Ethiopia: Freedom to Express vs. Freedom to Oppress

Monday, May 26, 2014

By Stephanie Schoenhoff

Over the past 15 years, Ethiopia has been on a steady decline in terms of press freedom and freedom of expression as measured by the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. The 2013 Index ranked Ethiopia 137th of 179 countries, falling 10 places in the past year. In the last decade, the international community has scrutinized Ethiopia for its blatant disregard for civil liberties threatened by surveillance and for its persecution of free speech. A number of countries and non-governmental organizations have gotten involved in specific cases where journalists have been wrongfully detained or convicted by Ethiopian authorities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been particularly vocal about the state’s media crackdown. These organizations have advocated for change in the country’s posture towards free expression, seen by many as a violation of human rights that is, at its core, deeply problematic and undemocratic.

Most notably, concerns about the state of free expression in Ethiopia have been discussed at the United Nations (U.N.) during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s human rights record. The UPR provides U.N. Member States with an opportunity to highlight the gains made in relation to human rights. At the same time, the process serves as a platform for other Member States and stakeholders, including civil society and human rights institutions, to critique and question persistent violations. States undergo the UPR process every four and a half years.

Among other recommendations, global representatives have pressed the Ethiopian government to make changes surrounding their Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation at the country’s first UPR in 2009 and again in 2014. Both laws have severely threatened free expression in Ethiopia. The Charities and Societies Proclamation has had the practical effect of banning much of the human rights-related work in Ethiopia, while the Anti-Terrorism is so broad that it can make peaceful protest a serious offence under the law. Both laws indicate the state’s determination to suppress independent coverage of the prime minister, and to silence opposition voices.

The results of the 2009 UPR were clear: in order for free expression to flourish in Ethiopia, these two laws must be abolished or drastically amended.

Yet the response from Ethiopia did not indicate a better future for free expression in the country. While Ethiopia accepted certain recommendations, they rejected the call to amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Further, they denied any speculations surrounding the motives behind the problematic laws in place.

Just this month, the 2014 UPR indicated that the government today is just as restrictive as in 2009. More concerning is that the country is still unwilling to admit to past failures; Article 19 reported on Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Berhane Gebre-Christos, who denied that there were any jailed journalists or that there was any abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation at the government level.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) helped 5 journalists flee from Ethiopia in 2012 and 2013 alone, making Ethiopia one of the top 10 countries from which journalists have been forced into exile that year, on CPJ’s watch. Also according to CPJ research, Ethiopia is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, and has blocked over 70 news and opinion websites in 2013.

It seems the most positive outcome of Ethiopia’s most recent UPR was that it brought free expression to the forefront of debate on a global level. It remains to be seen whether the review will be constructive in enacting any tangible change for journalists reporting in Ethiopia. If the past few years are any indicator of Ethiopia’s upcoming action, the future looks grim.

Representative violations of press freedom and the right to free expression include, and are certainly not limited to, the following:

June 2011: Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were arrested. They served more than 400 days of an 11 year sentence before their release.

April 3, 2014: Ethiopian immigration officials detained ARTICLE 19 staff member, Patrick Mutahi, for 29 hours, without access to legal counsel. Mutahi was banned from returning to the country to execute his human rights work.

April 23, 2014: Six ‘Zone9’ blogger-activists were arrested in their homes by armed security forces in the capital Addis Ababa. As of May 26 they remain in prison with no indication of being released.

Other cases over the past 15 years have included longer and more severe detentions for journalists.

The problem is as pressing as ever. According to Human Rights Watch, since 2009,“Thirty journalists and opposition members have been convicted under the country’s vague Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and security forces responded to protests by Muslim communities with excessive force and arbitrary detentions”.

In their 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch said the following about freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Ethiopia:

Since the promulgation in 2009 of the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CS0 Law), which regulates nongovernmental organizations, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, freedom of expression, assembly, and association have been increasingly restricted in Ethiopia. The effect of these two laws, coupled with the government’s widespread and persistent harassment, threats, and intimidation of civil society activists, journalists, and others who comment on sensitive issues or express views critical of government policy, has been severe.

The question remains: exactly what can be done to protect journalists, activists, and human-rights advocates working in Ethiopia?

In addition to calling for the repeal of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the U.S. Statement at the 2014 UPR of Ethiopia called upon the state to “[p]ermit the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association to travel to Ethiopia to advise the government”.

Consultation from the UN Special Rapporteur would allow for more thorough recommendations to be made. Ethiopia has not yet shown interest in doing so, but global pressure is rising. In addition to this, though, the state will need to enact substantive legal reforms to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, and to protect media workers who report critically on Ethiopia from government retaliation.

It is clear that the international community cannot simply wait until the next UPR to see whether Ethiopia’s free expression climate improves. As the number of local and international citizens who are being arbitrarily detained, tortured, and convicted continues to rise, immediate action must be taken.

For more on Ethiopia’s 2009 and 2014 UPRs, see the infographic below:

Having trouble viewing the infographic? Click here.