Ethiopian PM Dies: Will Press Freedom Live?

With the death of Meles Zenawi, the government crackdown on journalists could end -- or intensify.

Meles Zenawi (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
Meles Zenawi (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The news this week that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died — of a “sudden infection,” according to state TV — did not exactly come as a shock. For weeks there were rumors that he was ailing. When I was in Washington, D.C., recently, taking cabs to and from the Convention Center during the International AIDS Conference, as I engaged Ethiopian cab drivers about their country, to a person they all told me the prime minister was “dying of brain cancer.”

It is not information I would have taken to the bank, but it did add a bit to the mystery of why the prime minister didn’t meet with a delegation of which I was a part that visited Addis Ababa earlier this summer to plead for the release of journalists imprisoned on terrorism charges. 

At that time, when I asked if our three-person delegation representing the Committee to Protect Journalists and the African Media Initiative could meet with the prime minister, I was told he was busy with budgetary matters. That could have been true. But the minister of information, Simon Bereket, who met with us then, also more recently denied that Zenawi was ill, even as the prime minister was presumably dying. 

That surprised me, because when we visited Ethiopia in 2006, on a similar mission, while the prime minister was busy with a lingering trouble with neighboring Eritrea and Somalia, he readily agreed to meet with us and spoke unhurriedly, openly and candidly, acknowledging there was “poison” in relations between the press and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. He also told us then that the government would work to change the situation. We quoted the prime minister in our CPJ news alert, saying: “The government has to talk to the private press, whatever the character of the private press.”

Moreover, Zenawi granted us rare access to Kaliti Prison, where we were allowed to visit imprisoned journalists, who at the time included Eskinder Nega, who was released much further down the line. Nega is once again behind bars, sentenced last month to 18 years for what the prosecution claimed was an attempt to foment revolution in Ethiopia — a charge he has consistently denied. This time, we were told by Minister Bereket, with whom we met, that he didn’t think there was enough time to arrange a visit to Kaliti Prison. Still, we waited in hope, but ultimately in vain, as we boarded our bus to the Addis Ababa airport to return to the U.S.