The legalization of political repression in Ethiopia

It has been one month since the latest round of repression against government critics in Ethiopia began. Last weekend, the Zone9 bloggers and three journalists who were arrested in late April appeared in court. To date, very little information has been given about the crimes the bloggers and journalists are accused of committing or the reasons why they are being held practically incommunicado. Rather than indicting the prisoners during the recent court appearance, the presiding judge gave police an additional 28 days to investigate the case, sending the nine bloggers and journalists back to jail without officially charging them. It was the second time since their arrest that the court has delayed the process, and knowing Ethiopia’s dodgy laws around “crimes against the state,” it probably will not be the last time.

The tactic of detaining and delaying is not uncommon in Ethiopian political trials. The recent Anti-Terrorism Proclamation gives the court broad liberties on detention and remand, allowing the accused to be held up to a period of four months while investigations are underway. Four months without knowing what one is charged with, without the possibility of bail (as in this case) and without sufficient access to legal representation or time with family and friends. The longer the bloggers and journalists linger in jail, government may hope that media attention and the initial outcry against the crackdown will wane. But, the move is more than just a ploy to diffuse interest in the situation. More importantly, it buys time for the state to build a legal case against the accused because in Ethiopia the façade of legalism has become an indispensable gloss on political repression.

As ludicrous as the accusations of terrorism or subversion by bloggers and journalists is the ritual of political trials and court proceedings used to affirm such crimes. If a state seeks to silence criticism and repress freedom of expression, why go through the trouble of a trial? In the past, regimes that sought to clamp down on opposition did so more candidly, without any pretexts or deliberations. Yet, in recent years, few states—liberal or illiberal—have attached as much significance to legalism as the Ethiopian government when it comes to resolving political disputes.  On the surface, this is a welcomed change—since it would be foolish to argue that anyone would prefer the barrel of a gun to a trial—but the reliance on laws hides a deeper problem at the core of the political system in Ethiopia and other states that have adopted liberalism without fully buying into it.

Over the past two decades, Western countries have spent millions of development dollars on rule of law and judicial strengthening projects in transitioning countries like Ethiopia, with the aim of codifying the rights of citizens and the role of government inline with most established democracies. Much to the chagrin of Ethiopia’s Western donors and allies, though these efforts have yielded a proliferation of new laws, there has not been a commensurate increase in respect for human rights, provision of justice and restraint on government power. On the contrary, laws like the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (2009), the Charities and Societies’ Proclamation (2009), and the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation (2008) have been used to close down the political space.  In essence, laws, trials and stronger courts are not the answer to an inherently undemocratic system; they have become part of the problem.

This has been Ethiopia’s tragic paradox in recent years—the perversion of law and the legalization of repression, which is far more difficult to challenge than open brutality because any act of repression can be legitimated. Hence, the inclination of the Ethiopian government in response to genuine concerns about democracy, human rights and freedom of speech is to switch the discourse to one on legality. We hear, for instance, statements such as this one to justify the arrest of journalists for crimes of terrorism:

The government has made it clear that it fully respects the rights of the media to work freely within the framework of its legal obligations and its attendant responsibilities. The law in Ethiopia could not be applied selectively to different professions. It should apply equally to all citizens and professions, including journalists.

But, let us not fail to see that, at the heart of the matter, the recent arrests, in addition to the unfair trials of dozens of other prisoners of conscious, is not a legal issue but a political one. It matters because how we define the discourse determines what is possible to bring up for debate. Shifting the focus to legalism usurps the ability to question the very legitimacy of a system that institutionalizes repression. The struggle that continues with the growing support for the Zone9 bloggers and journalists in prison is resistance to the notion that expressing criticism of government is a crime. No matter how intricate the case and sophisticated the legal arguments devised to criminalize the nine detained writers, they stand on the side of truth and justice.

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