially covering topics that were deemed sensitive. The Amharic language press took most of the brunt. Historically, the Amharic language press has been the most outspoken, the most critical, and their journalists have born the brunt of Meles's suppression. Between 2000 to 2001, we [the CPJ organization] had done a study which determined that the government of Meles Zenawi had driven the most journalists into exile in the world. Between 2005 to 2011, he systematically criminalized news gathering activities. Then there was the anti-terrorism legislation, which criminalizes any reporting the government has labeled as terrorism. If a journalist interviews one of the leaders of a rebel group or reports about their activities, the government could interpret this reporting as essentially providing support to a terrorist organization. Because of this context, you have a situation where people are living in fear and people are afraid of speaking out. There is intense government surveillance, not only offline surveillance but internet surveillance. Ethiopia operates one of Africa's most extensive internet censorship infrastructures. No other African country blocks more sites than Ethiopia. Eskinder Nega [who most recently blogged at EthioMedia.com] was one of the pioneers of the free press in Ethiopia. But as soon as he started running his newspaper, his critical reporting landed him in jail. Over 21 years, he had three or four newspapers shut down and banned. This is his ninth time in prison. 

In Ethiopia, what is the general public's attitude toward the press?

The general public is sympathetic. They understand what's going on. There's only one independent radio station in the country, and that radio station does not do news because of fear. So broadcasting is virtually 99 percent controlled by the ruling party and the government and its supporters. Today there's only one newspaper in the country that still reports with a critical edge, but even that newspaper has not published in the last three weeks, because of a recent crackdown. You do have a lot of titles, but most of the titles cover sports, social affairs and entertainment. Very few dare to cover politics because of this fear.

How has the press changed after Meles's death?

It's too early to say at this point. I mean the newspaper that hasn't published in three weeks is still not publishing. Nothing has changed essentially. Journalists are still in jail. The government's handling of this crisis really illustrated its policies toward the press, because they refused to give information about the whereabouts or the condition of the prime minister. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/120821/q-what-happened-journalists-under-meles-zenawis-ruling