Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism and media legislations

[A Week in the Horn – Feb. 10, 2012]

Recent allegations from several United Nations Human Rights Rapporteurs suggest that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorist legislation has been used against critical journalists and opposition politicians and as an instrument to curtail the freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and the independence of the judiciary. 

This is not true. It is clear that those making these allegations have not seriously considered the charges brought and the evidence produced in court. They should not have to be reminded that the mere fact that someone is a journalist or claims to represent a political party does not exempt them from responsibility for their actions or from facing court action if they give cause. Ethiopia indeed would certainly agree with Frank La Ray, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression that “journalists should not face criminal proceedings for carrying out their legitimate work,” though it would stress the word legitimate. It would also agree with Ben Emerson, Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, that “anti-terrorism provisions should not be abused”, nor should they “go counter to internationally-guaranteed human rights.” 

They do not. Ethiopia’s Anti-terrorist Proclamation was drawn up and is implemented in accordance with international law. Cases brought under this and any other legal instruments are a matter for the police and security forces. They are handled by the judicial system without any outside interference. The Ethiopian judiciary is a fully independent body and takes its decisions in accordance with the constitution and the law. As the Prime Minister told Parliament on Wednesday “all trials are transparent, all suspects are allowed access to lawyers”.   

The anti-terrorism legislation is designed to protect the safety, security and the fundamental rights and freedoms of Ethiopians.  The provisions of the legislation strike a careful balance between the enjoyment of rights by individuals and the considerations of public safety and national security. Its definitions are not over-broad, nor are its provisions vaguely worded. It is based upon and in many of its provisions almost identical to the Patriot Act in the US and parallel anti-terrorist legislation in Australia, the UK and other European countries. The Prime Minister said “we haven’t changed a word, a comma even, as those laws emanate from countries with vast democratic experience.”

Its objective is to pre-empt terrorist activity against innocent civilians, something of which Ethiopia has considerable experience, not least in the Ogaden region of the Somali Regional State where two Swedish journalists were captured when travelling with members of a terrorist organization, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The ONLF has been declared a terrorist organization because of its terrorist activities, slaughtering hundreds of innocent civilians as well as murdering local officials and police, planting land mines and blowing up buses and other vehicles over a number of years. It might be added that the two Swedish journalists were given every facility to defend themselves in an open trial and were convicted on their own admission of illegal entry into Ethiopia and of travelling with a terrorist organization. They do, of course, have the right of appeal.     

The press law, as any careful reading of it demonstrates, is enacted in line with the clear objective of promoting, respecting and protecting the rights and freedoms of expression enshrined in detail in the Constitution. It lays out the conditions under which journalists operate and the responsibilities expected from the media. Despite the allegations there is no lack of newspapers who find it possible to operate under these circumstances. As the briefest look at the press in Ethiopia demonstrates there are a considerable number of independent current affairs newspapers operating in both English and Amharic. It is simply untrue, and indeed libelous, to claim as the Committee to Protect Journalists does that there is only one surviving independent paper. At the same time, journalists, like politicians and all political groups operating in the country, are expected to ensure their activities fall within the limits of the Constitution and the law. Neither journalists nor politicians are above the law, either in Ethiopia or elsewhere.

The Ethiopian government fully respects the rights of freedom of speech, of expression and of association for all citizens as laid down in the Constitution. Any attempt to politicize issues beyond their legal boundaries is totally unacceptable to the judiciary and to the Government which respects the legal and human rights of all individuals. Indeed, the Government is committed to respect the fundamental rights of individuals and their right to a fair trial, and all legislation is applied in accordance with international human rights obligations.


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