The Ethiopia visit has raised hackles among human rights advocates who question the administration’s level of concern about human rights, as it seeks to advance new security and economic goals on a continent where good governance and democratic freedoms often do not top the priority list.
“The decision to go to Ethiopia greatly undermines the stated goals and commitments of this administration when it comes to support for human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Africa and beyond,” said Sarah Margon, Human Rights Watch’s Washington director. “It shows that it ranks priorities and shows that security and development often trump human rights concerns, which is a very short-sighted policy approach.”
Dozens of journalists left Ethiopia last year, saying they faced threats from the government because of the work they do. In April 2014 the government charged seven bloggers known as Zone 9 and three reporters under the country’s anti-terrorism law; a few months later the owners of six private publications were charged under Ethiopia’s criminal code. In early July the government released two bloggers and four journalists, though according to the Committee to Protect Journalists at least a dozen members of the media remain jailed on terrorism charges.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, Girma Biru, described Obama’s decision to visit his country as “confirmation of the strong relationship that’s been built between the two countries.”
Biru said prosecuting journalists was not evidence of human rights violations. “If a journalist, or a teacher, or a professor, or a farmer is supporting these types of groups to instigate violence, then he should be charged,” he said. “But the fact that he is carrying the name of ‘journalist’ should not save him from being charged on this ground.”