After centuries of feudal rule, 17 years of communist dictatorship, almost three decades of civil war, and no tradition of an independent press before 1992, Ethiopia is at a crossroads.
As one of the African continent’s youngest exercises in democracy, Ethiopia can serve as an example of a true democracy–one that does not sacrifice freedom of expression and human rights as its leaders establish order. Or, it can join the ranks of neighbors whose leaders assumed office promising respect for press freedom and other civil rights, but who have since broken these and other pledges.
As things stand today, Ethiopia’s independent journalists and the government of Meles Zenawi, the country’s first freely elected prime minister, eye each other with mutual suspicion and distrust. Journalists labor under a restrictive press law and penal code, and, as a result, more journalists have been jailed in Ethiopia in the past three years than in any other African country. The Committee to Protect Journalists embarked on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia in May 1996 to better understand how and why the press law and other legal measures are used against journalists.
Following the fall of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist regime in 1991 and encouraged by assurances of press freedom by the newly installed Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), a vociferous independent media exploded into existence, signaling what many hoped would be the end of tight government control over information.
One of the first acts of the TGE, led by then-President Meles*, was passage of the Press Proclamation No. 34/1992 in October 1992. The law quickly put an end to the euphoria that fueled the country’s new era of free speech as journalists realized how vulnerable they were under the proclamation, which is both restrictive and contradictory. The legislation prohibits, among other things, the dissemination of information the government deems dangerous, and requires the licensing of all journalists. Moreover, it classifies libel as both a criminal and civil offense, demanding penalties of payment in the amount of twice the value of a publisher’s assets.
Criminal libel laws or indeed any statutes intended or used to insulate government officials from press criticism through the application of civil or criminal penalties have no place in democratic societies. The right to speak freely without fear of government reprisal is a core principle of democracy, and critical reporting must be tolerated and protected, not criminalized.
In late 1993, reeling from criticism from a growing number of newspapers and magazines about state policies and the political transition under way, the government cracked down on the press, starting with the detention of Tefera Asmare, editor of the independent newspaper Etiopis. In connection with an article titled “There’s War in Gondar,” Tefera was charged with “inciting people against the government” and “disseminating false rumors,” under Article 10, Section 2 of the Press Proclamation. Tefera was later charged with 11 counts of libel under the press law; five counts were for the same story carried in different editions of Etiopis. In March 1994, he was convicted of all charges and sentenced to a two-year prison term. He was released on Sept. 27, 1995.
The irony of Tefera’s arrest was that he was legally carrying out his responsibilities as a journalist according to the Press Proclamation’s Art. 4, Sec. 2, which states that “the press gathers and disseminates news; expresses opinions on various issues; forwards criticisms on various issues; participates in forming public opinion by employing various other methods; [and] undertakes other activities necessary for the accomplishment of its purposes.”
Tefera’s case is emblematic of the double bind imposed on independent Ethiopian journalists–he is one of more than 50 who have been imprisoned for their work since 1993. By simultaneously using ambiguous articles of the Press Proclamation and provisions of the civil, penal, and criminal codes, many of which were created in the 1950s, the Meles government has put the media on notice that it will not hesitate to manipulate the laws to suit its own ends.
Ethiopia, which is a signatory to several regional and international charters guaranteeing press freedom, such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has rapidly become a country where reality belies the government’s public proclamations about the need for a free press. Contradictory statements by government officials illuminate this gap between rhetoric and policy. “A free press is an essential ingredient of any democratic exercise [because it provides] information to the public so they can make informed decisions,” Prime Minister Meles told CPJ’s mission. During the same meeting, however, he also said that the government has to impose restrictions on the media to stave off ethnic strife and threats to national security.
The stance that Prime Minister Meles’ administration chooses to adopt toward the independent press in the coming years will have significant repercussions. The existence of a free press in Ethiopia is dependent upon a clear commitment from the government to support the development of private media and to lift restrictions on reporting and private-sector competition. Ethiopia cannot claim to be a genuine democracy, nor should it be treated as one by Western donors such as the United States, unless the Meles government ceases its practice of subjecting independent journalists to repeated arrests, detention without trial, and excessive fines.
*On second reference, Ethiopians are referred to by the first of their names.