Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Ethiopia is an authoritarian state ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since 1991 and currently holds every seat in Parliament. Multiple flawed elections, the application of restrictive antiterrorism and other laws, and the imposition of a ten-month state of emergency that ended in 2017 have showcased the government’s willingness to repress the opposition, independent media, and other sources of dissent.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In August, legislators voted to end a draconian state of emergency that restricted speech, assembly, and movement, which was imposed following nationwide unrest in 2015 and 2016 in which hundreds of people were killed. However, its lifting did not lead to a noticeable improvement in the political rights and civil liberties of average Ethiopians.
- Clashes in the Oromo and Somali regions over border and land issues in September and December led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people, and the deaths of at least 100.
- Several journalists were released from prison in 2017, though journalists continued to experience harassment, arrests, and imprisonment.
- In November, government and opposition negotiators agreed on changes to the electoral system that were designed to facilitate better representation of opposition parties.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 4 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 1 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The president is the head of state and is indirectly elected to a 6-year term by both chambers of Parliament. The prime minister is the head of government, and is selected by the largest party in Parliament after elections. The credibility of the selection processes depend largely upon the conduct of Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections, which are tightly managed by the ruling EPRDF.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
As in past contests, Ethiopia’s 2015 parliamentary and regional elections were tightly controlled by the EPRDF, with reports of voter coercion, intimidation, and barriers to registration. The African Union (AU) was the only international organization to send election observers to Ethiopia’s 2015 contest, and it declared elections “peaceful and credible,” but noted irregularities including voter coercion and inconsistent poll hours. The opposition lost their sole seat in parliament, as the EPRDF and its allies took all 547 seats in the lower House of People's Representatives.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
The 2015 elections were held on time, and official results were released within a month. However, opposition parties repeatedly questioned the independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, and the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party alleged that it blocked its leaders from registering as candidates.
The government announced in 2016 that it would reform the country’s electoral laws to allow for more inclusive governance. In November 2017, after months of stalled talks, a number of opposition parties and the government agreed on reforms by which 20 percent of seats in the lower house would be decided by proportional voting, as opposed to the existing simple majority system. Mixed systems would also be introduced in regional legislatures and in some cities. Another agreed change, increasing the number of seats in the lower House of People’s Representatives, will require a constitutional amendment to implement.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
Opponents of the EPRDF find it nearly impossible to operate inside Ethiopia. Authorities frequently invoke antiterrorism legislation against dissenters. In March 2017, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) chairman Merera Gudina was charged with crimes including planning a coup. In May, Yonatan Tesfaye, the former spokesperson for the opposition Semayawi Party, was sentenced to prison for six and a half years; he had been arrested in 2015 after criticizing the EPRDF on Facebook, and was later charged with plotting terrorist acts on behalf of the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). His term was reduced to three and a half years in November by the Supreme Court.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
Intense government pressure prevents opposition parties from winning political representation through elections. There are no opposition members in the national parliament, nor in regional parliaments. Both the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party and the Semayawi Party alleged that the EPRDF used procedural technicalities to block their candidates’ registration in the 2015 elections. Opposition party members were intimidated, detained, beaten, and arrested ahead of the polls.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The authoritarian one-party system in Ethiopia largely excludes the public from any genuine and autonomous political participation.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
Political parties in Ethiopia are often ethnically based. The country’s major ethnic parties are allied with the EPRDF, but have no room to effectively advocate for their constituents. The government favors Tigrayan ethnic interests in economic and political matters, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominates the EPRDF. The 1995 constitution grants the right of secession to ethnically based states, but the government acquired powers in 2003 to intervene in states’ affairs on issues of public security. Secessionist movements in Oromia and the Somali Region, also known as the Ogaden Region, have failed after being put down by the military.
Women hold nearly 39 percent of seats in the lower house, 32 percent in the upper house, and three ministerial posts. However, in practice, the interests of women are not well represented in politics at any level.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 3 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
None of Ethiopia’s nominally elected officials are chosen through free and fair contests, and the country’s governance institutions are dominated by the EPRDF.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
The popular unrest that begin in 2015 was sparked in part by concerns about corruption, and the government has since taken some steps to address the issue. In the summer of 2017, 42 people, including state officials, were arrested for embezzlement and more than 200 people had their assets frozen in August—including a state minister. However, corruption prosecutions generally target low-level individuals, and reassignments of corrupt officials are more common than prosecution.
Coinciding with the 2017 crackdown was the announcement in August of a new interagency corruption task force.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
EPRDF operations and decision making processes are generally opaque, though in 2017 some information regarding the national budget was made available to citizens. Though mandated to take place once a decade, the country’s November 2017 census was delayed to February 2018, with authorities citing technical difficulties.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 8 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 2 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4
Press freedom in Ethiopia is severely restricted. Ethiopia’s media are dominated by state-owned broadcasters and government-oriented newspapers. Privately owned papers tend to steer clear of political issues and have low circulation, and journalists operating inside the country practice self-censorship. Defamation is a criminal offense. The law allows prosecutors to seize material before publication in the name of national security. The Ethiopian government maintains, and exercises, the ability to censor critical or opposition websites.
Critical journalists continue to face harassment, arrest, and imprisonment on charges of violating a variety of laws, including antiterrorism laws. In January 2017, Khalid Mohammed and Darsema Sori of the faith-based Radio Bilal were sentenced to several years in prison for inciting violence and attempting to depose the government, in connection with their coverage of demonstrations by Ethiopia’s Muslims. In April, the Supreme Court decided that two Zone 9 bloggers could be tried for inciting violence. Negere Ethiopia editor in chief Getachew Shiferaw was found guilty of subversion in May, though at year’s end he was expected to soon be released for time served since his December 2015 arrest. Due to the risks of operating inside the country, dozens of Ethiopian journalists work in exile.
Five journalists were in Ethiopian prisons at the end of 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), down from 16 at the end of 2016. Several of those released during the year were freed after extended detentions without charge, or detention on trumped-up charges.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government has increasingly harassed the Muslim community, which comprises about 34 percent of the population. Most of the 18 Muslim activists convicted under the country’s antiterrorism law in 2015 remain behind bars. There have been some reports of state interference in the Ethiopian Orthodox (Tewahedo) Church.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4
Academic freedom is restricted in Ethiopia. The government has accused universities of being pro-opposition and prohibits political activities on campuses. There are reports of students being pressured into joining the EPRDF in order to secure employment or places at universities; professors are similarly pressured in order to ensure favorable positions or promotions. The Ministry of Education closely monitors and regulates official curricula, and the research, speech, and assembly of both professors and students are frequently restricted.
Security officials have forcibly entered Ethiopian schools and universities to make arrests, sometimes intimidating or detaining minors who were involved or perceived to have been involved in civil unrest. Schools have at times been closed in connection with security crises, including in November 2017, in connection with ethnic clashes in the Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray regions. Universities were themselves the site of ethnic tensions and ethnically-motivated violence, prompting, for example, students from the Amhara region studying in Oromia to flee due to safety concerns. At some universities, the government deployed security forces and enforced a curfew in December.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0 / 4
The presence of the EPRDF at all levels of society—directly and, increasingly, electronically—inhibits free private discussion. The EPRDF maintains a network of paid informants, and opposition members in Ethiopia and the diaspora have accused the government of tapping their phones or monitoring their electronic communications. In December 2017, the Canadian research group Citizen Lab released a technical analysis indicating that Ethiopian authorities have used malware tools to spy on government critics, with the efforts reaching far beyond the country’s borders.
Internet blackouts are regularly reported, often following mass demonstrations. Social media and messaging applications including WhatsApp and Twitter became largely inaccessible in parts of Oromia starting in March 2016, and sporadic cuts to those and other social media outlets were reported throughout wider areas on numerous occasions later that year and in 2017. In May and June 2017, Ethiopian authorities instituted an internet blackout to prevent cheating on national exams, which were leaked in 2016 by activists.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 0 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution but severely restricted in practice. Demonstrations that erupted in late 2015 continued sporadically throughout 2016 and 2017. The protests—which began over ethnic and land rights in the Oromia region, and later spread to Addis Ababa and the Amhara Region as protesters’ grievances expanded—have been quashed violently by security forces, with some rights organizations claiming that as many as 800 protesters were killed between late 2015 and the end of 2016. The October 2016 state of emergency banned all “assembly or protest” without prior approval. The designation was lifted in August 2017, but in November, the government, citing national security concerns, again declared a ban on protests.
Following a deadly 2016 stampede reportedly started by security forces’ firing of tear gas into a crowd at a religious festival in Oromia, the government announced in September 2017 that it would deploy only unarmed police to that year’s festival. The festival occurred peacefully in October.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4
The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation restricts the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by prohibiting work on political and human rights issues. Foreign NGOs are defined as groups receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad. The law also limits the amount of money any NGO can spend on “administration,” a controversial category that has included activities such as teacher or health-worker training. NGOs have struggled to maintain operations as a result of the law.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4
Trade unions rights are tightly restricted. Neither civil servants nor teachers have collective bargaining rights. All unions must be registered, and the government retains the authority to cancel registration. Two-thirds of union members belong to organizations affiliated with the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, which is under government influence. Independent unions face harassment, and trade union leaders are regularly imprisoned. There has not been a legal strike since 1993.
F. RULE OF LAW: 2 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
The judiciary is officially independent, but in practice it is subject to political interference, and judgments rarely deviate from government policy.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Government critics risk arbitrary detention and politically motivated charges, notably under the 2009 antiterrorism law, which gives great discretion to security forces and allows the detention of suspects for up to four months without charge. According to Human Rights Watch, some 21,000 people were arbitrarily detained during the 2016–17 state of emergency. Hundreds of activists and protest participants have faced unfair trials under the terrorism law’s provisions in recent months, according to Amnesty International.
The government has generally refused to investigate allegations of large-scale abuses and other wrongdoing by security forces, and in April 2017 rejected calls by the United Nations and European Union for external investigations into the deadly crackdown on antigovernment protesters during 2015 and 2016. An April 2017 report by the government-aligned Human Rights Commission determined that some police officers could be prosecuted for their role in the deadly stampede at a 2016 Oromo religious festival, though at year’s end it was unclear whether anyone had been arrested.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Security forces employed force against predominately peaceful protesters throughout 2016 and 2017, with rights groups estimating that hundreds of people were killed in the crackdown. Persistent conflicts between residents of the Oromia Region and Somali Region (also known as the Ogaden Region), partly over land and grazing rights along the border, resulted in clashes in September 2017 that killed at least 100 people and displaced tens of thousands. A paramilitary force known as the Liyu Police based in the Somali Region has been blamed for extrajudicial killings and carrying out attacks on homes in the neighboring Oromia Region, and the government has taken no apparent action to address the abuses.
Conditions in Ethiopia’s prisons are harsh, and detainees frequently report abuse, including torture. Multiple times since 2016, Bekele Gerba, the deputy chairman of the opposition OFC, and other Oromo political prisoners have gone on hunger strike to protest poor treatment in prison; they reportedly have been denied medical attention and access to legal counsel and their families.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Repression of the Oromo and ethnic Somalis, and government attempts to co-opt their political parties into EPRDF allies, have fueled nationalism in the Oromia and Somali (Ogaden) regions. Same-sex sexual activity is prohibited by law and punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment.
In September 2017, Human Rights Watch reported cases going back to 2010 in which Ethiopian officials had harassed asylum seekers of Ethiopian origin who were living outside of Ethiopia, as well as cases in which Ethiopian asylum seekers were forcibly returned to Ethiopia by Ethiopian officials.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 4 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4
While Ethiopia’s constitution establishes freedom of movement, it was restricted during the 2016–17 state of emergency through curfews and road closures in Oromia and Amhara Regions. Sporadic violence in the Somali and Oromia regions further restricted free movement.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
Private business opportunities are limited by rigid state control of economic life and the prevalence of state-owned enterprises. All land must be leased from the state. The government has evicted indigenous groups from various areas to make way for infrastructure projects. It has also leased large tracts of land to foreign governments and investors for agricultural development in opaque deals that have displaced thousands of people.
Evictions have taken place in the Lower Omo Valley, where government-run sugar plantations and hydroelectric dams have put thousands of pastoralists at risk by diverting their water supplies. Displacement resulting from the appropriation of land has driven much of the resentment behind recent antigovernment protests.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Legislation protects women’s rights, but these rights are routinely violated in practice. Enforcement of the law against rape and domestic abuse is patchy, and cases routinely stall in the courts. Forced child marriage and female genital mutilation are technically illegal, though there has been little effort to prosecute perpetrators. However, recent reports suggest that female genital mutilation is becoming somewhat less frequent due to efforts by both NGOs and the government to combat it.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Trafficking convictions have increased in recent years, though the U.S. government continues to urge its Ethiopian counterparts to more aggressively pursue trafficking cases. Many children continue to work in dangerous sectors and lack access to basic education and services. Most agricultural labor in rural areas is performed by women, but these women are generally excluded from decision-making processes regarding their work.