An important street demonstration took place in Addis Ababa on 29 September in response to a call from Unity for Democratic Justice, an opposition group. The demonstrators protested namely against the arbitrary detention of journalists, human rights activist and dissidents, which is rendered possible under the 2009 anti-terrorist law. According to the organiszers 80,000 people joined the protest, while government sources estimate they were a few hundreds.
Adopted in 2009, the much-criticized anti-terrorism law enables the government to justify arbitrary arrests of journalists, members of the opposition and human rights defenders.
The urgent need to amend this repressive law was of one of the recommendations that Reporters Without Borders included in its submission on Ethiopia to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 19th Universal Periodic Review session to be held between April and May next year.
“The anti-terrorism law is one the biggest obstacles to freedom of information in Ethiopia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Ever since its adoption, the government has had an alarming legal tool that it uses to gag dissidents.
“Without taking any position on the politics of the demonstrators, we urge the government to hear the popular demand for immediate reform of the anti-terrorism law. We also call on the government to respect the freedom of expression of all news and information providers, regardless of their political views.”
According to the organizers, the demonstration’s aim was not only to condemn the law but also to demand the release of opposition members and journalists who have been jailed under it. They include Eskinder Nega, an activist and blogger detained since 15 September 2011 for alleged terrorist activities. Reyot Alemu, winner of the 2013 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano press freedom prize, and Woubeshet Taye, the deputy editor of the Amharic-language weekly Awramba Times, have been detained since June 2011 in appalling conditions. They are serving jail terms of five and 14 years respectively on charges of “participating in a terrorist organization and preparing a terrorist attack.”
Two Swedish journalists working for the Kontinent news agency, reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, were arrested on 1 July 2011 while doing a report on human rights violations in the southeastern Ogaden region and were sentenced to 11 years in prison on a charge of terrorist activities.
They were released after 450 days in detention thanks to pressure from the international community.
In an interview for Reporters Without Borders, Schibbye said: “The mere fact that these demonstrations are taking place is a positive sign in Ethiopia. This shows the growing implication of the youth, namely through social networks, and their refusal to live in a society where journalists and dissidents can be jailed arbitrarily.”
One of the biggest problems with the anti-terrorism law is its extremely vague definition of what constitutes “terrorist activities.”
Ethiopia is ranked 137th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.