Ethiopia Criminalizes Free Flow of Information

15 October 2014

By Riva Jalipa

The author is Legal Officer for ARTICLE 19–Eastern AfricaThis is a chapter in a recently issued State of Right to Information in Africa Report 2014 and is reprinted with permission. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Ethiopia’s commitment and respect for African institutions and mechanisms is not in doubt. It is the home to the African Union Commission and apart from the African Charter on the Values and Principles of Public Service Administration in Africa, Ethiopia has ratified all treaties that recognise and promote the right to information in Africa.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights lists Ethiopia as being up to date with reporting obligations under the Charter. However, there have been concerns that domestic application of transparency, democracy and human rights instruments by the Government deviates from the principles of those treaties.[1]

In its concluding Observations and Recommendations, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights expressed deep concern with state of freedom of expression and right to information. ACHPR adopted Resolution No. 218 of May 2012[2] calling upon Ethiopia to take measures to improve the situation of the right to information by:

Amend the Charities and Civil Societies Proclamation in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders;

  • Remove restrictions on freedom of expression imposed on the Mass Media by the Access to Information Proclamation (2008) and the Anti–terrorism Proclamation (2009) that do not conform to rights of freedom of expression provided in international human rights law.

Joining the Open Government Partnership would directly contribute to addressing concerns of ACHPR highlighted above by promoting civic engagement.

Ethiopia asserts a constitutional guarantee of the right to information in the public interest at Article 29 of the constitution and a Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation 2012. The reality of RTI, however, is a different story. Ministerial guidelines to actualise the Access to Information law are yet to be published and the enforcement of national laws that contradict this provision claw back on this guarantee. These include broad definitions for “terrorist acts”, ambiguous offences such as “moral support and encouraging of” “terrorist acts” (Articles 5 and 6), that grant the State broad discretion to criminalise dissent where there is no direct call for engagement in terrorism and where there is no likelihood of such acts occurring.

There are also provisions for warrantless search (Article 16) and seizure (Article 26) and warrantless arrests and detention (Article 19).

Article 613 of the Criminal code recognises four variations of defamation and calumny as “crimes against honour”, as well as the offence of “insult” (Article 615), with severe penalties available for each.

Defences provide very limited protection for truthful statements, or statements that are in the public interest. Article 618 allows for aggravated sentences where these offences are committed against public servants. Article 244 criminalises “attacks against the State and National and other Emblems” and includes abusing, insulting, defaming or slandering the State in public. Article 640 prohibits “obscene or indecent publications”.

National security provisions in Articles 248–250 criminalise treason, high treason, and economic treason by making it an offence to disclose official government documents that compromise “the national interest”. Articles 396, 397 and 399 concern similar crimes of “breaches of military secrecy”, “breaches of official secrecy”, and “breaches of professional secrecy”, while Article 486 criminalises “inciting the public through false rumours”.

These laws expose journalists to harassment and intimidation, and undermine the right of journalists to protect the anonymity of their sources. They have been used to prosecute individuals for making false assertions of fact against government authorities, or for other acts of legitimate criticism of or protest against government policy. This threatening environment has forced many journalists and citizens to flee the country.

Extensive government control over the broadcast media[3] has brought about the lack of media independence and plurality. This control is reinforced by a state monopoly over printing presses through the state–owned Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise (BSPE) and standardised printing contracts with restrictive terms. Of the 91 newspapers and 160 magazines given licences since 2009 by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, only 17 newspapers and 27 magazines are in circulation.

The expense of printing, costs of distribution outside of Addis Ababa and low literacy rates discourage private investment in independent media. Investors are also disinclined to associate with media that may be viewed as critical of the government, which further limits the media’s plurality and independence and worsens the general state of RTI.

Despite Ethiopia having one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in Africa, the government has continuously filtered content and engaged in blocking, often attempting to limit access to criticism voiced by the Ethiopian diaspora. In June 2012, Ethio Telecom took steps to block the use of the secure browser, Tor, which allows users to bypass blocked websites and browse anonymously. The Ethiopian government has also blocked numerous websites and blogs from being accessed in the country, especially those carrying politically critical content. International news sites such as Al Jazeera and CNN are among websites that are frequently blocked.

Ethiopia was ranked 143 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, 2014. Since 2011, international human rights organisation ARTICLE 19 has documented 12 journalists prosecuted under the Anti–Terrorist Proclamation (652/2009) and at least 33 cases of journalists fleeing the country in fear of prosecution under the same law.

Journalism in Ethiopia makes you pay the price. It is similar to being a solider. But when you want to be a soldier, you know the risks, plus you will shoot your enemy. In our situation you are not sure what will happen to you. You don’t know when the government will arrest you. But in your mind, you will feel that you might be the next one.–Nebiyou Hailu, Journalist

In my personal opinion, unless journalists in Ethiopia wrote things that favour the current EPRDF ruling party, I can say their fate is nearly at the door of death or just like being at the door of prison.–Dawit Solomon, Journalist

These people are imprisoned not for any crime they committed but for speaking the truth.–Eskedare Alemu, sister of imprisoned journalist, Reeyot Alemu

ARTICLE 19 has advocated for the improvement of the situation of RTI in Ethiopia, including at the UN Human Rights Council and the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights. Several states endorsed its recommendations at the 19th session of the Universal Periodic Review, including Ethiopia. These recommendations include reviewing its legislation to ensure that any limitations on the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline, are in full compliance with Article 19 of the ICCPR. In particular, providing for a defence of truth to all defamation cases, ensuring that journalists and workers in the media can pursue their profession in a free environment which guarantees the rights of freedom of opinion and expression for all persons and taking concrete measures to ensure that efforts to counter terrorism are carried out in full compliance with the Constitution and international human rights obligations, including respect for fair trial guarantees, freedom of expression and freedom of the press5.

Recommendtions

  1. The Federal Government of Ethiopia should ratify and domesticate the African Charter on Values and Principles of Public Administration in Africa. The Government should pay special attention to implementation of article 6 on the right of access to information and transformation of public service from secretive to openness.
  2. The Government should create a conducive environment for the promotion and enjoyment of the right to information including repealing laws that limit civic space in the country.

 


NOTES

[1] http://www.pennstatelawreview.org/print-issues/comments/a-test-of-democracy-ethiopias-mass-media-and-freedom- of-information-proclamation/

[2] http://www.achpr.org/sessions/51st/resolutions/218/

[3] Under the Broadcasting Service Proclamation of 2007, the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation of 2009 establishes a licensing system for the printed press, where all written publications must be registered (Article 9) and the executive is given broad powers to impound periodicals and books (Article 42). Restrictions on media ownership (Article 7) also discourage growth and investment in the sector.

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