London, 1 December 2016 - The deteriorating climate for freedom of expression in Ethiopia is cause for grave concern, PEN International said today, as it called on the Ethiopian authorities to comply with their international obligations to allow journalists and bloggers to report freely, and to release all writers detained solely in connection with their work or for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Authorities have launched a fresh clampdown against dissent in relation to protests that have taken place in the Oromia and Amhara regions over the past year, with the arrest of journalists and bloggers and the imposition of severe restrictions on freedom of expression stemming from a state of emergency announced in October 2016.
‘The crackdown and arrest of writers over the past few months are deeply worrying,' said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. ‘The disproportionate response to dissent is alarming – the authorities should not be using the state of emergency to further restrict freedom of expression, but should instead be looking to listen to the grievances of the Ethiopian people to resolve some of the issues that led to the protests in the first place.’
The protests, which started in Oromia in November 2015 over plans to extend the administrative boundaries of the capital, later spread to the Amhara region, and developed into protests over wider grievances against the government. The authorities responded with force; estimates claim that at least 800 people have been killed by security forces since November 2015 and tens of thousands have been arrested. While most of the protests have been peaceful, a six-month state of emergency was declared on 9 October in the wake of the destruction of some government and private buildings by protestors, following an incident on 2 October when reports of at least 55 people and possibly hundreds were killed during a stampede at a religious festival.
Freedom of the press has been severely constrained in Ethiopia over the past years, with routine suppression of independent voices and the use of restrictive laws to crush dissent. Since the outbreak of the protests last year, there has been a clampdown on dissent and an increase in the use of the overly broad and vaguely worded Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 (ATP) against journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and opposition politicians.
In a country where independent press is restricted, social media has played a key role in circulating information about the protests. However, since the declaration of the state of emergency, social media and other forms of communication have been banned, and internet access on mobile phones has been blocked.
The state of emergency prohibits ‘any communication that will create misunderstanding between people or unrest’ including any writing and its distribution, as well as sharing this information on the internet, TV, radio, and social media. It bans communication with ‘terrorists and anti-peace groups.’ The state of emergency decree also states that ‘any political party is prohibited from giving press releases either to local or foreign media that disrupts security, sovereignty and the constitutional order’. It is outlawed to watch the diaspora TV channels Esat and OMN which, according to the BBC “have become some of the major sources for people wanting to know more about the protests”. Protests without government approval are also banned.
Following the imposition of the state of emergency, the Addis Standard, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the country, announced that it had stopped printing as of 25 October 2016 due to the situation in the country, though they have continued to publish online.
'Recent events in Ethiopia make it even harder for Ethiopians to get information about what’s happening in their country and to tell the outside world. Independent voices that dare to speak out in Ethiopia or report on events are being stopped from doing so,' said Tripathi.
According to a statement on 12 November by a government official, more than 11,000 people have been detained under the state of emergency. Since October 2016, several print journalists, writers and bloggers have been detained or arrested (some from before the state of emergency was declared). Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer and prominent blogger for Think-Tank Website, was arrested on 1 October 2016. It is unclear what charges he is facing but reports state that Teshome had recently spoken out against the government’s response to the protests in the New York Times. Befekadu Hailu, a Zone 9 blogger, was arrested on 11 November. According to reports, the police told him that he was being detained for criticizing the state of emergency during an interview with Voice of America (VOA) Amharic service on 30 October. Nathnael Feleke, also of the Zone 9 bloggers, was arrested on 4 October for allegedly making "seditious remarks" in a restaurant while criticizing the security forces' handling of a protest. He was released a few days later. Feleke and Hailu along with other members of the Zone 9 blog were charged with terrorism related offences in 2014, but were acquitted in October 2015. However, in December 2015 the Prosecutor appealed against the acquittal and bail of five of the bloggers, which is still ongoing. Befekadu Hailu is also still facing a separate charge of inciting violence.
Two other journalists, Anania Sori and Elias Gebru, were reportedly arrested on 18 November alongside politician Daniel Shibeshi. It is thought that they were arrested for a picture of them making the Oromo protest sign, which is banned under the state of emergency. Writer and activist Solomon Seyoum was reportedly arrested on the night of 27 October. PEN International has not been able to confirm details of his arrest.
In response to the worsening repression, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights passed a resolution in November 2016, calling on Ethiopia to lift the bans on movement, assembly, media access, and internet services.
For more information, please contact Lianna Merner, Africa Programme Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org | 0044 (0)207 405 0338