Newspaper readers at Arat Kilo, a square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

(Nairobi) – The Ethiopian government’s systematic repression of independent media has created a bleak landscape for free expression ahead of the May 2015 general elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In the past year, six privately owned publications closed after government harassment; at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers were criminally charged, and more than 30 journalists fled the country in fear of being arrested under repressive laws.

The 76-page report, “‘Journalism is Not a Crime’: Violations of Media Freedom in Ethiopia,” details how the Ethiopian government has curtailed independent reporting since 2010. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 70 current and exiled journalists between May 2013 and December 2014, and found patterns of government abuses against journalists that resulted in 19 being imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, and that have forced at least 60 others into exile since 2010.

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. “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.”

Most of Ethiopia’s print, television, and radio outlets are state-controlled, and the few private print media often self-censor their coverage of politically sensitive issues for fear of being shut down.

The six independent print publications that closed in 2014 did so after a lengthy campaign of intimidation that included documentaries on state-run television that alleged the publications were linked to terrorist groups. The intimidation also included harassment and threats against staff, pressure on printers and distributors, regulatory delays, and eventually criminal charges against the editors. Dozens of staff members went into exile. Three of the owners were convicted under the criminal code and sentenced in absentia to more than three years in prison. The evidence the prosecution presented against them consisted of articles that criticized government policies.

While the plight of a few high-profile Ethiopian journalists has become widely known, dozens more in Addis Ababa and in rural regions have suffered systematic abuses at the hands of security officials.

The threats against journalists often take a similar course. Journalists who publish a critical article might receive threatening telephone calls, text messages, and visits from security officials and ruling party cadres. Some said they received hundreds of these threats. If this does not silence them or intimidate them into self-censorship, then the threats intensify and arrests often follow. The courts have shown little or no independence in criminal cases against journalists who have been convicted after unfair trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, often on terrorism-related charges.

“Muzzling independent voices through trumped-up criminal charges and harassment is making Ethiopia one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists,” Lefkow said. “The government should immediately release those wrongly imprisoned and reform laws to protect media freedom.”

Most radio and television stations in Ethiopia are government-affiliated, rarely stray from the government position, and tend to promote government policies and tout development successes. Control of radio is crucial politically given that more than 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas, where the radio is still the main medium for news and information. The few private radio stations that cover political events are subjected to editing and approval requirements by local government officials. Broadcasters who deviate from approved content have been harassed, detained, and in many cases forced into exile.

The government has also frequently jammed broadcasts and blocked the websites of foreign and diaspora-based radio and television stations. Staff working for broadcasters face repeated threats and harassment, as well as intimidation of their sources or people interviewed on international media outlets. Even people watching or listening to these services have been arrested.

The government has also used a variety of more subtle but effective administrative and regulatory restrictions such as hampering efforts to form journalist associations, delaying permits and renewals of private publications, putting pressure on the few printing presses and distributors, and linking employment in state media to ruling party membership.

Social media are also heavily restricted, and many blog sites and websites run by Ethiopians in the diaspora are blocked inside Ethiopia. In April, the authorities arrested six people from Zone 9, a blogging collective that provides commentary on social, political, and other events of interest to young Ethiopians, and charged them under the country’s counterterrorism law and criminal code. Their trial, along with other media figures, has been fraught with various due process concerns. On January 14, 2015, it was adjourned for the 16th time and they have now been jailed for over 260 days. The arrest and prosecution of the Zone 9 bloggers has had a wider chilling effect on freedom of expression in Ethiopia, especially among critically minded bloggers and online activists.

The increased media repression will clearly affect the media landscape for the May elections,.

“The government still has time to make significant reforms that would improve media freedoms before the May elections,” Lefkow said. “Amending oppressive laws and freeing jailed journalists do not require significant time or resources, but only the political will for reform.”