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100 flowers of repression bloom as Ethiopia moves to gag press ahead of elections

Published in: The East African

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, admitted this month that his government had jammed Voice of America's broadcasting in the country's Amharic language.

The reasons Meles provided for targeting the station were outrageous, even by Ethiopian standards.

He likened the VOA, the US international public information broadcaster with a track record of professional reporting, to the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) - the infamous radio station that incited violence throughout the Rwandan genocide.

Yet the comments provide an important glimpse of the ugly inner workings of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front.

The Ethiopian government has a long history of silencing the media and stifling dissent. VOA officials say their Amharic broadcasts were also jammed in 2005 and 2008.

In both cases, elections were at stake. Now that the 2010 electoral season is in full gear, the Ethiopian government is at it again.

New legal restrictions limit the ability of independent Ethiopian groups to monitor the elections; to date, only government-affiliated organisations have been licensed.

A recent electoral code of conduct for the media forbids them from interviewing voters, candidates and officials on Election Day.

And election observers are barred from making any kind of statement until election results are announced. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In a new report, "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure": Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch documents the myriad ways in which the Ethiopian government is muzzling critics, jailing opponents and exercising control over civil servants in an effort to maintain control.

At the village level, people know that openly supporting the opposition can lead to persecution and the withholding of government services, jobs and educational opportunities.

In addition, the Ethiopian government has enacted an arsenal of repressive laws in recent years to deflect independent criticism.

The most disingenuous of those laws is the "Charities and Societies Proclamation."

Under this law, the government has tightly restricted non-governmental activity in areas deemed sensitive like human rights, governance, and even advocacy for the rights of women, children and people with disabilities.

The practical result is simple: Independent human-rights work is quickly disappearing in Ethiopia.flashad.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, one of the most effective and professional human-rights groups in Africa, tried to operate under the new law.

But after the government unlawfully froze its bank accounts and threatened its staff, it closed all but three of its offices and half its investigators fled the country.

Under an anti-terrorism law passed last year, legitimate peaceful protest and dissent can be considered terrorism and critical reporting by the media can easily get labelled as "encouraging terrorism."

The editors of Ethiopia's leading independent newspaper, Addis Neger, closed the paper and fled the country after repeated threats that they would be prosecuted under this law.

The Ethiopian government tried last year to impose its awkward definition of terrorism across the border after a Kenyan television station broadcast a programme on the rebel Oromo Liberation Front.

Fortunately, the Nation Media Group in Kenya refused Ethiopia's demands to stop the broadcast.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the only African country with more journalists behind bars than Ethiopia is its archrival, Eritrea.

The Ethiopian journalists languish in jail along with at least nine opposition leaders detained following the crackdown after the 2005 elections.

The most prominent among them is Birtukan Midekssa, the young, charismatic leader of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, pardoned in 2007 but re-arrested and returned to jail in 2008. She is fast becoming one of Africa's most celebrated political prisoners.

Keeping Birtukan behind bars, tightening the screws on non-governmental organisations and jamming VOA are just some of the "100 ways" in which the government is putting pressure on the opposition and exacting a high price from those who dare to criticise the government.

Ethiopia's influential foreign donors on the other hand have every opportunity to raise their voices against the Ethiopian government's growing repression ahead of the parliamentary elections in May. They should do so loudly and clearly.

Ben Rawlence is a researcher with Human Rights Watch

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