Annual Report: Ethiopia 2011

May 28, 2011

Annual Report: Ethiopia 2011

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Opposition parties said that their members were harassed, beaten and detained by the EPRDF in the build-up to the elections. Hundreds of people were allegedly arrested arbitrarily in the Oromia region, often on the grounds of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an armed group. Detention without trial, torture and killings of Oromos were reported. On 7 February, Dr Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo People's Congress party and the Chairman of Medrek, told the media that at least 150 Oromo opposition officials had been arrested in less than five months.

Freedom of expression - journalists

Ethiopia's independent press was barely able to function. Journalists worked in a climate of fear because of the threat of state harassment and prosecution. Information was closely controlled by state bodies including the Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) and Ethiopian Press, the state publisher.

  • In January, Ezeden Muhammad, editor and publisher of Ethiopia's largest Islamic weekly, Hakima, was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for "incitement" in connection with a 2008 column criticizing comments made by the Prime Minister. In September, Ezeden Muhammad was released, but his 17-year-old son Akram Ezeden, who had been acting as editor during his father's detention, was arrested on the same day. He was later released and the case against him dropped.
  • On 4 March, Voice of America reported that its Amharic-language broadcasts were being jammed. On 19 March, the Prime Minister declared that the radio station had been broadcasting "destabilizing propaganda" and compared it to Radio Mille Collines, a Rwandan radio station that incited ethnic hatred before and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
  • In May, Woubshet Taye, editor-in-chief of the Awramba Times, resigned following a warning from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority that he would be "responsible for any bloodshed that may occur in connection with the coming election". The Awramba Times had featured an article the week before about a pro-democracy demonstration during the 2005 election period.

In March, the Supreme Court reinstated fines imposed in 2007 on four independent publishing companies in the wake of a post-election crackdown in 2005, but overturned by a presidential pardon the same year. The publishers could not pay the re-imposed fines. The High Court was asked by the government to freeze the assets of the publishers and their spouses.

Internet content was censored by the state and some websites were blocked. The National Electoral Board introduced a press code which restricted journalistic activities during the elections, including a ban on interviews with voters, candidates and observers on election day.

The Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation remained in force, giving the government disproportionate power to launch defamation cases, issue financial penalties and refuse media registrations and licences.

Human rights defenders

The Charities and Societies Proclamation, passed in 2009, took effect. The legislation imposed strict controls on civil society organizations and provided for criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment. Local NGOs were barred from working on issues of human rights and democracy if more than 10 per cent of their income came from foreign sources. The law made human rights defenders fearful of working and led to self-censorship.

Some organizations significantly altered their mandates and ceased their work on human rights. Several human rights defenders fled abroad fearing government harassment following the implementation of the law.

A small number of organizations continued working on human rights and democracy issues, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), although both were forced to reduce staff numbers and close offices due to the new funding rules. At the end of the year, EHRCO had only three offices (compared to 12 previously). Despite successfully re-registering with the Charities and Societies Agency, the enforcing body, the bank accounts of EHRCO and EWLA were frozen in late 2009 and remained frozen at the end of 2010.