Clampdown in Addis: Censhorship and Libel

Although the government claims the Press Proclamation abolished censorship, it in fact bans dissemination of information that the government deems dangerous to the society. Hence, the law is often used as a government tool for post-publication censorship and punitive prosecution.

According to Art. 8 of the Proclamation, the news media may not publish:

  • Information designated as secret by Parliament’s Council of Representatives or the prime minister’s cabinet, the Council of Ministers;
  • Information that is held secret under the provisions of other laws;
  • Information relating to any court case heard in camera, or information relating to a case pending before any court, unless the court decides otherwise; or
  • Private information about a victim of a crime, unless the person consents.

The law leaves open for broad interpretation what information is designated as “secret” and does not offer specific guidelines on what constitutes a “criminal offense against the safety of the state, the administration, or national defense,” the very charge leveled against journalists who are hauled into court for violating Art. 8. Without such specific guidelines, journalists are unable to protect or defend themselves.

In defense of the restrictive clauses of the Press Proclamation, Prime Minister Meles told CPJ, “What’s considered free press may be inimical to democracy.” The prime minister cited the role of “hate radio” in Rwanda’s civil war as an instance where a government would be justified in restricting access to broadcast media. (Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan radio station Prime Minister Meles was referring to, was a propaganda tool of the acting Rwandan government and was privately owned by members of that government. In CPJ’s view, it is inaccurate to conclude that such a station is part of the independent news media.)

Ethiopian journalists run a high risk of punishment for reporting on national security issues and ethnic unrest. They are most frequently prosecuted under Art. 480 of the Penal Code, which prohibits “false rumors and incitements to the breach of the peace” and is punishable by fines of 1,500 birr (US$250) or up to six months’ imprisonment. In court decisions where litigation against journalists was based on Art. 480, virtually all press reports and criticisms of conflict and ethnic violence have been characterized by the government as cases of spreading false rumors, supporting the state’s historical denial of the existence of unrest in the country. Journalists are required to shoulder the burden of proof that their reports are true, whereas the public prosecutor need simply charge that their reports are false.

In cases of libel, the state targets both the editor in chief and the publisher of a publication when charging criminal liability. If the publisher is a corporate entity, all of the corporation’s shareholders are considered liable. To enact stiffer penalties, the state usually charges journalists under the Penal Code, but fines them according to the Press Proclamation, which imposes substantially higher fines. In many cases, newspapers like Etiopis, Muday, and Ruh were forced into insolvency by such excessive fines, and eventually stopped publishing.

Post-publication punishment for violations of the penal and civil codes with respect to sedition, defamation, and copyright is commonplace; penalties range from fines of up to 50,000 birr (US$8,300), to a minimum of one year in prison, and/or injunctions against the publication.

Moreover, all publishers are required to submit two copies of each issue to the Ministry of Information within 24 hours of publication. The Ministry of Information then forwards one copy to the public prosecutor’s office for review. Failure to comply with the requirement results in charges of publishing an illegal press product. Conviction on such a charge can result in a prison sentence of up to three years and/or a fine of up to 50,000 birr (US$8,300).