No Freedom of Press!
No Human Right!
No Freedom of Expression!
Citing harassment by the ruling party, the opposition decided to boycott local elections in 2008. Also during the year, revised draft and actual laws regulating the press and civil society provided a reinforced legal basis for government oversight and control. The political climate was further polarized by ongoing tension in several restive provinces, relations with Eritrea, and Ethiopia’s military engagement in Somalia. A drought and rising food prices proved to be complicating factors.
One of the few African countries to avoid European colonization during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia ended a long tradition of monarchy in 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam subsequently established a brutal dictatorship that lasted more than 15 years. He was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of guerrilla groups led by forces from the northern Tigray region. The main rebel group, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), formed a new regime, and EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi became interim president.
During the ensuing transitional period, the EPRDF government fostered the emergence of democratic institutions, and a new constitution took effect in 1995. The EPRDF dominated that year’s elections, which were boycotted by most of the opposition, and Meles became prime minister. He began a second five-year term after the May 2000 elections, which the EPRDF won in a landslide victory over the weak and divided opposition. Opposition parties and some observers criticized the government’s conduct of the vote.
A dispute over the border with neighboring Eritrea, which had gained formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long guerrilla conflict, resulted in open warfare from 1998 until 2000. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) was established in the wake of the bloody fighting to draw a new border. It announced its decision in April 2002, laying out a boundary that assigned the town of Badme to Eritrea. The commission’s judgments were supposed to be binding on both sides, but Ethiopia rejected the EEBC decision.
The May 2005 elections for the powerful lower house of Parliament resulted in a major increase in opposition representation. The EPRDF and its allies won 327 seats, while the two main opposition parties took 161 seats, up from 12 in the previous Parliament. The governing coalition also won elections for eight of nine regional parliaments. Notwithstanding their significant gains, opposition parties argued that interference and fraud in the electoral process had deprived them of outright victory. Street demonstrations led to violence, excessive use of force by the authorities, and widespread arrests. At least 193 people were killed and more than 4,000 were arrested, including leading opposition figures who were later charged with capital offenses. Under considerable pressure from human rights groups, the government ultimately pardoned and released those defendants in 2007.
At the end of 2006, Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia, routing Islamist groups that had taken control of Mogadishu and the southern parts of the country. The offensive enabled Somalia’s fragile Transitional Federal Government to establish a presence in Mogadishu, but clashes between Ethiopian forces and Somali militias continued through 2007 and 2008. The prospect of renewed violence in the border dispute with Eritrea presented another area of concern. In November 2007, the EEBC demarcated the boundary by map coordinates in a ruling accepted by Eritrea but rejected by Ethiopia. The UN Security Council voted to end its peacekeeping mission in July 2008. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian military also sought to quell ongoing unrest in the eastern Ogaden region.
The government maintained its tight control over the country’s officially pluralist political institutions in 2008. Citing harassment by the ruling party, the opposition decided to boycott local elections during the year. Revised draft and actual laws regulating the press and civil society created the potential for expanded government interference, and there was violence and repression in several provinces with a significant opposition presence. These problems were exacerbated by rising food prices and a drought that threatened as many as eight million people, according to the United Nations.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Ethiopia is not an electoral democracy. However, the presence of a significant elected opposition at the national level since 2005 does mark a possible step forward in the development of the country’s democratic political culture. Prior national elections had resulted in allegations from opposition parties and civil society groups of major irregularities, including unequal access to media, lack of transparent procedures, a flawed election law, and a partisan National Electoral Board.
The opposition claimed fraud again in 2005, and European Union and other observers stated that the elections did not meet international standards, citing problems including faulty voter-registration lists and significant administrative irregularities. However, observers led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter concluded that despite its serious problems, the balloting essentially represented the will of the Ethiopian people.
The country’s legislature is bicameral, consisting of a 108-seat upper house, the House of Federation, and a 547-seat lower house, the House of People’s Representatives. The lower house is filled through popular elections, while the upper chamber is selected by the state legislatures. Lawmakers in both houses serve five-year terms. Executive power is vested in a prime minister, who is chosen by the House of People’s Representatives. The 1995 constitution has a number of unique features, including a federal structure that grants certain powers and the right of secession to ethnically based states. However, in 2003, the central government acquired additional powers to intervene in states’ affairs when public security is deemed to be at risk.
More than 60 legally recognized political parties are active in Ethiopia, but the political scene continues to be dominated by the EPRDF. Citing intimidation and arrests of its candidates, opposition parties boycotted local elections in April 2008, which predictably resulted in a large margin of victory for government supporters. Opposition parties have long argued that their ability to function is seriously impeded by government harassment, although observers also note that some opposition parties have at times used rhetoric that could be interpreted as advocating violence or otherwise failed to comport themselves in a manner consistent with a democratic political culture.
The government has taken a number of steps to limit corruption, but it has also been accused of participating in corrupt practices. In 2007, former prime minister Tamrat Layne and former defense minister Seye Abreha were convicted on corruption charges. Ethiopia was ranked 126 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The news media are dominated by state-owned broadcasters and government-oriented newspapers. Opposition and civic organizations have criticized slanted news coverage. The Committee to Protect Journalists in 2007 cited the Ethiopian government for backtracking on press freedom issues. It noted increased imprisonment of journalists, with many reporters going into exile by choice or coercion. This trend continued in 2008, as the government forced two more magazines out of circulation using laws against the disturbance of public order. Also during the year, Parliament adopted a new media law after years of debate. The measure barred government censorship of private media and the detention of journalists, but it allowed prosecutors to seize material before publication in the name of national security. Furthermore, it gave the government broader powers to pursue defamation cases against the media.
A number of privately owned newspapers exist, but they struggle to remain financially viable and face intermittent government harassment. In 2006, licenses were awarded to two private FM stations in the capital. Internet usage is confined mainly to major urban areas.
Constitutionally mandated religious freedom is generally respected, although religious tensions have risen in recent years. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is influential, particularly in the north. In the south, there is a large Muslim community, made up mainly of Somalis, Oromo, and Afari.
Academic freedom is restricted. In recent years, student strikes to protest police brutality and various government policies have led to scores of deaths and injuries as well as hundreds of arrests. Student grievances include perceived government repression of the Oromo ethnic group. Many students were killed, injured, or arrested during protests against the May 2005 election results.
Freedoms of assembly and association are limited. A number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, but they are generally reluctant to discuss issues and advocate policies that may bring them into conflict with the government. The government closely regulates NGO activities and has introduced draft legislation that it claims would provide heightened financial transparency among NGOs and enhance their accountability to stakeholders. This legislation was under final consideration by parliament at the end of 2008. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have severely criticized the proposed law, arguing that it would codify provisions designed to control and monitor civil society groups while punishing those that do not have the government’s favor.
According to the Workers’ Group of the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are severe restrictions on the rights of trade unions in Ethiopia. The labor laws authorize only one trade union in companies employing more than 20 workers. Government workers in “essential industries,” a term that is broadly defined, are not allowed to strike. The Confederation of Ethiopian Unions is under government control. The law governing trade unions states that a trade organization may not act in an overtly political manner, and some union leaders have been removed from their elected offices or forced to leave the country. All unions must be registered, and the government retains the authority to cancel union registration.
The judiciary is officially independent, although there have been few significant examples of decisions at variance with government policy. The efficacy of police, judicial, and administrative systems at the local level is highly uneven. Some progress has been made in reducing a significant backlog of court cases. Human Rights Watch in 2006 reported that the government used intimidation, arbitrary detentions, and excessive force in rural areas in the wake of the 2005 election-related protests.
The government has tended to favor Tigrayan ethnic interests in economic and political matters. Politics within the EPRDF have been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Democratic Front. Discrimination against and repression of other groups, especially the Oromo, have been widespread.
The government recently established a women’s affairs ministry, and Parliament has passed legislation designed to protect women’s rights in a number of areas. In practice, however, women’s rights are routinely violated. Women have traditionally had few land or property rights, especially in rural areas, where there is little opportunity for female employment beyond agricultural labor. Violence against women and social discrimination are reportedly common. Societal norms and limited infrastructure prevent many women from seeking legal redress for their grievances. While illegal, the kidnapping of women and girls for marriage continues in parts of the country. General deficiencies in education exacerbate the problems of rural poverty and gender inequality. According to the NGO Save the Children, Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of school enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa.
2009 Annual Report for Ethiopia
Restrictions on humanitarian assistance to the Somali Region (known as the Ogaden) continued. The government engaged in sporadic armed conflict against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and both forces perpetrated human rights abuses against civilians. Ethiopian troops fighting insurgents in Somalia in support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) committed human rights abuses and were reported to have committed war crimes. Security forces arrested members of the Oromo ethnic group in Addis Ababa and in the Oromo Region towards the end of the year. Independent journalists continued to face harassment and arrest. A number of political prisoners were believed to remain in detention and opposition party leader Birtukan Mideksa, who was pardoned in 2007, was rearrested. A draft law restricting the activities of Ethiopian and international organizations working on human rights was expected to be passed by parliament in 2009. Ethiopia remained one of the world’s poorest countries with some 6.4million people suffering acute food insecurity, including 1.9 millionin the Somali Region.
The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission completed its mandate in October, despite Ethiopia failing to implement its ruling, and the UN Security Council withdrew the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) in the wake of Eritrean obstruction of its operations along the Eritrea/Ethiopia border.
Thousands of Ethiopian armed forces remained in Somalia to support the TFG in armed conflict against insurgents throughout most of the year. Accusations of human rights violations committed by Ethiopian forces continued in 2008. Insurgent factions stated that they were fighting to force Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia. A phased plan for Ethiopian withdrawal was included in a peace agreement signed by the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia-Djibouti and TFG representatives in late October. Ethiopian forces began to withdraw late in the year, but had not withdrawn from Somalia completely by the end of the year.
The government faced sporadic armed conflict in the Oromo and Somali regions, with ONLF members also implicated in human rights abuses against civilians. Ethiopian opposition parties in exile remained active in Eritrea and in other countries in Africa and Europe.
“Ethiopian forces attacked the al-Hidya mosque in Mogadishu killing 21 men…”
Divisions split the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party, leading to the emergence of new opposition parties, including the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP) led by former judge Birtukan Mideksa. She was one of more than 70 CUD leaders, journalists and civil society activists convicted, then pardoned and released in 2007.
Suicide bombers attacked Ethiopia’s trade mission in Hargeisa, Somaliland, on 29 October killing several Ethiopian and Somali civilians.
Prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners
A number of political prisoners, detained in previous years in the context of internal armed conflicts or following contested elections in 2005, remained in detention.
Bekele Jirata, General Secretary of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement party, Asefa Tefera Dibaba, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University and dozens of others from the Oromo ethnic group were arrested in Addis Ababa and parts of the Oromo Region from 30 October onwards. Some of those detained were accused of financially supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Sultan Fowsi Mohamed Ali, an independent mediator, who was arrested in Jijiga in August 2007 reportedly to prevent him from giving evidence to a UN fact-finding mission, remained in detention. Tried for alleged involvement in two hand grenade attacks in 2007, he was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment in May 2008.
On 15 January Birtukan Mideksa, Gizachew Shiferaw and Alemayehu Yeneneh, then senior members of the CUD, were briefly detained by police after holding party meetings in southern Ethiopia. Birtukan Mideksa was rearrested on 28 December after she issued a public statement regarding the negotiations that led to her 2007 pardon. Her pardon was revoked and the sentence of life imprisonment reinstated.
Many released prisoners faced harassment and intimidation, with some choosing to leave the country.
Human rights defenders and lawyers Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie were released on 28 March. They had been detained since November 2005 together with hundreds of opposition parliamentarians, CUD members and journalists. Unlike their co-defendants in the trial who were pardoned and released in 2007, Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie remained in detention, having refused to sign a document negotiated by local elders. They mounted a defence and were convicted by the Federal High Court of criminal incitement (although the presiding judge dissented) and sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment. When it became evident they would not be released, even after they appealed, they chose to sign the negotiated document, and were subsequently pardoned and released after serving 29 months of their sentence.
Charges of conspiring to commit “outrages against the Constitution” faced by Yalemzewd Bekele, a human rights lawyer who had been working for the European Commission in Addis Ababa, were dropped, without prejudice, before trial.
Abdirahman Mohamed Qani, chief of the Tolomoge sub-clan of the Ogaden clan in the Somali Region, was detained on 13 July after receiving a large public welcome when he returned from two years abroad. He was released on 7 October, and his relatives who had also been detained were reportedly released several days later.
CUD activist Alemayehu Mesele, who had suffered harassment since his release from prison in 2007, fled Ethiopia in early May after he was severely beaten by unknown assailants.
The editor of the Reporter newspaper Amare Aregawi was severely beaten by unknown assailants on 31 October in Addis Ababa. He had previously been detained by security officers in August.
In September, the government announced that it had released 394 prisoners and commuted one death sentence to life imprisonment to mark the Ethiopian New Year.
Freedom of expression
Independent journalists continued to face harassment and arrest.
At least 13 newspapers shut down by the government in 2005 were still closed. Independent journalists were reportedly denied licences to operate, although others did receive licences. Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega and Sisay Agena, former publishers of Ethiopia’s largest circulation independent newspapers, who had been detained with CUD members, were denied licences to open two new newspapers.
In February the Supreme Court upheld a decision to dissolve the Ethiopian Teachers Association (ETA) and hand over its assets to a rival union formed by the government, also known as the Ethiopian Teachers Association. This action followed years of harassment and detention of union members. In December the union, under its new name, the National Teachers’ Association, had its application for registration as a professional organization rejected.
On World Press Freedom Day (3 May) Alemayehu Mahtemework, publisher of the monthly Enku, was detained and 10,000 copies of his publication impounded. He was released after five days without charge and copies of the magazine were later returned to him.
In November a Federal High Court judge convicted editor-in chief of the weekly Enbilta, Tsion Girma, of “inciting the public through false rumours” after a reporting mistake. She reportedly paid a fine and was released.
Human rights defenders
A draft Charities and Societies Proclamation was revised several times by the government in 2008, but remained threatening to the rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression.
Its provisions included severe restrictions on the amount of foreign funding Ethiopian civil society organizations working on human rights-related issues could receive from abroad (no more than 10 per cent of total revenues). It would also establish a Civil Societies Agency with sweeping authority over organizations carrying out work on human rights and conflict resolution in Ethiopia. It was expected to be passed into law by Parliament in early 2009.
Ethiopian troops in Somalia
Ethiopia maintained a significant troop presence in Somalia which supported the TFG until the end of the year. Ethiopian forces committed human rights abuses and were reported to have committed war crimes. Ethiopian forces attacked the al-Hidya mosque in Mogadishu killing 21 men, some inside the mosque, on 19 April. More than 40 children were held for some days after the mosque raid before being released .
Many attacks by Ethiopian forces in response to armed insurgents were reported to have been indiscriminate and disproportionate, often occurring in densely civilian-populated areas.
Internal armed conflict
The government continued counter-insurgency operations in the Somali Region, which increased after attacks by the ONLF on an oil installation in Obole in April 2007. These included restrictions on humanitarian aid which have had a serious impact on conflict-affected districts of the region. The government did not allow unhindered independent access for human rights monitoring.
Reports, dating back to 2007, of beatings, rape and other forms of torture, forcible conscription and extrajudicial executions in the Somali Region were investigated by a government-contracted body but not by an independent international body.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Reports of torture made by defendants in the trial of elected parliamentarian Kifle Tigeneh and others, one of several CUD trials, were not investigated.
Conditions in Kaliti prison and other detention facilities were harsh – overcrowded, unhygienic and lacking adequate medical care. Among those detained in such conditions were long-term political prisoners held without charge or trial, particularly those accused of links to the OLF.
Mulatu Aberra, a trader of the Oromo ethnic group accused of supporting the OLF, was released on 1 July on bail and fled the country. He had been arrested in November 2007 and reportedly tortured and denied medical treatment for resulting injuries while in detention.
While a number of death sentences were imposed by courts in 2008, no executions were reported.
In May the Federal Supreme Court overturned earlier rulings and sentenced to death former President Mengistu Haile Mariam (in exile in Zimbabwe) and 18 senior officials of his Dergue government. The prosecution had appealed against life imprisonment sentences passed in 2007, after they were convicted by the Federal High Court of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated between 1974 and 1991.
On 6 April a court sentenced to death five military officers in absentia. They served under Mengistu Haile Mariam, and were held responsible for air raids in Hawzen, in the Tigray Region, which killed hundreds in a market in June 1980.
On 8 May a court in Tigray Region found six people guilty of a bus bombing in northern Ethiopia between Humora and Shira on 13 March and sentenced three of them to death.
On 21 May the Federal Supreme Court sentenced eight men to death for a 28 May 2007 bombing in Jijiga in the Somali Region.
On 22 May a military tribunal sentenced to death in absentia four Ethiopian pilots , who sought asylum while training in Israel.
Freedom of the Press 2009 – Ethiopia
Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 25 (of 30)
Political Environment: 33 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 18 (of 30)
Total Score: 76 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)
Covers events that took place between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2008.
Conditions for press freedom improved slightly in 2008, following the government’s November 2005 crackdown on opposition political parties and the civil society groups and media outlets that were perceived to support them. A controversial draft law to regulate civil society was introduced during the year, and while it did not directly affect the press, it had a chilling effect on all nongovernmental actors and increased concerns about government persecution. Separately, the government reversed an earlier decision and granted licenses to two of the publishers arrested in 2005. While many Ethiopian journalists have gone into exile, arguably the most important figures remain in the country, providing some hope for a reinvigorated press. Currently, however, the critical perspectives held by many newspapers before the 2005 crackdown have yet to resurface.
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is often restricted in practice. The Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation was passed into law in December 2008 after years of consultation and debate. The legislation is not exceptionally restrictive, but it has been criticized by the private media and press freedom groups for imposing constraints on the practice of journalism and harsh sanctions for violations. The most controversial provisions were included in the penal code that took effect in May 2005. Of greater concern are the selective approach the government takes in implementing laws and the lack of an independent judiciary. Journalists have few guarantees that they will receive a fair trial, and charges are often issued arbitrarily in response to personal disputes.Court cases can continue for years, and many journalists have multiple charges pending against them. Laws provide for freedom of information, although access to public information is largely restricted in practice, and the government has traditionally limited coverage of official events to state-owned media outlets, albeit with slight openings that began in 2006. In late October 2008, the prime minister abruptly announced a major cabinet reshuffle, including the closure of the Ministry of Information. The precise effects of this move were still unclear at the end of the year.
The broad political crackdown that began in November 2005, in which several dozen journalists and politicians were arrested on charges ranging from treason to subverting the constitution, continued to have negative implications for the media during 2008. Of the 15 journalists released during 2007, seven subsequently sought asylum abroad, and others such as Sisay Agena, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil have found it difficult to obtain licenses to resume their work. In August 2008, Amare Aregawi, editor of the English- and Amharic-language weekly Reporter, was imprisoned for an article on a labor dispute at a government-run brewery in Gonder. He also received anonymous threats after running a series of articles alleging that associates of billionaire businessman Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi had mismanaged his investments. On October 31, Aregawi was severely beaten outside his son’s school. There were several incidents of harassment and arrests related to media coverage of the politically charged hit-and-run trial of pop singer Teddy Afro, a government critic whose songs were seen as opposition anthems during the 2005 postelection period. The government continued to crack down on political reporting, especially involving the Ginbot 7 opposition movement. Several journalists remained imprisoned at year’s end, and reporters continued to be arrested on charges dating back several years. Two Eritrean journalists from Eri-TV who were reportedly arrested by Ethiopian forces in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2006 continue to be held at an undisclosed location in Ethiopia. Foreign journalists and those working for international news organizations have generally operated with fewer restrictions than their local counterparts; however, they regularly practice self-censorship and face harassment and threats from authorities.
The state controls all broadcast media and operates the only television station. In 2007, a new broadcasting authority was created, and the first licenses were finally awarded to two private FM stations in the capital, Addis Ababa. In June 2008, the first private, foreign-language FM station, Afro FM, was granted a license; it will broadcast in English, French, and Arabic. Dozens of print outlets publish regularly and offer diverse views, although following the November 2005 crackdown only a limited number of newspapers – none of which challenge the federalist constitution or ethnic makeup of the government – were allowed to continue publishing without interruption. Since 2005, the most important new entrant in the print market has been the private paper Addis Neger. This paper now enjoys the highest circulation. Publishers Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan were authorized to start two newsweeklies, the Awramba Times and Harambe, in 2008. However, both papers faced regular government intimidation, and the government brought up old charges against Dawit. In 2005, authorities had largely targeted the Amharic-language private press, banning or shutting down more than a dozen opposition-inclined papers that together accounted for more than 80 percent of Amharic circulation. Most newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and to meet the minimum bank balance that is required to renew their annual publishing licenses.
In past years, access to foreign broadcasts has occasionally been restricted. This pattern continued into 2008 with the jamming of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America (VOA) signals, though the government denies blocking the stations. The U.S. State Department reported that the sustained jamming of VOA’s Amharic and Afan Oromo services largely ended in March. Diplomatic ties with Qatar were broken over the Qatar-based satellite station Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the insurgency by the Ogaden Liberation Front in southern Ethiopia.
Owing to an extremely poor telecommunications infrastructure, internet access is limited primarily to the major urban areas; less than 0.5 percent of the population could make use of this medium in 2008, but its popularity is growing with the proliferation of internet cafes. As more citizens, faced with an increasingly restricted traditional media environment, turned to the internet for information, the government responded accordingly. There are reports that the government monitored e-mail, and starting in 2006, blocked access to opposition websites and blogs, including news websites run by Ethiopians living abroad. Since 2004 the government has been using a unique e-government platform. Known as WoredaNet, meaning a network of local districts, it connects different nodes of the government, from the central to the local level, and has been used extensively by political cadres to instruct local administrators through videoconferencing. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation remained the only internet service provider during 2008.
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