29 July 2009 — Ethiopia’s parliament has just approved sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that could see journalists jailed for carrying out their work, report the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA), the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch.
The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was passed in the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives on 7 July. The law allows authorities to dole out 20-year jail sentences to anyone who “writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises (or) disseminates” statements deemed “encouraging, supporting, or advancing” terrorism, according to CPJ. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch adds that by including damage to property and the disruption of public services under the definition of terrorism, the law could be used as a “new and potent tool” to jail political protestors.
“The draconian press law (passed in July 2008) and the new highly repressive terrorism legislation has been worked out in such a way that it suits the interests of the ruling party,” said Kifle Mulat, president of the EFJA. The exiled press freedom organisation is calling on individuals and international NGOs to send letters protesting the terrorism legislation to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ethiopian Minister of Justice and Communications. (See CPJ’s letter at http://tinyurl.com/kurxcs )
In its letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, CPJ denounced the “ongoing pattern of criminal prosecutions, administrative restrictions, and Internet censorship” of the press in Ethiopia, and appealed to the Prime Minister to overrule the parliament’s approval of the law. Exemplifying the repression and censorship journalists already face, CPJ reported several Ethiopian journalists have been warned not to write articles that express opposition to the law.
Many aspects of the law violate international standards. According to Human Rights Watch, the statute permits hearsay and confessions that may have been obtained through torture as acceptable evidence in court. It also allows “terrorist suspects” to be held for up to four months without charge and imposes the death penalty for crimes that would not normally incur capital punishment.
The Ethiopian government unleashed a deadly crackdown on protesters, journalists and civil society after the disputed election of 2005 and since then, rights groups have continued to expose systematic killings, torture and arbitrary arrests, says Human Rights Watch. Several dissenters have been targeted under the guise of terrorism, according to CPJ and Human Rights Watch. For instance, Eritrean state television journalists Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi were detained by authorities more than two years ago on terrorism-related charges and are yet to be brought to trial, CPJ reports. According to the EFJA, more than 100 journalists have been forced to flee their country out of fear of persecution.
Now that the terrorism law has been approved in parliament, the president has until August 7 to ratify the law and put it into effect, says CPJ. He is expected to approve it.