Last week, EFF was dismayed to learn that Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega had been sentenced to eighteen years in prison under a sweeping and overbroad Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.  More than one hundred other Ethiopians, including nine journalists, have been sentenced under the vague law.  In December 2011, two Swedish journalists were convicted on charges of supporting terrorism.

Nega's sentence has been roundly condemned by both the United States government and the United Nations, as well as a bevy of human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch.  We join these groups in condemning the sentences handed to Nega as well as five other bloggers, all of whom are living in exile.

A Dangerous Precedent

Back in June, we highlighted Ethiopia's censorship and surveillance practices. from the blocking of websites to the Telecom Service Infringement Law that, in addition to protecting the state service provider from the competition of VOiP services, also aims to harshly punish citizens for using or having in their possession any telecommunications equipment without prior permission from the government.

The latest convictions demonstrate the Ethiopian government's determination to restrict freedom of expression and association.  The use of anti-terrorism legislation to silence writers is a tactic seen elsewhere, including Turkey and Burundi, where just last month a journalist was sentenced to life under such legislation.

In Ethiopia's 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, terrorist acts are broadly defined by a person or group "intending to advance a political, religious, or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public, or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or, economic or social institutions of the country" by a number of actions.  Furthermore, and not unlike material support laws in the United States, the definition of "rendering support for terrorism" includes the act of providing a "skill, expertise or moral support or advice."  "Encouragement for terrorism"—which includes the publication of statements "likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts"—is also prohibited.  It is this section of the law that has been used most consistently against journalists.   

When Counter-Terrorism Becomes Anti-Freedom

While Ethiopia has reason to be concerned about terrorism, it is abundantly clear at this point that the government is taking advantage of foreign support for its counterterrorism measures.  The United States alone provided $847 million in assistance to Ethiopia in 2011, some of which went to fund non-lethal military training.  Between 2002 and 2007, however, Ethiopia received nearly $20 million in military assistance from the U.S., which included arms aid.  In addition to providing financial aid, the U.S. has been outwardly supportive of Ethiopia's counter-terrorism measures against al-Shabaab.

At the same time, as a cable released by WikiLeaks reveals, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia expressed concerns about the then-draft Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, writing in a comment entitled "Opposition Beware":

Ethiopia is a U.S. partner in a rough neighborhood, and, with the turmoil in Somalia, faces an ever rising threat stream from Somalia and the Arabian peninsula. Though the ATP gives the GoE legal authorities to confront these threats meaningfully, the draft statute's overbroad nature, the lack of legal safeguards for persons accused of terrorism, as well as the ruling party's tendency to brand mainstream domestic opposition members as terrorists, presents the potential for abuse. Post will raise these concerns with GoE officials at the earliest opportunity.

It would appear that any efforts to "raise concerns" with the Ethiopian government fell on deaf ears.  Sadly, the weak condemnation expressed in those previous cases is still more than has been expressed toward Nega.  In 2011, following the conviction of the two Swedish journalists, Deputy Spokesperson Mark C. Toner stated that the U.S. "[recognizes] the authority of the judicial process in Ethiopia and [respects] the Ethiopian Government's legitimate concerns about terrorism" before noting that "a free press is an important element of democratic society."

Even the Department of State's comments on Nega's conviction do not go as far as condemnation, instead merely expressing "deep concern."

Human Rights Watch has called on Ethiopia's international partners to immediately call for the release of Nega and the many journalists and opposition supporters who have been unlawfully prosecuted, as well as the revision of the law that put them behind bars. As Charlayne Hunter-Gault—a board member at the Committee to Protect Journalists—writes in an opinion piece for the New Yorker, the U.S. has recently made democracy promotion a top priority; referring to Nega, Hunter-Gault remarks: "Here is a great test case."

Indeed, the new "U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa" includes both democracy promotion and advancement of peace and security through the countering of terrorist groups. The U.S. government must be extremely cautious and ensure that its efforts to counter terrorism in the region don't result in any more journalists behind bars.

Related Issues