Ethiopia & Eritrea: End to conflict must be first step to wider human rights reforms

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the agreement reached between Ethiopia and Eritrea to restore peace, and to once again enable telecommunications and transport between the two countries. The decision must be a first step in efforts to strengthen protections for freedom of expression and information in both countries, including through telecommunications, and towards improvements in broader human rights protections.

Since 2001, the Eritrean government has exercised full control of the country’s media, depriving the public of any possibility of having open critical reflection and public participation. This silencing of the media, which has included the arrest and detention of approximately 69 journalists and non-compliance with key decisions of the ACHPR in 2003 (Article 19 vs Eritrea) and 2016 (Dawit Isaak v Republic of Eritrea) was often done under the pretext of national security, more specifically, related to border tensions with Ethiopia. Both decisions implored the government of Eritrea to release all detained journalists, ensure payment of compensation to the detainees, and take appropriate measures to restore media pluralism in the country.

Ethiopia had since 2000 refused to implement a peace deal reached with Eritrea in the same year (the Algiers Agreement) and a subsequent 2003 ruling on borders after a border war fought between the two countries between 1998 to 2000. 70,000 people were killed in the war.

Owing to this disagreement, both countries have for the past 18 years years ceased telecommunications and transport ties, most importantly citing national security as a warranty for curtailing freedom of expression and access to information as seen in the previously fully state-captured media space in both countries.

On its part, Ethiopia has seen a number of reforms since the appointment in February 2018 of Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali. The new leadership has so far overseen the end of three years anti-government protests, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the closure of a notorious detention center, and raised hopes for the development of democracy and human rights protections in the country, although there have also been some worrying backwards steps on freedom of expression.

The agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia presents an important opportunity for both countries to address restrictions on freedom of expression and information, not just between the countries but within them as well. This new era of peace must also see both governments prioritise protection of freedom of expression as a key pillar of society in the countries as they transition to more solid democracies”, said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa urges the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to work together to prioritise freedom of expression in reform discussions going forward in both countries. This should include through the release of all political prisoners, bloggers, journalists, and civilians detained for expressing their opinion. For the past 18 years of the state of conflict, both states had adopted a policy of brutal suppression of political dissidents and the media, often citing national security as a broader concern that would be breached if these entities operated freely. The use of such justifications for violations of free expression must end. We also urge both governments to create an open and enabling environment for CSOs to support in the implementation of the peace agreement and in broader reforms, and for the media to be able to play its vital role in providing independent reporting to the public on this and other political processes.