I was disappointed with President Obama's weak responses to questions about Ethiopia's repressive government during his visit to the African nation this week. But his comments were in keeping with the Obama Doctrine, whose collegial tone irritates critics who preferred the shoot-now-ask-questions-later foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the cabal that dragged America into the Iraq war.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a worldwide organization dedicated to freedom of the press, lists Ethiopia as one of the 10 most repressive countries when it comes to journalism. During a visit to Addis Ababa in 2010, I spoke with Ethiopian reporters and editors who said self-censorship had become automatic as they sought to avoid government reprisals. Then, it was not so much jail that they feared as it was seeing themselves or family members lose jobs or educational opportunities.
But Ethiopian journalists have been imprisoned for criticizing the government, including columnist Reeyot Alimu, who was among six editors, freelancers, and bloggers freed in the days before Obama's visit Monday to Addis Ababa, although the Ethiopian government said the events were not related. Alimu was freed after spending four years in prison on terrorism charges, but at least 11 other Ethiopian journalists remain in prison based on similar allegations.
Obama held a joint press conference Monday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Meles Zenawi, who was prime minister when I was there but died in 2012. Asked about Ethiopia's poor treatment of journalists, Obama was careful not to offend Hailemariam, with whom he said he had a frank conversation about the importance of allowing dissent in a democracy.
"In a global economy that's increasingly driven by technology and the Internet, continued growth in Ethiopia depends on the free flow of information and open exchanges of ideas," Obama said. "I believe that when all voices are being heard, when people know that they're included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative. So we discussed steps that Ethiopia can take to show progress on promoting good governance, protecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and strengthening democracy."
The president suggested, delicately, that the Ethiopian government, which faces real terrorist threats from within neighboring Eritrea and Somalia, might be mischaracterizing political dissenters. He said the United States doesn't do that. "If they are just talking about issues and are in opposition and are operating as political organizations, we tend to be protective of them even if we don't agree with them," Obama said. "If they tip into activities that are violent and are undermining a properly constituted government, then we have a concern."
Obama indicated there would be no change in U.S. policy based on Ethiopia's treatment of journalists critical of its government or other dissidents. "Nobody questions our need to engage with large countries where we may have differences on these issues," he said. "That's true with Africa as well. We don't improve cooperation and advance the very interest that you talk about by staying away."
Hailemariam admitted that when it comes to distinguishing terrorists from dissidents, "We fully understand that the perception and the reality do not, in many cases, match as far as Ethiopia is concerned." He then asked for patience as Ethiopia evolves. "We want to work on this issue; it's our concern," he said. "But something has to be understood; that this is a fledgling democracy, and we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices and culture in this country. And it's not easy within a few decades -- in our case, only two decades of democratization -- that we can get rid of all these attitudinal problems, and some challenges we face."
Hailemariam wants Americans to trust that, given time, Ethiopia's democracy will be real and that its ruling party won't feel the need to intimidate every opponent into impotence.
With Somalia and Eritrea gasping for breath under the grip of terrorists and bandits, it would be wrong to write off Ethiopia as being just as terrible. It's not. My brief stay there was an absolute delight as I conversed with some of the friendliest people you would ever want to meet while learning more about a nation whose roots are traceable to the world's earliest civilizations. Ethiopians are intelligent, industrious, and proud. But they are not yet free. Not when journalists are jailed for speaking the truth. And I wish Obama had said that less politely.