Ethiopia 2015 elections: An opportunity to change course and increase freedom of expression

Ethiopia 2015 elections: An opportunity to change course and increase freedom of expression - Protection

According to a schedule released by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, the country will go to the polls to elect a new government on 24 May 2015. This will be Ethiopia’s fifth national election.

Campaigning is expected to begin officially on 14 February 2015, ending on 21 May 2015. The final result will be announced on 22 June 2015.

Previous elections

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has claimed victory in every election since the fall of the Derg regime and the adoption of a new constitution in August 1995. The EPRDF, led by the late Meles Zenawi, claimed victory in the elections of 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010.

The 2005 elections were marked by violence and became a turning point for the country. As the results came in, it became clear that the opposition parties had won an unprecedented number of seats. When the announcement of the results was delayed, students in Addis Ababa began holding protests that turned violent. After the results were finally declared (372 seats for the EPRDF, 172 for the opposition) some members of the opposition claimed that the elections had been “stolen”. This led to more demonstrations, during which the police fired on the crowd using live ammunition and killed scores of protesters.

Some 131 political detainees — among them 21 journalists — were later formally charged with attempting to overthrow the government. The contestation and near loss of power by the EPRDF marked the end of the power consolidation by late Prime Minister Zenawi. It is no wonder that the EPRDF faced almost no opposition in the 2010 elections, securing a 99.6 per cent majority. It lost only two seats, one to the opposition and the other to an independent candidate.

The May 2015 elections

The next elections will be the first held under the current Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn. Desalegn took office in September 2012 after the demise of the late long-serving Meles Zenawi, who had ruled for 21 years.

Desalegn had been a Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for less than two years before coming to power. He is the first Ethiopian head of government in 200 years to have come from non-Tigray and non-Amhara ethnic groups.

The National Electoral Board has registered 75 political parties; 23 of them are national parties while the rest are regional. 12 of the regional parties are official affiliates of the EPRDF and support implementation of the EPRDF’s programme in the various regions. There are four dominant opposition political parties, namely Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ), Blue Party (Semayawi), All Ethiopian Unity Party and All Ethiopian Democratic Party.

Background to the elections

The 2015 elections come at a time when the Ethiopian economy has made great strides. It has achieved an estimated 10 per cent growth, one of the highest in Africa.

However, Ethiopia’s human rights record is appalling. Particularly poor is its lack of media freedom: Ethiopia is the second biggest jailer of journalists after its neighbour, Eritrea. Its broadcasting and telecommunications sectors are dominated by the state, and the minimal private media sector is heavily regulated and frequently censored.

The dire situation concerning media freedom is compounded by a number of other factors:

  • The economic constraints placed on the media and civil society
  • Low newspaper circulation figures
  • A failure to properly invest in the communications infrastructure.

In its submission to the 2014 Universal Periodic Review for Ethiopia, ARTICLE 19 noted that the country had failed to comply with most of the recommendations that they accepted during the 2009 review. We also noted that freedom of expression and freedom of information had deteriorated rather than improved.

The Ethiopian government accepted recommendations to implement in full its constitutional protections for freedom of expression, assembly and association, and to encourage political debate ahead of the 2015 elections. However, this outward openness to cooperate is in stark contrast to the reality on the ground.

The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation

On 25 and 26 April 2014, six Zone 9 bloggers and three freelance journalists were arrested and later charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (652/2009). ARTICLE 19 has expressed concern that the proclamation, which has so far been used to charge 22 journalists, violates international standards on freedom of expression and information which protect journalists.

The proclamation has also been criticised by:

  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights
  • The Human Rights Committee
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The Ethiopian government has committed in principle to ensuring that its efforts to counter terrorism are carried out in full compliance with its human rights obligations. Although these include respect for due process and freedom of expression and assembly, this commitment has not been matched in reality.

Using the criminal code to prosecute journalists

The death of Prime Minister Zenawi in August 2012 followed a two-month information blackout across Ethiopia about his health and whereabouts. Against this backdrop of silence, Temesgen Desalegn (Feteh magazine) and his publisher, Mastewal Birhanu Mamo, ran stories about the Prime Minister’s ill health.

They were subsequently charged under Article 257 of the 2004 Criminal Code: this relates to the “provocation and preparation” of a range of crimes against the state. After a case that lasted two years, Temesgen was sentenced to three years in jail by the Federal High Court on 14 October 2014 on charges of defaming the government and distorting public opinion. Mastewal was fined 10,000 Birr ($500) after being charged with printing Feteh.

Many other journalists have been charged under the criminal code and forced to endure many years in jail or to flee the country. The state is clearly using the law to silence those who hold divergent views.

On 7 October 2014, Endalkachew Tesfaye (Addis Guday magazine), Gizaw Taye (Lomi publisher) and Fatuma Nuriya (Fact magazine) were sentenced in absentia to more than three years in prison on charges of “inciting violent revolts, printing and distributing unfounded rumours and conspiring to unlawfully abolish the constitutional system of the country.” The three journalists are in exile and the magazines are no longer published.

The importance of freedom of expression for the 2015 elections

Full respect for freedom of expression will be a critical factor in the upcoming 2015 elections. In a democracy, citizens appoint the government of their choice by voting for their preferred candidates at periodically-held elections. To be able to do this, they must be fully informed about who is contesting for elected positions, about their backgrounds and their proposed policies.

For this to be possible, a democracy needs a free and pluralistic media. It also needs equal access to the media for all candidates and a regulatory framework that enables freedom of expression.

Free access to information, including that held by the government, is crucial. Proper scrutiny of the incumbent government’s policies is impossible if a climate of secrecy prevails. A functioning access to information law therefore needs to be in place, and any state secrets laws and other criminal restrictions should not unjustifiably counteract the free circulation of information.

The need for legal reform

Ethiopia’s apparatus of censorship is vast and freedom of expression cannot be guaranteed until substantial legal reforms are carried out. These include:

  • Reforming the Anti-terrorism Proclamation
  • Reforming the Criminal Code
  • Reforming the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation of 2009
  • Decriminalising defamation
  • Repealing the provisions shielding public officials from criticism
  • Bringing the restrictions which supposedly protect national security into line with international standards on the freedom of expression.

An opportunity for Ethiopia to change course

The electorate should use the upcoming elections to mark a change in course for the Ethiopian government. The country’s position regarding freedom of expression and freedom of information must be evaluated.

Whoever forms the next government must have a programme for comprehensive institutional and legal reform. This must be supported by a significant cultural shift in governance, moving away from secrecy and impunity towards full transparency and accountability.