In his first speech since touching down for a two-day trip in Ethiopia, President Barack Obama called on the government to stop stifling the press. Obama is traveling to two African countries: Kenya, which he visited in the last few days, and Ethiopia. He's the first sitting American president to step foot in these countries, and he's called on their leaders to make changes to their governments by limiting corruption and stopping human rights abuses.
Human rights groups have criticized Obama's decision to visit Ethiopia, saying the trip legitimizes the country's oppressive regime, which keeps much of the population in poverty and famine. The Ethiopian government is so restrictive on the press that Human Rights Watch released a 76-page report in January detailing the many journalists who have been exiled or thrown in jail. Ethiopia has forced privately-owned publications to print government perspectives on sensitive issues, while keeping journalists in fear through intimidation, harassment, and the threat of losing their livelihoods. In the HRW report, one journalist even said that when he took a leap and published content that was critical of the government, he received threatening phone calls and was followed by cars. This is the kind of oppression that Obama said needs to stop, according to NPR:
When all voices are being heard, when people know they are being included in the political process, that makes a country more successful.
Ethiopia has continued to detain journalists and bloggers despite U.S. protests in the past, but the Ethiopian government insists that those it detains have committed crimes. Despite that, Obama tried to emphasize the idea that a free press will only help legitimize the regime as one that respects rights and can still function in the face of opposition:
The governing party has significant breadth and popularity and, as a consequence, making sure to open additional space for journalists or media or opposition voices will strengthen rather than inhibit the agenda that the prime minister and the ruling party have put forward.
According to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian police forces often respond to peaceful protest with excessive force, and the government hasn't adequately investigated the development of sugar plantations in the Lower Omo Valley, which has affected 200,000 indigenous people. Terence Lyons, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University, told the Washington Times that Obama will have to balance encouraging Ethiopia to change and shape its regime for the better and criticizing its many human rights problems:
That will be President Obama’s challenge, to say simultaneously we’re very happy with some of the development advances but we have deep, deep concerns about the almost complete elimination of political space — the arrests of journalists, the harassment of opposition parties and the restrictions on civil society.
Lyons and other human rights activists told the Times they hope Obama will remain firm during his talks with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. After talks with Obama, Dasalegn acknowledged that his country was a "young democracy," but he said it has "minor differences" with the U.S. in just how quickly it should be democratizing, according to Reuters.
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