Djibouti — Djiboutian political parties launched their campaigns last week ahead of the country's February 22nd legislative elections, but opposition parties have complained that the government is unfairly crippling their chances.
During the next two weeks, the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP), which has been in power for a decade, the opposition Union for National Salvation (USN) and the centrist Centre for Unified Democrats (CDU) will present their political programmes to the people. More than 173,900 citizens are registered to vote in the elections.
"The two camps are not competing on a level playing field," said Hamdi Farah, a lecturer at the University of Djibouti who supports the Republican Alliance for Development party, which is part of the opposition coalition. "With this campaign, the opposition is off to a weak start, as several of their internet sites are still being censored by the government."
Opposition websites that cannot be accessed from Djibouti include USN spokesman Daher Ahmed Farah's Movement for Democratic Renewal, which can only be accessed through the Reporters Without Borders website, the Republican Alliance for Development and The Voice of Djibouti, a news site affiliated with the opposition.
"The opposition was never officially guaranteed that the censorship would be removed," he told Sabahi.
Farah said the internet is crucial in this campaign, especially when it comes to winning the votes of the younger audience. "They use it, along with the phone, as their main means of communication. If young people do not have enough information when it comes to the opposition, it is because they have not had access to their websites," he said.
Aden Wais, president of the opposition's youth group, said the censorship is "part of the government's plan to prevent the opposition from winning these elections and thereby change the political situation".
Evolving situation of opposition leader Farah
He said the recent arrest of USN spokesman Daher Ahmed Farah shows that the government is determined to stop the opposition.
The Djiboutian Supreme Court convicted Farah for defamation of a military official in September 2004, and ordered him to pay 8.5 million francs ($47,000) in damages. Farah fled to Belgium, where he led the now-defunct Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, which consistently criticised the Djiboutian government and demanded that President Ismail Omar Guelleh step down.
Farah returned to Djibouti on January 13th for the elections, and was arrested by Djiboutian security forces on February 6th for failing to abide by the court decision in the 2004 case. He was released two days later in what Public Prosecutor Maki Houmed Gaba termed a "temporary release" pending the full payment of court ordered damages in that case, while Farah declared that he was free for good.
"By arresting Farah, the opposition's emblematic leader, the government has once again shown that they are in dire straits," Wais told Sabahi. "They will do whatever they can. They will not stop us and we will win these elections. They are scared and these rash decisions, such as the arrest of Farah, are living proof of that."
Activist says censored websites unreliable
Professor Hawa Youssouf, a long-time UMP activist, repudiated the opposition's complaints and said censorship is a "non-issue". All parties taking part in the legislative race have been given the same airtime, she said, "proof of the government's good faith".
"These sites have spent their time with slander and character assassinations and in no way provided any reliable or true information -- just constant, barefaced lies," Youssouf told Sabahi. "It was always boldfaced lies and it is perfectly normal that after some complaints, when the proprietors of these sites could not refute the allegations, the justice system shut them down."