Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press; however, SOE regulations included restrictions on these rights, giving legal cover for continued efforts to harass and intimidate journalists that predated the SOE. Upon the end of the SOE and with the encouragement of Prime Minister Abiy, a number of new and returned diaspora media outlets were able to register and begin operations in the country.
Freedom of Expression: The SOE regulations contained several prohibitions that restricted freedom of speech and expression and subsequently resulted in the temporary detention of some independent voices. The regulations, interpreted broadly, prohibited any covert or overt agitation and communication that could incite violence and unrest. Restricted activities also included any communication with designated terrorist groups or antipeace forces, storing and disseminating texts, storing and promoting emblems of terrorist groups, incitement in sermons and teaching in religious institutions to induce fear or incite conflict, and speech that could incite attacks based on identity or ethnicity.
Under the SOE it was illegal to carry out covert or public incitement of violence in any way, including printing, preparing, or distributing writings; performing a show; demonstrating through signs or making messages public through any medium; or importing or exporting any publication without permission. The SOE also prohibited exchanging any message through the internet, mobile telephones, writing, television, radio, social media, or other means of communication that may cause a riot, disturbance, suspicion, or grievance among persons. Police used suspicion of individuals possessing or distributing such media as a premise to enter homes without a warrant.
The SOE prohibited any individual from exchanging information with a foreign government in a manner that undermined national sovereignty and prohibited political parties from briefing journalists in a manner deemed unconstitutional or that undermined sovereignty and security. Individuals self-censored because of these prohibitions.
The protests and demands for change were driven by the EPRDF’s attempts to impede criticism through intimidation, including continued detention of journalists, those who express critical opinions online, and opposition figures. Additionally, the government monitored and interfered in activities of political opposition groups. Some citizens feared authorities would retaliate against them for discussing security force abuses. Authorities arrested and detained persons who made public or private statements deemed critical of the government under a provision of the law pertaining to inciting the public through false rumors.
Upon taking office Prime Minister Abiy stated that freedom of speech is essential to the country’s future. NGOs subsequently reported that practices such as arrests, detention, abuse, and harassment of persons for criticizing the government dramatically diminished.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent journalists reported access to private, affordable, independent printing presses was generally limited to a single government-owned facility, citing government intimidation. At least one outlet attempted to import a printing press for private use but was allegedly unable to secure permission to make it operational. Independent media cited limited access as a major factor in the small number, low circulation, and infrequent publication of news.
In Addis Ababa six independent newspapers had a combined weekly circulation of approximately 43,000 copies; there were in addition two sports-focused newspapers. There were no independent newspapers outside of the capital. Eight independent weekly, monthly, and bimonthly magazines published in Amharic and English had a combined circulation estimated at 28,000 copies. State-run newspapers had a combined daily circulation of approximately 50,000 copies. Most newspapers were printed on a weekly or biweekly basis, except state-owned Amharic and English dailies and the privately run Daily Monitor. Government-controlled media closely reflected the views of the government and ruling EPRDF party. The government controlled the only television station that broadcast nationally, which, along with radio, was the primary source of news for much of the population. There were two government-owned radio stations that covered the entire country, seven private FM radio stations broadcast in the capital, one FM radio station in the Tigray Region, and 28 community radio stations broadcast in other regions. State-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation had the largest broadcast range in the country, followed by Fana Broadcasting Corporate, generally regarded as affiliated with the ruling party. There were a few private satellite-based television stations, including the Ethiopian Broadcast Service.
The law prohibits political and religious organizations, as well as foreigners from owning broadcast stations.
Violence and Harassment: The government’s arrest, harassment, and prosecution of journalists sharply declined and imprisoned journalists were released. As of April no high-profile journalist remained in detention. On January 9 and 10, the Federal Prison Administration released 14 Muslim activists and journalists, including Darsema Sorri and Khalid Mohammed, from prison. The release followed the Supreme Court’s decision in December 2017 that reduced jail terms of the defendants convicted for violation of the ATP.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Many private newspapers reported informal editorial control by the government. Examples of government interference included requests regarding specific stories and calls from government officials concerning articles perceived as critical of the government. Private sector and government journalists routinely practiced self-censorship. Several journalists, both local and foreign, reported an increase in self-censorship during the SOE.
National Security: Under the SOE–February 15 to June 5–the government used the SOE laws to suppress criticism. On July 5, the parliament legally removed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), ONLF, and PG7 from the list of terrorist organizations. Journalists, both state and private, were less afraid of reporting on these groups following their delisting.
Nongovernmental Impact: On July 13, an unidentified group of youths in the town of Meisso reportedly attacked a team of journalists travelling from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa to cover the Eritrean president’s state visit to Ethiopia. Five of the crewmembers were employees of state-owned Dire Dawa Mass Media Agency. The driver of the van died from injuries on July 19 at a hospital in Harar.
Prime Minister Abiy invited diaspora media outlets to return as part of broader reforms to open up political dialogue. Major outlets and bloggers returned and began operations without incident. Media outlets were careful in testing the limits of their new freedoms. Several outfits printed hard-hitting and carefully investigated pieces exposing problems without repercussions.
The government periodically restricted and disrupted access to the internet and blocked various social media sites. The government shut down mobile internet in towns outside of Addis Ababa, especially in Oromia and Amhara between February and April, when the SOE was in force. Authorities restored internet connectivity in April while unblocking more than 260 websites that were previously unavailable inside the country. These included blogs, opposition websites, websites of PG7, the OLF, and the ONLF, and news sites such as al-Jazeera, the BBC, and RealClearPolitics. Authorities briefly shut off mobile internet data in and around Addis Ababa in September and October while responding to unrest.
In early August the government temporarily shut down broadband and mobile internet in Dire Dawa, Harar, and Jijiga in the eastern part of the country following an outbreak of violence. In September internet and mobile data were temporarily turned off again in Addis Ababa when protests turned violent. There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. State-owned Ethio Telecom was the only internet service provider in the country.
The law on computer crimes includes some provisions that are overly broad and could restrict freedom of speech and expression. This included, for example, a provision that provides for imprisonment for disseminating through a computer system any written, video, audio, or any other picture that incites violence, chaos, or conflict among persons. The SOE regulations included prohibitions on agitation and communication to incite violence and unrest through the internet, text messaging, and social media.
Authorities monitored communication systems and took steps to block access to Virtual Private Network providers that let users circumvent government screening of internet browsing and email. There were reports such internet surveillance resulted in arrests.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 18.6 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom, primarily via controlling teachers’ appointments and curricula. Authorities frequently restricted speech, expression, and assembly on university and high school campuses. SOE regulations prohibited strikes in educational institutions, giving authorities the power to order educational institutions to take measures against any striking student or staff member and providing law enforcement officers the authority to enter educational institutions and take measures to control strikes or protests.
According to multiple reports, the ruling EPRDF, via the Ministry of Education, continued to favor students loyal to the party in assignment to postgraduate programs. Some university staff members noted that students who joined the party received priority for employment in all fields after graduation. Numerous anecdotal reports suggested inadequate promotions and lack of professional advancement were more likely for non-EPRDF member teachers. There continued to be a lack of transparency in academic staffing decisions, with numerous complaints from academics alleging bias based on party membership, ethnicity, or religion.
A separate Ministry of Education directive prohibits private universities from offering degree programs in law and teacher education. The directive also requires public universities to align their curriculum with the ministry’s policy of a 70/30 ratio between science and social science academic programs. As a result the number of students studying social sciences and the humanities at public institutions continued to decrease; private universities, however, focused heavily on the social sciences.
Reports stated there was a pattern of surveillance and arbitrary arrests of Oromo university students based on perceived dissent, participation in peaceful demonstrations, or both. According to reports, there was a buildup of security forces, both uniformed and plainclothes, embedded on university campuses preceding student protests, especially in Oromia, in response to student demonstrations.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly; SOE regulations, however, prohibited demonstrations and town hall meetings that did not have approval from the Command Posts, in some cases federal and in other cases more local bodies. After the lifting of the SOE, security forces’ response to protests showed signs of increasing restraint. In July and August Federal Police and Addis Ababa police provided security to at least three large peaceful demonstrations staged without prior notification to the authorities in Addis Ababa.
Prior to the SOE, organizers of public meetings of more than two persons or demonstrations had to notify the government 48 hours in advance and obtain a permit. Authorities could not refuse to grant a permit but could require changing the location or time for reasons of public safety or freedom of movement. If authorities require an event be moved to another place or time, by law authorities must notify organizers in writing within 12 hours of their request.
The EPRDF used its own conference centers in Addis Ababa, the regional capitals, and government facilities for meetings and events. Following the imposition of the SOE, the prohibition on unauthorized demonstrations or town hall meetings severely limited the organization of meetings, training sessions, and other gatherings, especially for civil society and opposition political parties, who repeatedly reported being intimidated by authorities concerning organizing under SOE regulations.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
Although the law provides for freedom of association and the right to engage in unrestricted peaceful political activity, the government severely limited this right (see sections 3 and 5).
The SOE and the accompanying regulations restricted the ability of labor organizations to operate (see section 5). Regulations prohibited exchanging information or having contact with a foreign government or NGOs in a manner that undermines national sovereignty and security, and this reduced communication between local and international organizations.
The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), also called the Civil Society Organizations (CSO) law, bans anonymous donations to NGOs and political parties. All potential donors were therefore aware their names would be on the public record. A 2013 report by the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association stated, “The enforcement of these provisions has a devastating impact on individuals’ ability to form and operate associations effectively.” For example, international NGOs seeking to operate in the country had to submit an application via the country’s embassies abroad, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then submitted to the government’s Charities and Societies Agency for approval. Prime Minister Abiy prioritized the reform of the CSP, along with the ATP and media law, as a mechanism to foster change in a process managed by the attorney general.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. At times authorities or armed groups limited the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in areas of insecurity, such as on the country’s borders.
In-country Movement: Under the SOE some regions of the country and the borders were restricted. Those restrictions ceased once the SOE ended.
Foreign Travel: A 2013 government prohibition on unskilled workers travelling to the Middle East for employment remained in force. The ban did not affect citizens travelling for investment or other business reasons. The government stated it issued the ban to prevent harassment, intimidation, and trauma suffered by those working abroad, particularly in the Middle East, as domestic employees.
Exile: The prime minister’s call for reconciliation, parliament’s removal of groups from the terrorist list, as well as the passing of the amnesty proclamation, encouraged many dissident groups, activists, journalists, and politicians in exile to return to the country and participate in reform efforts.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), communal clashes between locals of Gedeo Zone in SNNPR and West Guji Zone in Oromia that started in April led to displacement of 970,000 persons. The number of IDPs in Gedeo Zone reached 820,000, while those in West Guji numbered 150,000. The Gedeo-Guji crisis occurred alongside existing displacement in other parts of the country. In May and June, IOM identified 1,777,000 IDPs in the country, with 1,205,000 displaced due to conflict mostly from the Oromia-Somali conflict in 2017, while 536,000 were displaced by drought and other climate-related factors.
There were 1,391,000 new IDPs, primarily due to conflicts along the border areas of Oromia and SNNPR Regions and border areas of Oromia and Somali Regions.
Authorities attributed the majority of internal displacements to conflict, particularly interregional and interclan conflicts due to lack of governance and property disputes. IDPs’ rights to alternative livelihoods, skill development, compensation, and access to documentation that determine their opportunity to participate in civic and political action was often limited. In some instances the government strongly encouraged returns of IDPs without adequate arrangements for security and sustainability. The government reportedly used food to induce returns, leading to secondary and tertiary displacements.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
As of April the country hosted approximately 915,000 refugees. Major origin countries were South Sudan (440,000), Somalia (256,000), Eritrea (168,000), Sudan (44,000), and Yemen (1,800).
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government used a refugee-status-determination system for providing services and protection to refugees.
Employment: Under this year’s Ethiopian Refugee Regulation, the government does not grant work permits to refugees, a regulation updated in early 2019 to change this, and other, refugee policies. The government supports an Out of Camp policy for those deemed self-sufficient and/or sponsored by an Ethiopian citizen, which allowed some refugees to live outside camps and engage in informal livelihoods.
Durable Solutions: The government welcomed refugees to settle in the country but did not offer a path to citizenship or provide integration. Refugee students who passed the required tests could attend university with fees paid by the government and UNHCR.
Returnees: During the year tens of thousands of refugees returned from Saudi Arabia and required humanitarian assistance. According to IOM, assistance for these returnees upon arrival was limited due to resource constraints.