Recent and upcoming trials of journalists and dissidents in Ethiopia have focused attention – and criticism – on the country’s anti-terrorism law. Critics, including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have raised concerns that the Ethiopian government uses the law to crack down not on terrorism, but on dissent.
Ethiopia is a country that plays a large role in the Horn of Africa; some in Washington consider Ethiopia an important ally in American efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is also one of the largest aid recipients in the world (more here). The contrast between Ethiopia’s favored status in strategic and aid circles on the one hand, and the sharp criticisms its government draws from human rights groups on the other, raises important questions about how the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” plays out at the local level.
Following bombings in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 2008, the Ethiopian parliament passed the anti-terrorism law with a strong majority in July 2009. Domestic and international criticism began to focus on provisions of the law that regulate speech. I have not been able to find the text of the law, but Human Rights Watch published an analysis of the draft law in March 2009, and AFP quotes the relevant section of the law as passed:
“Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years,” it says.
Criticism surfaced again in 2011. In November, the government charged twenty-four people under the law. In response, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a joint statement which began, “The Ethiopian government should cease using its overly broad anti-terrorism law against journalists and peaceful political activists.” In December, the Ethiopian government invoked the anti-terrorism law when it gave 11-year prison sentences to two Swedish journalists who had been arrested last summer in the company of rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Criticism of the law has continued in 2012, following the sentencing of three journalists in January (one in absentia); see the Committee to Protect Journalists’ statement on the cases here. More defendants (the same group of twenty-four arrested in November, I believe) are set to stand trial soon, and the UN has spoken out “against the ongoing use of anti-terrorism laws to curb freedom of expression in Ethiopia.”
The Ethiopian government, for its part, has responded to such criticisms by saying that the law’s scope is properly defined:
Ethiopia holds journalists accountable when they commit crimes, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said.
“Ethiopia clearly differentiates between freedom of expression and terrorism,” he said in a phone interview from the capital, Addis Ababa, today. “This is simply a very wrong defense of foreign journalists who have been caught red-handed when assisting terrorists.”
The Ethiopian government also sees a significant threat to its stability from rebel groups like the ONLF and al Shabab, the Muslim rebels who operate in neighboring Somalia. Addis Ababa believes it needs a tough law in order to deal with such threats.
These defenses have not stopped critics from questioning not only Ethiopia’s human rights record, but also the place Ethiopia holds in its allies’ and donors’ hearts. The Guardian writes, “Ethiopia doesn’t appear to be ticking the good governance boxes required of donors,” and suggests that Ethiopia could see its aid from some donors suspended, as recently happened with British aid to Malawi.
One question – which becomes more acute given the ongoing civil war in Somalia, where Ethiopia has repeatedly intervened – is whether the criticism Ethiopia catches for its domestic record will also target Ethiopia’s allies, including the United States. The US provides massive military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, and supported Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia from 2006 to 2009. Given the importance of Ethiopia to US efforts to fight terrorism in the Horn, will Ethiopia’s own “anti-terrorism” measures have reputational consequences for the US?