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 2008, 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. A controversial draft law to regulate civil society was introduced during the year, and while it did not directly affect the press, it had a chilling effect on all nongovernmental actors and increased concerns about government persecution. Separately, the government reversed an earlier decision and granted licenses to two of the publishers arrested in 2005. While many Ethiopian journalists have gone into exile, arguably the most important figures remain in the country, providing some hope for a reinvigorated press. Currently, however, the critical perspectives held by many newspapers before the 2005 crackdown have yet to resurface.
The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is often restricted in practice. The Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation was passed into law in December 2008 after years of consultation and debate. The legislation is not exceptionally restrictive, but it has been criticized by the private media and press freedom groups for imposing constraints on the practice of journalism and harsh sanctions for violations. The most controversial provisions were included in the penal code that took effect in May 2005. Of greater concern are the selective approach the government takes in implementing laws and the lack of an independent judiciary. Journalists have few guarantees that they will receive a fair trial, and charges are often issued arbitrarily in response to personal disputes.Court cases can continue for years, and many journalists have multiple charges pending against them. 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 that began in 2006. In late October 2008, the prime minister abruptly announced a major cabinet reshuffle, including the closure of the Ministry of Information. The precise effects of this move were still unclear at the end of the year.
The broad political crackdown that began in November 2005, in which several dozen journalists and politicians were arrested on charges ranging from treason to subverting the constitution, continued to have negative implications for the media during 2008. Of the 15 journalists released during 2007, seven subsequently sought asylum abroad, and others such as Sisay Agena, Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil have found it difficult to obtain licenses to resume their work. In August 2008, Amare Aregawi, editor of the English- and Amharic-language weekly Reporter, was imprisoned for an article on a labor dispute at a government-run brewery in Gonder. He also received anonymous threats after running a series of articles alleging that associates of billionaire businessman Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi had mismanaged his investments. On October 31, Aregawi was severely beaten outside his son’s school. There were several incidents of harassment and arrests related to media coverage of the politically charged hit-and-run trial of pop singer Teddy Afro, a government critic whose songs were seen as opposition anthems during the 2005 postelection period. The government continued to crack down on political reporting, especially involving the Ginbot 7 opposition movement. Several journalists remained imprisoned at year’s end, and reporters continued to be arrested on charges dating back several years. Two Eritrean journalists from Eri-TV who were reportedly arrested by Ethiopian forces in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2006 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.
The state controls all broadcast media and operates the only television station. In 2007, a new broadcasting authority was created, and the first licenses were finally awarded to two private FM stations in the capital, Addis Ababa. In June 2008, the first private, foreign-language FM station, Afro FM, was granted a license; it will broadcast in English, French, and Arabic. Dozens of print outlets publish regularly and offer diverse views, although following the November 2005 crackdown only a limited number of newspapers—none of which challenge the federalist constitution or ethnic makeup of the government—were allowed to continue publishing without interruption. Since 2005, the most important new entrant in the print market has been the private paper Addis Neger. This paper now enjoys the highest circulation. Publishers Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan were authorized to start two newsweeklies, the Awramba Times and Harambe, in 2008. However, both papers faced regular government intimidation, and the government brought up old charges against Dawit. In 2005, authorities had 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 Amharic circulation. Most newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and to meet the minimum bank balance that is required to renew their annual publishing licenses.
In past years, access to foreign broadcasts has occasionally been restricted. This pattern continued into 2008 with the jamming of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America (VOA) signals, though the government denies blocking the stations. The U.S. State Department reported that the sustained jamming of VOA’s Amharic and Afan Oromo services largely ended in March. Diplomatic ties with Qatar were broken over the Qatar-based satellite station Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the insurgency by the Ogaden Liberation Front in southern Ethiopia.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 could make use of this medium in 2008, but its popularity is growing with the proliferation of internet cafes. As more citizens, faced with an increasingly restricted traditional 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, blocked access to opposition websites and blogs, including news websites run by Ethiopians living abroad. Since 2004 the government has been using a unique e-government platform. Known as WoredaNet, meaning a network of local districts, it connects different nodes of the government, from the central to the local level, and has been used extensively by political cadres to instruct local administrators through videoconferencing. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation remained the only internet service provider during 2008.