It was consequently startling to hear the State Department’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, declare during a visit to Addis Ababa on April 16 that “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair and credible.” The ensuing backlash from Ethiopians and human rights advocates was deserved.

Sherman’s lavish praise was particularly unjustified given Ethiopia’s record on press freedom: It has imprisoned 19 journalists, more than any other country in Africa. According to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the country ranks fourth on its list of the top 10 most censored countries in the world. At least 16 journalists have been forced into exile, and a number of independent publications have shut down due to official pressure.

Last month marked one year since six bloggers were arrested and jailed without trial. The “Zone 9″ bloggers, who used their online platforms to write about human rights and social justice and to agitate for a democracy in Ethiopia, were charged with terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which has been used to clamp down on numerous journalists critical of the regime.

Today, the bloggers remain imprisoned, awaiting what will likely be a trial by farce.As for the elections, opposition parties say the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, led by Hailemariam Desalegn, has undermined their efforts to register candidates for the May vote. Since last year, members of opposition parties and their supporters have been arrested and harassed. In March, the sole opposition leader in Parliament said he would not run for reelection due to state interference with his party’s affairs. The EPRDF, which has been in power since 1991, was reported to have won the last elections in 2010 with 99.6 percent of the vote.

The State Department released a statement last month urging Ethiopia to release journalists who have been imprisoned for doing their jobs. But as the considerably more high-profile statement by Sherman indicated, the Obama administration has been reluctant to criticize what it regards as a key security ally in the Horn of Africa. A State Department spokeswoman confirmed this week that Sherman’s comments “fully reflect the U.S. government’s positions on these issues.”

With its ancient culture, strategic location and population of 94 million, Ethiopia is indeed key to the future of eastern Africa. But that does not justify make-believe statements or a go-softly approach that is not working. The United States should stop funneling millions of aid dollars to a regime that has continued to choke off the media, hamper the participation of opposition parties and silence its critics. If the election is not judged by independent observers to live up to Sherman’s billing, the administration should swallow her words — and change its approach.

— The Washington Post