Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Following a November 2005 crackdown on opposition political parties as well as on the civil society groups and media outlets that were perceived to support them, press freedom in Ethiopia remained extremely limited during 2006. The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is often restricted in practice. Authorities frequently invoke the 1992 Press Law regarding publication of false and offensive information, incitement of ethnic hatred, or libel in order to justify the arrest and detainment of journalists. Court cases can drag on for years, and journalists often have multiple charges pending against them; at the end of 2006, three reporters who had been sentenced under the Press Law remained in jail. A 2003 draft Press Law, which has been widely criticized by the private press and by press freedom groups, remained under consideration in 2006, although certain provisions of the law were included in the new penal code that took effect in May 2005. Issues of concern include restrictions on who may practice journalism; government-controlled licensing and registration systems; restrictions on print and broadcast cross-ownership; harsh sanctions for violations of the law, including up to five years’ imprisonment; excessively broad exceptions to the right of access to information held by public authorities; and the establishment of a government-controlled press council with powers to engage in pre-publication censorship. The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA), one of the most vocal opponents of the draft Press Law, continued to face harassment from the government, and EFJA president Kifle Mulat remained in exile at year’s end. The administration has traditionally denied access to the independent press, limiting coverage of official events to state-owned media outlets, although these restrictions were loosened on several occasions during 2006 for the first time in more than a dozen years.
The broader political crackdown that began in November 2005 continued to have extremely negative implications for the media. Of several dozen journalists arrested alongside civil society activists and politicians, a number were charged with treason, genocide, and attempts to subvert the constitution, all charges that carry prison terms and the possibility of the death penalty. However, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government has not yet produced any evidence demonstrating convincingly that the work of these journalists was intended to incite violence or encourage ethnic tension or genocide. While the charges against some, such as a group of reporters who work for the U.S.-based Voice of America (VOA) service, were dropped in early 2006, at least 15 journalists remained jailed on these charges at year’s end. Their trial began in February and could last for months or years, and meanwhile the accused are incarcerated, some in harsh conditions. Numerous other journalists fled the country to avoid arrest in late 2005 and remained in exile throughout 2006. Foreign journalists have generally operated with fewer restrictions than their local counterparts. However, they also faced official pressure during the year: In January, AP correspondent Anthony Mitchell was expelled for his reporting; and in February, another foreign reporter was denied accreditation. As a result of the crackdown, those journalists still able to work are increasingly practicing self-censorship on sensitive topics and face regular threats and harassment from authorities.
The state controls all broadcast media and operates the only television station. A 1999 law permits private radio stations, and although licenses were finally awarded to two private FM stations in the capital, Addis Ababa, in February, neither was operational by year’s end. Dozens of print outlets publish regularly and offer diverse views, although many are firmly aligned with either the government or the opposition and provide slanted news coverage. Following the November 2005 crackdown, only a limited number of newspapers, including those English-language papers that are viewed as being relatively unbiased such as the Reporter and Fortune, were allowed to continue publishing without interruption. Authorities targeted the Amharic-language private press, banning or shuttering more than a dozen opposition-inclined papers that together accounted for more than 80 percent of total Amharic circulation. Fewer than 10 papers, most Amharic- or English-language weeklies with relatively small circulation figures, are now publishing in Addis Ababa compared with more than 20 in 2005. Most private newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and to meet Ministry of Information requirements that newspapers have a minimum bank balance in order to renew their annual publishing licenses. Printing presses are all government owned and frequently refuse to print some private publications, citing the fact that they are held accountable for the content of what they publish.
Access to foreign broadcasts is sometimes restricted, with VOA signals being sporadically jammed. Owing to an extremely poor telecommunications infrastructure, internet access is limited primarily to the major urban areas (less than 0.5 percent of the population) but is growing in popularity with the proliferation of internet cafés. As more citizens, faced with an increasingly restricted print and broadcast media environment, turned to the internet to get information, the government responded accordingly. Starting in 2006, access to some blogs and websites was blocked, including news websites run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora who were critical of the government. Internet journalist Frezer Negash was detained but not charged. Negash worked for the website Ethiopian Review and had previously been threatened by officials for her critical writing. By year’s end, the state telecommunications agency distributed regulations requiring that internet cafés register their users and threatened to jail owners of cafés that served unregistered users.