Status of Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; however, authorities arrested, detained, and convicted journalists and other persons whom they perceived as critical of the government.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities arrested and harassed persons for criticizing the government. The government attempted to impede criticism through various forms of intimidation, including detention of journalists and opposition activists and monitoring and interference in the activities of political opposition groups. Some villagers continued to report local authorities threatened retaliation against anyone who reported abuses by security forces.
In July authorities charged Jemal Kedir with “fomenting dissent, arousing hatred, and stirring up acts of political, racial, or religious disturbances” for sending text messages on his cell phone stating “Allahu Akbar, seventeen times our voice should be heard and prisoners who are in jail should be released.” He was also charged with sending messages claiming police had prevented Muslims from entering the Grand Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa, calling for additional protests, and calling for a boycott of the elections to the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) until detainees were released. On September 13, a court found him guilty. The judge referred to the crime as “rumor mongering with his cell phone,” and sentenced him to one year in prison.
In October police arrested seven individuals after they gave radio interviews regarding reported land grabs in Lega Tofo in the Oromia Region. The individuals stated they were forced off their land without adequate compensation. The police later released them.
Freedom of Press: Ethio-Channel, Negadras, Feteh, and two Muslim newspapers closed due to government pressure. The remaining 15 newspapers had a combined weekly circulation in Addis Ababa of more than 100,000, down from 150,000 in 2011. Most newspapers were printed on a weekly or biweekly basis, with the exception of the state-owned Amharic and English dailies.
The government controlled the only television station that broadcast nationally, which, along with radio, was the primary source of news for much of the population. Three private FM radio stations broadcast in the capital city, and at least 13 community radio stations broadcast in the regions. State-run Ethiopian Radio has the largest reach in the country, followed by Fana Radio, which is affiliated with the ruling party.
Government-controlled media closely reflected the views of the government and the ruling EPRDF. The government periodically jammed foreign broadcasts, including after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The broadcasting law prohibits political and religious organizations and foreigners from owning broadcast stations. The investment law also prohibits foreigners from owning broadcast stations.
Violence and Harassment: The government continued to arrest, harass, and prosecute journalists. Several UN special rapporteurs and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the government’s use of the antiterrorism proclamation against journalists and opposition members.
On August 9, the Ministry of Justice filed three charges against Feteh editor in chief Temesgen Dessalegn. These charges included inciting and agitating the country’s youth to engage in violence, defamation of government, and destabilizing the public by spreading false reports, based on articles published between December 2011 and August. Temesgen was detained on August 23, but the charges were dropped on August 28 and he was released the same day. The government reopened its case against Temesgen on December 11, and the case remained ongoing at year’s end.
On July 20, authorities arrested Muslim Affairs editor Yusuf Getachew and Muslim Affairs columnist Ahmedin Jebel. Ahmedin Jebel reportedly was tortured. At year’s end, they remained imprisoned along with 27 other Muslim activists accused of terrorist activity.
Also in July two editors from Muslim Affairs, Akmel Negash and Yishak Eshetu, left the country, citing fear of arrest. After these arrests and departures, the publication ceased operation.
Courts found journalists Woubishet Taye, Reyot Alemu, and Eskinder Nega, who were arrested in 2011, as well as six journalists/bloggers tried in absentia, guilty of charges under the antiterrorism proclamation in separate cases (see section 1.e.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government harassment of journalists caused them to avoid reporting on sensitive topics. Many private newspapers reported informal editorial control by the government through article placement requests and calls from government officials concerning articles perceived as critical of the government. Private sector and government journalists routinely practiced self-censorship.
In April the state-run Berhanena Selam Printing Press, which accounted for approximately 90 percent of newspaper printing in the country, instituted a new standard printing contract with its private publisher clients. The contract stipulated the printing press had the right to refuse to print newspapers containing material deemed “illegal.” Editors of privately owned newspapers refused to sign the contract, deeming it censorship and in violation of the constitutional protection of press freedom. Berhanena Selam stopped printing publications that did not sign the updated contract.
On July 20, the Ministry of Justice banned the distribution of that week’s issue of the Feteh newspaper via court order. Reports indicated the ban was based on the issue’s contents–which authorities deemed objectionable and sensitive–which dealt with the late prime minister’s health and the ongoing protests by some members of the Muslim community. Although the Ministry of Justice issued no further injunctions, Berhanena Selam refused to print subsequent issues of Feteh.
Berhanena Selam refused to print the August 31 edition of Finote Netsanet, the newspaper of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, one of the largest opposition political parties, citing complaints filed against the newspaper by the public related to coverage of the death of the prime minister in the previous issue. In September Berhanena Selam refused to print the UDJ newspaper, claiming the printer was too busy to do the work. The newspaper resumed publication in October after reaching an agreement with a private publisher, but ceased publication by November.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government used the antiterrorism proclamation to suppress criticism. Journalists feared covering five groups designated by parliament in June 2011 as terrorist organizations (Ginbot 7, the ONLF, the OLF, al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab), citing ambiguity on whether reporting on these groups might be punishable under the law. Several journalists, both local and foreign correspondents, reported an increase in self-censorship.
In September the government pardoned Swedish freelancers Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye. In December 2011 a court convicted them of rendering support to a terrorist organization and illegally entering the country.
The government used libel laws during the year to suppress criticism.
The government restricted access to the Internet and blocked several Web sites, including blogs, opposition Web sites, and Web sites of Ginbot 7, the OLF, and the ONLF. The government also temporarily blocked news sites such as the Washington Post, the Economist, and Al Jazeera, and temporarily blocked links to foreign government reporting on human rights conditions in the country. Several news blogs and Web sites run by opposition diaspora groups were not accessible. These included Addis Neger, Nazret, Ethiopian Review, CyberEthiopia, Quatero Amharic Magazine, Tensae Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Media Forum. A foreign government news Web site was only available periodically, although users could generally access it via proxy sites. Authorities took steps to block access to Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers that let users circumvent government screening of Internet browsing and email. According to the government, 4 percent of individuals subscribed to Internet access.