Letters   |   Ethiopia

Anti-terrorism legislation further restricts Ethiopian press

July 23, 2009 
His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi 
c/o Embassy of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the United States 
3506 International Drive, NW 
Washington, D.C. 20008 

Via facsimile: (202) 587-0195 

Dear Prime Minister:

We are writing to express our serious concerns about legislation that would further restrict press freedom in Ethiopia and about an ongoing pattern of criminal prosecutions, administrative restrictions, and Internet censorship. We are concerned that these measures, which official rhetoric has publicly justified as policies to safeguard the "constitutional order," actually criminalize independent political coverage and infringe on press freedom as guaranteed by the Ethiopian Constitution. We call on you to use your influence to reverse this trend.

On July 7, the Ethiopian House of Peoples' Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation despite concerns raised by legal experts, lawmakers, and the private press about sweeping statutes that restrict fundamental constitutional rights, including press freedom. Several journalists, who asked that their names be withheld for fear of government reprisals, told CPJ they received phone calls and warnings from officials and government supporters to censor coverage scrutinizing the law.

The proclamation contains far-reaching statutes giving the executive branch sweeping powers to imprison for as long as 20 years "whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates" statements deemed "encouraging, supporting, or advancing" terrorist acts. This statute effectively institutionalizes censorship of reporting the government deems favorable to groups and causes it labels as "terrorist." Worse, the law grants the federal police and national security agency exclusive discretion to carry out warrantless interception of communications, and search and seizure solely on the basis of "reasonable belief" that a terrorist act is in progress or "will be" committed.

The law also provides for terrorist suspects to be held for up to four months without charge. However, in nearly 27 months, the government has yet to take to court Eritrean state television journalists Saleh Idris Gama or Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi since identifying them among 41 people "captured" in Somalia on suspicion of terrorism. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry has consistently declined to comment to CPJ's requests for information about these imprisonments.

Commenting on the legislation prior to passage, government spokesman Bereket Simon dismissed concerns of potential abuse. "This is a government that is committed to the constitutional provisions, and in the Constitution, any abuse of power is not allowed," he told U.S. international broadcaster Voice of America (VOA). Despite these assurances however, the potential for abuse of this law is all the more troubling in light of the government's long-standing pattern of criminal prosecution of the independent press over critical coverage, and the practices of Ethiopian judges and prosecutors in such cases. In principle, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the existing criminal code have high requirements for government prosecutors to prove intent in charges against the press, according to legal experts and CPJ analysis. In practice, however, Ethiopian judges have leniently interpreted these requirements, giving them little or no consideration.

CPJ continues to document cases where government prosecutors charge journalists with the criminal code charge of "inciting the public through false rumors" for reporting allegations contradicting or questioning government's positions or statements. Ethiopian judges have allowed such cases to proceed without questioning the positions or statements of the state, as the plaintiff in these cases, placing a disproportionate burden of proof on the defendant journalists, according to Ethiopian legal experts. We have also documented cases where judges have used "contempt of court" charges to detain journalists and censor coverage of sensitive cases, including the trial of pop singer Tewodros Kassahun.

Last year, in an interview with Newsweek, you expressed hope that Ethiopia's newly passed press reform legislation would be "on par with the best in the world." The law intended to "ensure media diversity and provide adequate legal protection for the operational independence of media in general," according to a February 26 press release from the Office for Government Communication Affairs. However, by all accounts, the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation fell well short of international standards. The law stiffened existing penalties for libel and granted government prosecutors the exclusive discretion to summarily block any publication for national security, but bans pretrial detentions of journalists, at least in principle.

Four editors of Amharic-language weeklies have been detained this year on criminal charges, according to CPJ research, for anywhere from three to 16 days; two are still facing charges. In addition, several other journalists are facing charges and the possibility of criminal prosecutions, police interrogations, or government warnings over coverage deemed favorable to political dissidents, according to our research. The government is continuing its long-standing practice of reviving criminal prosecutions of journalists on charges dating back several years. Asrat Wedajo, former editor of the defunct Sefe Nebelbal newspaper, appeared in March before federal court in a criminal case over a story that appeared four years ago, according to local journalists.

The official February 26 press release stated the administration's commitment to "ensure the free flow of diverse ideas and information." However, in January, a government agency, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, was given exclusive authority over media regulation. The authority immediately issued directives not included in the press law stripping any media executive with more than 2 percent ownership share of any editorial authority in order to "avoid homogeneity of news and viewpoints," according to local news reports. In April, the agency denied licenses to three journalists--award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil, her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega, and publisher Sisay Agena--because their now-banned publishing companies were convicted on anti-state charges in 2007. In June, it ordered private Sheger Radio to stop carrying programs from VOA, after briefly revoking the accreditations of correspondents Eskinder Firew and Meleskachew Amaha. Amaha was imprisoned this year on spurious, years-old tax charges. He was later acquitted.

In addition, your government continues to filter Web sites, particularly foreign-based independent sites and blogs discussing political reform and human rights, including our site.

We urge you to amend statutes in the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation that undermine constitutional rights to press freedom. We ask that you conduct an independent review of judicial practices and the application of criminal statutes used to prosecute journalists, and ensure the creation of an independent media regulatory body.

We call on you to lift all restrictions on the free exercise of journalism in your country.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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