By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
May 5, 2014 (ADDIS ABABA) – Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday urged United Nations member states to exert pressure on the Ethiopian government to end the targeting of activists and media under its controversial laws.
On Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) begins a review of Ethiopia’s human rights record under the universal periodic review procedure, only days after Ethiopian authorities arrested nine news providers.
On 25 and 26 April, police arrested six bloggers from the Zone 9 website and three journalists reportedly accusing them of plotting to incite violence and instability in collaboration with foreign activists.
Government officials denied their arrest was in connection with their journalistic duties, claiming that they were implicated in “serious criminal activities”, without giving further details.
The arrests were made a few days before US secretary of state John Kerry’s visit to Ethiopia as part of his tour to three African countries.
The arrests prompted widespread condemnation from international press freedom groups and rights human organisations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the mass arrests were one of the world’s worst crackdowns against free expression.
While Amnesty international said the arrests fit into Ethiopia’s long term trend of arresting and harassing human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents.
An Ethiopian political activist, who asked for anonymity, told Sudan Tribune that such arrests against critical journalists and political opponents is not a surprise considering that elections are less than one year away.
Exercising free speech and particularly criticising the ruling government when elections are approaching is considered an absolute crime, he added.
In a statement, HRW said that UN member states should use the periodic review to openly press Ethiopian government to stop the sweeping crackdown against freedom of speech and respect constitutional and international laws on media freedom.
“The UN review is taking place just as Ethiopia is renewing its crackdown on free speech,” said Leslie Lefkow, HTW’s deputy Africa director.
“To make this review meaningful, UN member countries should forcefully tell Ethiopia that its attacks on the media and activist groups are a blight on its human rights record,”added Lefkow.
HRW said Ethiopia has failed to comply with the recommendations of 2009, when the UN made its first Universal Periodic Review of the East African nation.
The human rights group said that the human rights situation in Ethiopia has deteriorated substantially and the authorities in Ethiopia have shown intolerance of any criticism and they have sharply restricted the rights to free expression and association.
According to international rights organisations, Ethiopia is one among some of the worlds most closed press environments.
The Horn of Africa nation is the continent’s foremost jailer of journalists next to neighbouring Eritrea.
Many critical journalists face lengthy jail terms under the country’s controversial, vague and broadly defined anti-terror legislation.
With 49 journalists forced into exile, Ethiopia is also third worst after Somalia and Iran in terms of forcing an exodus of journalists.