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)
Conditions for press freedom improved slightly in 2007, following the government’s November 2005 crackdown on opposition political parties and the civil society groups and media outlets that were perceived to support them. During 2007, in advance of the yearlong celebrations planned to mark the new millennium on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar, the government acquitted political prisoners and journalists and reactivated the text-messaging service that had been shut down after the November 2005 postelection crackdown. In practice, however, press freedom remained limited in 2007, and there were no notable new entrants into the media market to increase diversity.
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 continue for years, and journalists often have multiple charges pending against them. A 2003 draft Press Law, which has been criticized by the private press and press freedom groups for imposing restrictions on the practice of journalism and harsh sanctions for violations, remained under consideration by the parliament in 2007, although certain provisions of the bill were included in the new penal code that took effect in May 2005. Kifle Mulat, president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA), which has been a vocal opponent of the draft Press Law, remained in exile at year’s end, although he was acquitted in April of antistate charges. Other EFJA members have also been subject to harassment and arrest in recent years. A major ongoing legal problem for the press has been the absence of judicial independence. Journalists have few guarantees that they will receive a fair trial, and charges are often issued arbitrarily in response to personal disputes. Laws provide for freedom of information, although access to public information is largely restricted in practice, and the government has traditionally limited coverage of official events to state-owned media outlets, albeit with slight openings beginning in 2006. In June, the government passed a law prohibiting foreign-funded organizations from owning broadcast companies and gave the ministry of information greater control over licensing of the print media.
The broad political crackdown that began in November 2005, in which several dozen journalists were arrested alongside politicians and faced charges ranging from treason to subverting the constitution, continued to have negative implications for the media during 2007. Of the 15 journalists who were released during the year, 7 subsequently sought asylum abroad, and the Ministry of Information continued to deny many journalists who were arrested in the 2005 crackdown licenses to resume work on their respective publications, despite previous public assurances that they would be granted. Several journalists remained imprisoned at year’s end, and journalists continued to be arrested on charges dating back several years. There is little information about the two ETV journalists, Shiferraw Insermu and Dhabassa Wakjira, who were arrested in 2004 on suspicion of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front. In addition, two Eritrean journalists from Eri-TV who were reportedly arrested by Ethiopian forces in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu continue to be held at an undisclosed location in Ethiopia. Foreign journalists and those working for international news organizations have generally operated with fewer restrictions than their local counterparts; however, they regularly practice self-censorship and face harassment and threats from authorities. In May, three New York Times journalists were arrested and detained for five days in the eastern town of Degehabur for reporting on the Ogaden conflict.
The state controls all broadcast media and operates the only television station. A 1999 law permits private radio stations, and the first licenses were finally awarded to two private FM stations in the capital, Addis Ababa, in 2006. However, by the end of 2007, the only functioning station was owned by a supporter of the ruling party. 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 that do not challenge the federalist constitution or ethnic makeup of the government were allowed to continue publishing without interruption, and only one new private newspaper, Addis Neger, was able to begin operations in that two year period. Authorities largely targeted the Amharic-language private press, banning or shutting down more than a dozen opposition-inclined papers that together accounted for more than 80 percent of total Amharic circulation. Fewer than 10 papers are now publishing in Addis Ababa, compared with more than 20 in 2005. Most newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and to meet the Ministry of Information requirement of a minimum bank balance in order to renew their annual publishing licenses.
In past years, access to foreign broadcasts has occasionally been restricted, a pattern that continued in 2007 with the jamming of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America signals. 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 made use of this medium in 2007, but its popularity is growing with the proliferation of internet cafés. As more citizens, faced with an increasingly restricted print and broadcast media environment, turned to the internet for information, the government responded accordingly. There are reports that the government monitored e-mail, and starting in 2006, access to some websites and blogs was blocked, including news websites run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora who were critical of the government. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation remained the only internet service provider during 2007.