Addis Abeba — Ahead of this year's World Press Freedom Day, the Ethiopian authorities must do more to ensure press freedom is entrenched both in practice and in law.
In 2015, Ethiopia earned the dubious distinction of being Africa's second - after Eritrea - biggest jailer of journalists. Fast-forward to 2019 and the country has no journalist in its prisons. They were all released, alongside thousands of other detainees, when the prison gates were flung open in January 2018.
Since then, there has been marked progress in press freedom because of the authorities' decision to loosen their stranglehold on media operations. In July 2018, the Open Observatory of Network Interference confirmed 264 previously blocked websites had become accessible, including diaspora media outlets.
Since April 2018, at least eight new privately-owned newspapers and magazines have been established, compared to only four before then. There has also been a radical and bold shift in coverage of previously off-limit topics like politics and human rights. Reporters without Borders in their World Press Freedom Index 2019 say Ethiopia, ranked 110 out of 180 countries surveyed in 2018, has climbed 40 places.
Over the past decade, one of the government's key tools for silencing journalists has been the vaguely worded Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (2009), through which trumped-up charges were regularly brought against journalists and bloggers.
Amnesty International has recorded five journalists accused and convicted under the auspices of this Proclamation. Eskinder Nega, designated an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience was arrested in 2011 after publishing an article, on the EthioMedia website, that criticized the misuse of the very Proclamation to stifle independent journalism and political dissent.
Re'eyot Alemu, a columnist for several local newspapers, was also arrested in 2011 because of an open letter she wrote to supporters of the Tigray People's Liberation Front on the Ethiopian Review website. Detectives offered to free her if she falsely testified against another journalist, Elias Kifle, who ran the internet-based Ethiopian Observer. She rejected the offer and was convicted of terrorism in a trial with glaring violations of fair trial standards, including the use of mistranslated documentary evidence.
Woubeshet Taye, then deputy editor of Awramba Times, a weekly private newspaper, was also arrested in 2011 for criticizing the government for weakening the media. Khalid Mohamed and Darsema Sori, editors at Radio Bilal, were arrested in 2015 for "inciting extremist ideology and planning to overthrow the government" because of their coverage of Muslims protesting the government's interference in religious affairs.
Re'eyot was released in 2015, while the other four were freed in January 2018.
The Ethiopian government jammed broadcast signals of the Voice of America's Amharic service, and diaspora media such as the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT) and the Oromiya Media Network (OMN). It also blocked web-based media and social media sites intermittently in 2015 during waves of protests sparked by decades of repression.
And as if that was not enough, in January 2014, it launched yet another onslaught on press freedom through a "trend analysis" on content published by seven independent magazines between 11 September 2013 and 9 December 2013. The analysis labelled the seven magazines "mouthpieces of extremist political parties", claiming they "belittle the constitution", "deny economic growth", "call for unrest", "blacken the political system", and "promote terrorism". Informed by the government's history of targeting journalists, dozens of the magazines' staff fled the country.
The current gains in press freedom and the right to freedom of expression are outcomes of years of resistance against repression. The Ethiopian people paid a heavy price through the heavy-handed crackdown on largely peaceful protestors by security forces since 2015, particularly in Oromia and Amhara Regional States. The security forces killed and wounded protesters and conducted mass arrests to quell the protests. In 2016 and 2018, the government declared state of emergency measures that gave security forces sweeping powers to curtail the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and access to information.
While 2018 was generally a good year for journalists in Ethiopia, their work is not yet entirely free from harassment and intimidation. On 13 July 2018, reporters traveling from Dire-Dawa to Addis Ababa were stopped by a group of youth in Meisso town - 300km east of Addis Ababa and accused of spying. Their equipment was vandalized, and they were severely beaten, resulting in the death of their driver a week later. On 23 February 2019, two reporters working for the web-based mereja.com, were beaten and wounded by a group of people in Legetafo, a small town 20km northeast of Addis Ababa while interviewing victims of forced evictions.
Bloggers, human rights defenders and activists have been harassed, intimidated and threatened on social media platforms for their views. Seyoum Teshome a lecturer in Wolisso University who is well-known for his blogging and political activism, criticized the mayor of Addis Ababa on Facebook on 17 October 2018. A Facebook user immediately published his mobile phone number and instructed youth in Wolisso to call and harass Seyoum. Over the next two days, Seyoum received constant death threats.
While the government begun revising the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in August 2018, much remains to be done to nurture the still very fragile press freedom by entrenching it in law and reviewing the media regulatory frameworks. In June 2018, Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority - the media regulatory agency, ordered two television stations to explain why they had not covered a pro-government rally in Addis, pointing to lingering administrative restrictions on media freedom.
The Government has circulated a draft law aimed at preventing hate speech and distribution of false information. The draft law criminalizes intentional publication, distribution and possession of hate speech that incites discrimination, demonization, belittling, and violence; however, the precise definition of the elements of these crimes is unclear. The draft also criminalizes distribution of unverified false information and news that is likely to provoke or trigger conflict or violence.
Amnesty International is concerned that falsity of news is too subjective and ambiguous, and therefore this proposed law could be mis-used to criminalize the right to freedom of expression and press freedom.
The proposed law should be aligned to international standards and reflect the global focus on preventing advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, but without unduly restricting press freedom and the right to freedom of expression.
With an election scheduled for May 2020, the government must prioritize protection of press freedom and hasten the revision of laws key to achieving this, including the anti-terrorism law, freedom of media law, access to information law and the computer law.
Editor's note: Fisseha Tekle is Amnesty International's researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea