The May 2005 election is a turning point for Ethiopian political sphere, so is for the Freedom of Expression in the country. The election ended with electoral board’s announcement that the incumbent is a winner of the election which oppositions called rigged. Major opposition of the time, CUD, supporters went out in the streets to protest which had ended in death of nearly 200 people when the government tried to crackdown.
EPRDF, the ruling coalition, said it took lessons from the election in its news outlet ‘Abiyotawi Democracy’. In the first term of five years since the election, many changes of control were effected against the people. Apparently, Freedom of Expression is the first of the most victims. Here are a few of the systematic approaches the government used to ban the freedom.
Rule By Law
Controversial proclamations for violating constitutional rights were passed during the first term of post 2005 election. Among these are included the amendment of the Press Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Civil-Societies Proclamation. The latter one entirely banned the role of civil societies in ‘rights’-related activities where as the former two contained articles that limited freedom of expression given in article 29 of the Ethiopian constitution.
Since these proclamations were passed, at least eight journalists are convicted in relation to terrorism and if you ask any ordinary citizen whether or not these journalists are terrorists, the most probable answer is definitely ‘No!’.
The trend of journalists’ prosecution before the anti-terrorism proclamation was focused on ‘defamation’; but, immediately after it, almost all journalists who are taken to court were prosecuted of terrorism. This makes the fact that the government wants to rule by law instead practicing ‘the rule of law’ on a spot light. As a result of which, significant number of people undergoes self-censorship before going to any sort of publicly expression.
Controlling Every Business Sector
Recent World Bank report revealed not only that Ethiopia is among the top ten in public investments but also that it is the worst ten in private investment. Ethiopian government (the incumbent) runs a policy that discourages private investment simply because it doesn’t have trust to the sector. This itself has a history with the 2005 election in which private investors were said donated much amount of money to strengthen the opposition.
By controlling public sectors, including telecommunication and major media houses, Ethiopians have now reached to an era ‘when a government speaks the only thing they can do is just listen’. In fact, the government uses the former to listen, though the right term could be to spy, to what the people are saying. We will come back to see how telecom is exploited by government for multiple purposes including internet filtration.
The state also owned the biggest printing house of the country and used it to sabotage Freedom of Expression. Let’s see how:
The Printing Houses Drama
The major publishing houses (‘Berhanena Selam’ and ‘Bole’) in Ethiopia are owned by the state. Bole printing house currently stopped receiving new customers who come with requests of political newspapers’ publications. It publishes only a few weekly sports newspapers. Similarly, Berhanena Selam - the oldest and biggest printing house of the country – regardless of its capacity, is publishing only five weekly ‘private’ newspapers and those of daily state owned publications.
There are many barely equipped, private printing houses. 99 percent of them do not have the capacity to publish newspapers. So, now is also the era for Ethiopian magazines to glamour because there are no as many newspapers as used to be 10 years ago. However, the magazines are in surveillance too.
Many publishers whose newspaper were banned or permissions denied to publishing it in state-owned printing houses and others tried to come up with magazines and failed. Government security officials harass printing houses not to publish the magazines they don’t want to see in circulation. They even threaten the owners of the printing houses for high taxes. It is a common experience that private printing houses refuse to publish magazines especially with political contents.
The state owned printing houses have a lot to disappoint independent media. They do anything like censorship (Berhanena Selam has it in its working contract) or limit number of copies and limit number of pages reasoning out shortage of papers.
As compared to neighboring countries, say Kenya, it is hardly fair to say Ethiopia runs independent media. Currently, the maximum number of circulation Ethiopian independent newspapers have is 15,000. The number of weekly political newspapers in circulation is only nine. All TV stations are owned by the federal and regional governments.
There are only three ‘private’ FM radio station in the country: Fana is owned by top officials of the incumbent; Zami has an affiliation with the ruling party; and Sheger chose to be silent in sensitive political issues.
Even so, the newspapers under circulation can easily go bankrupted because there is no strong private sector to support or encourage them and the public ones are not willing to do so. Fana radio, using its affiliation to top officials can get every advertisement opportunity from the government offices an opportunity which is rarely possible for independent media.
In addition, a recent advertisement proclamation limited the advertisement to content ratio (60:40) of newspapers and magazines. This weakens the power of the media houses to work on their qualities and do investigations.
Close to 200 websites and blogs, including this one, are blocked in Ethiopia. Ethiopia owns the only telecommunication and reports indicated that the state uses it for surveillance too.
The websites that cannot be accessed in Ethiopia include websites of legally registered and operating opposition parties. UDJ (Unity for Democracy and Justice), major opposition party, website is one of them.
INSA (Internet and Network Security Agency) is a responsible governmental body to the internet surveillance. It is a sect of the National Defense Force but works with ethiotelecom and National Intelligence Office as well.
The internet filtration victimized many international news websites too. Aljazeera is one of them. CNN and VoA websites are among those blocked at times when they published Ethiopian stories that the government couldn’t enjoy and unblocked them back when the government thinks that the sensation of the stories is gone.
These are not the only things the government do to sabotage freedom of expression. It does everything it takes from bureaucratic denial of permission to publish newspapers to notorious imprisonment of journalists and banning of news outlets already in circulation. These measures, in turn, paid the ruling party in due course. The incumbent won the 2010 election taking 99.6% of the seats and is looking for an equivalent in the coming 2015 election.