Among the many reforms that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who came to power in 2018, pledged to implement, one of which was expanding the political arena and creating favorable conditions for the development of the media. Abiy made a historic statement in front of the Parliament when he was swearing in as he received the premiership position from the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. He committed to putting an end to the political oppression that existed against opposition groups. He referred to the press as the “fourth branch of government” and pledged to uphold legal freedom. It was a speech that inspired everyone in the country to have optimism about the prospects for the country in the future.
In the beginning, Abiy’s administration was successful in keeping its commitments. They set free journalists who had been imprisoned for an extended period of time. The same is true for politicians, even releasing those who have been convicted of charges related to terrorism. Through his efforts, the legislature repealed an anti-terrorism proclamation that had been utilized by the the former administration to muzzle dissent. The United Nations was so impressed by the succession of reforms enacted by Abiy that they held the 26th annual World Press Freedom Day celebration in Addis Ababa on May 1-3, 2019, and invited him to deliver a keynote address.
However, after that, everything began to deteriorate. His administration has brought back an old tactic that their predecessors have been using to muzzle dissenting voices. This comes as his political differences are growing wider with the opposition, and his failure to resolve his dispute with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has resulted in a two-year civil war that has resulted in the killing of over 600,000 Ethiopians, if not more.
Censorship of political speech has become the norm. The suppression of voices of criticism by the government has turned into a routine phenomenon. Opposition figures were arrested, and activists who ended up in jail were forced to remain there for days without access to legal representation or due process. Accusations that appear to target dissenting voices in the court system are becoming more prevalent.
Lemi Sime is an expert on peace and conflict resolution and a political analyst. He thinks that this kind of problem is common during transition.
“Even though the transition phase has been longer than I anticipated, the narrowing of the political field is to be expected at such a time,” remarked Lemi.
Wubshet Taye, a political activist who had been a victim of the previous government’s crackdown against dissenting voices, agrees.
“Hopes were high, and the change that followed did not live up to the hype, but there is still time and space to make a change. There is still time and room to bring about a change,” he said.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is one of the institutions that has been urging authorities to stop harassing media outlets and appealing for the protection of freedom of expression. The attacks on journalists, political groups in opposition, and anyone who speaks out against the government have reached an alarming degree, according to the Commission.
“We are seeing attacks targeted at opposition groups and individuals who are critical of the government’s action, which is a worrying development,” said Daniel Bekele, commissioner of the EHRC, as he presented the nine-month report of the entity to lawmakers. “These attacks target individuals and groups that are critical of the actions taken by the government.”
Another symptom of the lack of political space is the authorities’ unwillingness to allow opposition groups to organize, which some political commentators and right-leaning organizations equate to a violation of the rights guaranteed by the constitution to assemble and organize.
Woubshet Ayele, the deputy chair of the board, said, “Since authorities are not allowing opposition groups to use public-owned halls, we are renting space for them, which is unnecessary.”
Concerns about the shrinking democratic space in contemporary Ethiopia have been voiced by international right-wing organizations too.
“Journalists and media workers need to be able to do their work without any threat, intimidation, or harassment to effectively carry out their professional duties of informing the public and contributing to holding authorities accountable,” said Flavia Mwangovya, deputy regional director, East and Southern Africa, Amnesty International, last month following the arrest of seven journalists and media workers.
Amnesty called Ethiopia, alongside its neighbor Eritrea, sub-Saharan Africa’s worst jailer of journalists.
Wubshet thinks that not only the government but also the media and opposition groups are to blame for the lack of political room in Ethiopia. He says that the media is to blame for not being fair and balanced.
Ersido Lendebo, who is known for his political analysis, has observed that the political room in contemporary Ethiopia is getting smaller.
“Polarization along ethnic lines and unchecked government power are both to blame for the lack of political space,” he said. With the media reflecting the growing divide between ethnic groups, experts like Ersido believe that the government ought not to react but should instead look inward.
“The media, the government, and academics should look into themselves. At the end of the day, it is the national conversation about the political crisis we are in,” Ersido said.
Even though there are problems, Lemi has reasons to be hopeful and optimistic.
“The commitment of the government to bring law and order, which is critical for the political climate, and the talks started to narrow political differences through negotiation, adding to the planned national dialogue, show that things are moving in the right direction,” Lemi said.
Despite this optimistic view, however, the shrinking political space is a worrying trend that threatens the health of democracy and human rights as it makes it harder for people to engage in public affairs.