, NAIROBI, Mar 24 – Ethiopia\’s government has tightened media control, stifled opposition and civil society in recent years, and ramped up restrictions ahead of May elections, a rights group said on Wednesday.
Since the violent aftermath of the 2005 elections, the regime has arrested and detained several opposition members and threatened and harassed opponents, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
"Ethiopia\’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organise political activities and challenge their government\’s policies… without fear of reprisals," said the report.
The New York-based watchdog said the measures had been undertaken to avoid a repeat of the 2005 post-poll violence sparked by opposition claims of irregularities, in which some 200 people were killed.
"Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia," said Georgette Gagnon, the HRW Africa director.
"The ruling party and the state are becoming one and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence."
Several activists and journalists have fled the country in recent months due to government repression, HRW said.
The country\’s most prominent newspaper – the weekly Addis Neger – was closed in December and last week Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he was ready to censure the Voice of America\’s Amharic language service for its "destabilising propaganda."
Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon called HRW\’s accusations "ridiculous".
"They are talking of restrictions when we are conducting televised debates that have presented all sorts of political alternatives. State media has offered more than 300 hours of airtime to the opposition," he said.
Other than limiting political and media freedoms, the ruling Ethiopian People\’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) embarked on a strategy in rural Ethiopia to prevent dissent, HRW said.
Access to fertiliser, food assistance, health care and schools are conditional on membership of the ruling party, said the report entitled "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia."
Local administration leaders wielding huge powers determine eligibility for the services in rural areas, home to 85 percent of Ethiopia\’s 80 million people.
"These broad powers have been consistently used to punish and ostracise those perceived to support political opposition," said the watchdog.
Between 2005 and 2008 EPRDF\’s membership has quadrupled from 760,000 to more than four million in the rural areas.
"People are told that if they don\’t vote EPRDF, then no fertilisers, no clinics," Bulcha Demeksa, a leading opposition figure, told the rights group.
Government spokesman Bereket again dismissed the charges:
"In fact, the government is encouraging all farmers to use more fertilisers no matter what their political affiliations. The same goes for assistance and health care," he said.
Opposition groups have accused the ruling party of repeated harassment in the run-up to the May 23 polls.
Gagnon also criticised Ethiopia\’s donors for inaction on the alleged abuses.
"Ethiopia’s foreign backers should break their silence and condemn the climate of fear in Ethiopia," she said.
"Donors should use their considerable financial leverage to press for an end to the harassment of the opposition and to oppressive laws on activists and the media."
Around a third of Ethiopia\’s government budget is foreign funded.