Ethiopia jails prominent blogger for 18 years
(Reuters) - An Ethiopian court on Friday sentenced a prominent blogger to 18 years in jail and five other exiled journalists to prison terms ranging from eight years to life behind bars for conspiring with rebels to topple the government, the presiding judge said.
Dissident writer Eskinder Nega was one of 24 Ethiopians who were convicted last month of conspiring with rebels to overthrow the government. It was the third case in six months involving members of the media.
"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," Judge Endeshaw Adane said.
Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega jailed for 18 years
A prominent Ethiopian journalist and blogger has been sentenced to 18 years in jail for violating Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation.
Eskinder Nega and 23 others were found guilty last month.
They were accused of links with US-based opposition group Ginbot Seven, which Ethiopia considers a terrorist organisation.
Opposition member Andualem Arage was given a life sentence by the court, AFP news agency reports.
In May, Eskinder was awarded the prestigious Pen America's Freedom to Write annual prize for his work.
"The court has given due considerations to the charges and the sentences are appropriate," Reuters news agency quotes Judge Endeshaw Adane as saying.
Five journalists amongst the group found guilty in June were sentenced in absentia, the agency reports.
Human rights groups have criticised Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation for being too far-reaching.
Former Ethiopian state radio journalist released
Nairobi, July 11, 2012--A veteran Ethiopian state journalist who was twice imprisoned on vague corruption and copyright charges and recently convicted on the lesser charge was released today on account of a reduced sentence, local journalists said.
A panel of judges at the Lideta Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, sentenced Abdulsemed Mohammed, a former senior producer with government-controlled broadcaster Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA), to three and half years in prison but said he could go free on account of time already served. The judges also put Abdulsemed on probation for two years, the local journalists said.
Abdulsemed and another senior ERTA journalist, editor Haileyesus Worku, were first arrested in 2010 on corruption charges--a non-bailable offense under Ethiopian law-- brought by the Ethiopian Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, local journalists said. At the time, Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon told CPJ the journalists had been caught "red-handed" trying to sell ERTA materials to an unnamed third party.
However, prosecutors repeatedly requested additional time to carry out investigations and eventually dropped the corruption charges, amending the accusations to copyright infringement. The journalists were released on bail in July 2011, having served 15 months, according to local journalists and news reports. Haileyesus fled into exile, while Abdulsemed remained but was unable to work as a journalist, according to local journalists. Both had worked for the state broadcaster for more than a decade.
Abdulsemed was re-arrested last month after judges convicted him on copyright charges for possessing copies of ERTA's programs without the station's consent, according to news reports. Haileyesus was convicted in absentia.
"While we're relieved that Abdulsemed Mohamed has been released, he should not have spent a single day in prison on criminal charges that appear frivolous and politically motivated," CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes said. "This guilty verdict casts a further chill over a press corps that has been targeted repeatedly by authorities."
ERTA, established by the Ethiopian constitution as a publicly-funded national outlet, operates under the tight grip of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's ruling party, according to CPJ research. Ahead of 2010 elections, in which the party swept 99% of parliamentary seats, the Meles administration replaced senior, independent-minded professional journalists like Abdulsemed with party loyalists, according to CPJ research and local journalists.
Supporting Stability, Abetting Repression
By TOBIAS HAGMANN
BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Next time I travel to Ethiopia, I may be arrested as a terrorist. Why? Because I have published articles about Ethiopian politics.
I wrote a policy report on Ethiopia’s difficulties with federalism. I gave a talk in which I questioned Ethiopia’s May 2010 elections, in which the ruling EPRDF party (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front) won 545 out of 547 seats in the Parliament. As part of my ongoing research on mass violence in the Somali territories, I interviewed members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist rebel group in eastern Ethiopia that the government has designated as a terrorist organization.
In the eyes of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, my work is tantamount to subversion. Not only do his officials have zero tolerance for criticism, they consider people who either talk to or write about the opposition as abetting terrorists.
Read Full Article from The New York Times
Although still at draft stage, new telecoms rules give cause for concern
Source: Reporters Without Borders
Reporters Without Borders wishes to correct a report published on its website on 7 June stating that the 2012 Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences had been ratified by the Ethiopian authorities. We understand that the document has not yet been approved, despite the fact that the agenda circulated to journalists covering Parliament on May 24 explicitly said: “Examine and Endorse a Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences”. More than 99 percent of the assembly’s members belong to the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders understands from media reports that the bill was drawn up by the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), tabled for discussion by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and has now been referred to the Science, Communication and Technology Affairs Standing Committee for further inspection.
The Ethiopian government’s position
Asked about the intent of the law and its potential to clamp down on communication, a government spokesman, Shimeles Kemal, told a Reporters Without Borders representative that ‘‘the compelling reasons behind the promulgation of this law are technological progress and the alarming increase in the incidence of illegal telephone services that bypass the national network, posing loss of revenue and national security risks”. He said his government wished to create no new offences but rather to address telecoms-related fraud that could not have been dealt with under existing laws.
It was wrong to assume that this law was intended to regulate media content one way or another, Shimeles said, adding: ‘‘It should be viewed as a legal framework that addresses the serious national security issues highlighted by the increasing merger of telecoms services with the Internet. Content-related matters are dealt with by our media laws.’’
‘‘The law was never meant to criminalize VoIP services such as Skype or others’’, he told Reporters Without Borders ‘‘Neither did it aim to restrict any-Internet-based voice service that takes place between PCs, PC to phone and Internet-based phone-to phone services. Had this been the case, the agency could have used existing laws to ban VoIP and charge users in court.”
Reporters Without Borders notes that an earlier order, No. 281/2002: “Proclamation to Provide for the Amendment of Telecommunications Proclamation” presents a danger to all users of Internet-based voice communication. Amendment 11 of the current 2002 law, under which no one has been convicted or sentenced yet, makes all communication by fax or voice via the Internet illegal and liable to a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years.
Reporters Without Borders still concerned
Reporters Without Borders still believes that the 2012 Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences as it is worded currently is disproportionately vague and could be applied to severely restrict the use of VoIP, ensuring the Ethio-Telecom network retains its service monopoly and maintains its revenue levels. The criminal law should be precise and be interpreted, we believe, as unambiguously as possible to protect people’s right to communicate using VoIP services.
Because of the way in which Ethiopia’s justice system has handled matters of freedom of expression in recent years, we take an extremely cautious view of this move by the government.
The articles in their current form are phrased too broadly and could have serious negative effects on how journalists and dissidents use communications via the Internet, putting them at a greater risk of surveillance and inevitable legal pitfalls. The current definition of telecommunications services and telecommunications equipment could cover blogging platforms and social networks, as pointed out by the OWNI website.
The risks for individuals cannot be underestimated. Article 5 of the second section of the bill, covering offences of illegal interception and access, provides for up to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine for anyone who “without the authorization of the provider or lawful user, or any other competent authority ... illegally obtains access to any telecommunications system”.
In addition, article 6 of the second section of the bill specifies that anyone who uses the telecommunications network or apparatus to disseminate any “terrorizing” or “obscene” message, or uses the infrastructure for “any other illegal purpose” could be liable for a penalty of up to eight years’ imprisonment. The vagueness of this wording is a cause for concern. Broad interpretation of the 2009 anti-terrorism law has already led to the arrest and sentencing of journalists to long prison terms.
Article 10, paragraph four, can be understood to mean the provision and use of VoIP services (it does not specify whether this means paid-for as well as free of charge), whether intentionally or “by negligence”, are offences punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
(Paragraph 3/”Whosoever provides telephone call or fax services through the internet commits an offence and shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 3 to 8 years and with fine”.
Paragraph 4/ “Whosoever intentionally or by negligence obtains the service stipulated under sub-article (3) of this Article commits an offence and shall be punishable with imprisonment from 3 months to 2 years and with fine”.)
This article could have serious implications for Internet cafes and their customers. Internet cafes are the main point of Internet access for Ethiopians. The country’s connection coverage is extremely low – around 0.7 percent. Any measures designed to restrict VoIP use in Internet cafes would have an adverse effect on a considerable number of Ethiopian Internet users.
Equally alarming is what we believe are pervasive surveillance powers granted to the police by this bill. Under article 14, a police officer may request the court in writing for a covert search warrant “where he has reasonable grounds to believe that a telecom fraud offence has been committed or is likely to be committed.” It also allows evidence gathered through such interception or surveillance to be admissible.
The ministry would have excessive powers not only over businesses and institutions but also over individuals since the bill requires anyone who uses or holds any telecommunication equipment first to obtain a permit. Cases where this is waived are an exception (paragraph 3.3 of section two: the Ministry shall “prescribe types of telecommunication equipment the manufacturing, assembling, sale or the use of which shall not require permits”).
Lastly, it is regrettable that the draft has no safeguard clause designed to protect freedom of expression and excluding the use of VoIP from the bill’s scope.
Government ready to hold talks
Reporters Without Borders, acting as an international watchdog regarding legislation that could impinge on freedom of information, asks the Ethiopian authorities not to approve the ‘2012 Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences’ as it stands. The organization is willing to hold discussions with the government to try to clarify the bill and ensure it protects the basic rights of people to communicate while addressing the government’s concerns about cyber security.
On June 29, Shimeles reiterated to Reporters Without Borders his government’s readiness to work with international organizations that could lend technical expertise on guidelines for freedom of information and related legislation to ensure international best practice and standards are upheld. “We have worked in the past with international organizations and we still welcome those who want to engage in consultative discussions with a view to support the frameworks’ ability to promote and protect the right to information and media development,’’ he said ‘’We intend to do that while diligently working to address any loopholes that might undermine our national interests and security.”
Free Media Under Attack In Ethiopia
The United States is deeply concerned about the prosecution primarily of journalists and political activists under the anti-terrorism law.
A court in Ethiopia has convicted a prominent journalist and seven other citizens there, along with 16 who were tried in absentia, of violations of the country’s anti-terrorism law. It was the third case in six months in which journalists were tried under that statute. The United States is deeply concerned about the prosecution primarily of journalists and political activists under the anti-terrorism law. The practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression.
Journalist and online blogger Eskinder Nega was arrested last September and accused of trying to incite violence with a series of articles that he wrote and posted online. He was also videotaped at a town hall meeting discussing the “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries and whether such demonstrations were possible in Ethiopia.Prosecutors said Nega’s activities and those of the other defendants violated the anti-terrorism law because they could encourage others to attempt terrorist acts – charges that all of the defendants denied.
The government has detained Eskinder seven times in all for his writings, part of a disturbing pattern. Including the verdicts last week, 14 of the 17 people convicted under the anti-terrorism law -- not counting those convicted in absentia -- are either journalists or opposition political figures.
Media freedom is under fire in other ways too. The Ethiopian government is blocking access to a growing number of websites – including recently the online international news sites of The Washington Post and The Economist – which restricts the free flow and exchange of information over the internet.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society. When they are restricted, all human rights suffer. That is why the United States has joined its international partners in calling for the end to actions anywhere that have a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression.