October 30, 2013 By Ada Lacevic
The broad scope of the Ethiopian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation — accompanied with a sharp increase in the arrests of journalists and students — has raised concerns that the law has effectively circumvented constitutional rights to freedom of press and speech. The 2009 Proclamation was enacted in the aftermath of a number of Somali militias groups attacks on civilians and a growing discontent among domestic political opposition groups. Ethiopia has seen regional discontent from the Semayawi as well as those in the Oromia region, who have sought autonomy for over fifty years. When the Oromo Liberation Front was labeled a terrorist group by the government under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, however, many students were also arrested for providing “moral support” to terrorist organizations. In October 2012, hundreds of protestors were arrested after demanding elected representation in the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council on charges of intent to advance an ideological cause and planning to induce a terrorist act.
Under the Proclamation, Article 5 and 6, also affects journalists covering issues regarding public discontent with the government, two articles that stipulate that anyone who writes or disseminates promotional statements encouraging, supporting, or advancing terrorism could be punished with imprisonment from ten to twenty years . The moral support provision under Article 5b “Rendering support to Terrorism”which states that “Whoever, knowingly or having reason to know that his deed has the effect of supporting the commission of a terrorist act or a terrorist organization:…provides a skill, expertise or moral support or gives advise…” is punishable under the Anti-Terrorist Proclamation. Two journalists, Mesfin Negash and Abiye Tekle Mariam, were arrested under the provision for inciting “moral support” for protestors. In July 2012, Eskinder Nega, an outspoken journalist was sentenced under the Proclamation to eighteen years imprisonment for supporting the Arab Spring movements in northern Africa and creating parallels to the situation in Ethiopia, a conviction that drew international condemnation.
Ethiopia’s Constitution protects freedom of speech and political association. Under Article 29, journalists may publicize and disseminate material regarding the government, whether fact or opinion. Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution protect expression not only through speech but also through assembly, which includes public demonstration and petition. Individuals may gather and present their views in public regardless of the topic so long as it is done peacefully and does not violate public morals, peace, and democratic rights. Peaceful demonstrations are allowed provided that public activities are not disrupted. Finally, the right to association under Article 31 allows for the creation of groups or associations for whatever purpose.
The wide scope of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation leads to concerns that its prohibitions broadly contradict rights enumerated under the Constitution. Patrick Griffith, an attorney with Freedom Now, noted that the unwillingness of the Ethiopian government to limit the scope of the language used in the Proclamation raises concerns that the application of the law will also remain unbridled. By criminalizing citizens’ ability to write, publish, or disseminate information about certain opposition groups, the Proclamation equates many journalistic activities with the encouragement of terrorism. Under Article 30 of the Constitution, organizations such as the Semayawi and Oromo Liberation Front have the right to assembly, public demonstration, and petition. The expression of this right, however, seems to create criminal liability under Articles 1, 5, 6, and 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. In this sense, the constitutional right to association (Article 31) is practically constrained by the implementation of the Proclamation since association could lead to the “moral support” of a terrorist group or the participating in a terrorist organization.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has reiterated that arrests as a consequence of free expression render the detention arbitrary under international human rights standards. Political opposition leaders as well as their supporters have been arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for committing acts of terrorism. Journalists reporting on their cause have been jailed as well under the broadly stated provision for encouraging or supporting terrorism. The detentions have raised constitutional concerns since the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation seems to run counter to the freedom of expression of rights enumerated in the Constitution. Apart from Ethiopia’s domestic duty to uphold human rights the government has ratified various international treaties and covenants which uphold freedom of speech and expression such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, and the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.