Restricting our Right to Freedom of Expression in name of Security and Stability -The Issue of Ethiopia

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Blogger Endalk shows support to Ethiopian Bloggers group Zone 9[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

By Iona Mulder -

The right to freedom of expression was first recognized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1949) art. 19 and established as binding international law in art. 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1976). In the last 66 years since the international acceptance of the right of freedom of expression, many states have limited this right in name of transition, stability and state security. In past two decades state security has focused mainly on ‘the war against terrorism’, which will likely increase after the attacks in Paris. Some of these limitations are reasonable and legitimate. Still, it is very important to draw a line on how far we are willing to let our freedom of expression be limited  in the name of transition and state security. The aim of this article is to provide food for thought on where the line should be drawn. In addition, an analysis of the current status of the right of freedom of expression in Ethiopia will be provided, in which the balance between on the one hand transition, stability and state security and on the other the freedom of expression will be under investigation

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many as a fundamental condition for democracy, because it includes the right of an individual to express his opinion, but also the right to have an independent and impartial media. Thus, without this right, people will not be impartially informed and fair elections would not be possible. Nevertheless this does not mean that freedom of expression is an absolute right. There are situations in which it is legitimate under international law for governments to restrict this freedom, either with the aim to protect the rights of others, for example right to privacy,  or to protect national security, public order, and public health, or morals. In order for a court to decide whether or not the government righteously limited the freedom of expression, it must make a balance between the importance of expression and the rights of others, national security or interests. This balance is not the same in every state and every situation.

First of all, in the United States the freedom of expression is almost absolute: hate speech is not restricted. The philosophy of the US behind this is that an open debate is more effective than regulation. In Europe, by contrast, there is a stronger restriction of hate speech. Holocaust denial is for example criminalized in many countries in Europe; it is not in the US. Secondly, a differentiation can be made for new fragile state democracies. In fragile democracies the need to protect national interest, stability and security  in contrast to the freedom of expression, will be higher than in stable states. This concept has also been accepted by the European Court for Human Rights. In the case Rekevenyi v Hungary (1999) a Hungarian police-officer complained that his freedom of expression was denied, because he was not allowed to take part in political activities and debates. The court stated that within Hungary’s transition from a totalitarian (Communist) regime to a pluralistic democratic society, this restriction of expression was legitimate in order for the police to regain the public trust ‘as defenders of democracy rather than tool of the state’. Thus, in this case because of a ‘pressing social need in a democratic society’ the freedom of expression was further limited than would legitimated in other European states. (James A.Sweeney, The European Court of Human Rights in Post Cold-War Era, Universality in transition).

During his visit in Ethiopia in July 2015 president of the United States Barack Obama –the first American President ever to visit Ethiopia- stated: “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recent that constitution that was formed and that elections put forward a democratically elected government.” Though critical about the question of good governance in Ethiopia, Obama stated that the power of the democratically elected government should be acknowledged and when criticizing its policy its difficult history and its democratic juvenileness should be considered. (The Guardian, ‘Obama criticized for calling Ethiopia’s government ‘democratically elected’’27 July 2015).

Ethiopia is a country with a rich history. Most people in the West, however, associate it with the famine in eighties, a disaster of which devastating pictures of starving people went worldwide, resulting in a wave of aid relief to Ethiopia. In contrast to the image that was often presented, the famine was not mainly the result of natural disaster but the effect of the policy of Ethiopian government converting to communism.  In 1974 the Derg, a communist organization, came into power. The Red Terror they spread cost the lives of 500.000 people, excluding the victims of the ‘famine’ that was a result of communalizing the Oromo’s, a large ethnicity of Ethiopia. They were forced into large controllable work communities.  In 1991, the Derg was defeated by an insurrection of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who claimed to bring democracy to the country. In 1995 the first election were held.

During his visit, Obama also made clear that Ethiopia is the biggest ally of the United States in its fight against the Islamic military organization Al-Shabab. Between 2006-2009 the Ethiopian government led a big military campaign against Islamic rebel groups in Somalia, including Al-Shabaab. Two of these groups committed a number of attacks in Ethiopia in 2008, claiming 23 lives. As part of Ethiopia’s so-called battle against terrorism, the state introduced an anti-terrorist legislation in 2009. In this legislation terrorism is imprecisely defined, as including “disruption of public service,” which can also include non-violent actions or demonstration. In addition, “encouraging,” “advancing,” or “being in support” of terrorist acts’ would also be defined as terrorism. Thus, merely expressing support for groups that are defined by the Ethiopian regime as terrorist, under the broad definition, could in itself also be defined as terrorism under this legislation, possibly leading to prison sentencing between 10 to 20 years (Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft of Anti-terrorism Law, 30 June 2009, Human Right Watch).

Under this legislation, many journalists and bloggers have been arrested in Ethiopia under the accusation of terrorism and assaults against the state. An example is the arrest of six bloggers of Zone 9 and three other journalists on 25 April 2015. Zone 9 is an internet blog on which nine educated Ethiopians write about social and political issues, often with a critical stance towards the government. Their slogan is “We blog because we care”. They were charged with sabotage of the state under the anti-terrorist law. Two of the journalists and two of the bloggers were released a few weeks before the arrival of Obama to Ethiopia. The others afterwards in October. They had been imprisoned for more than a year. (It is possible to read their account of their imprisonment and their current life on the blog).

With these arrests the Ethiopian government restricted its population’s right to receive and seek impartial information in public interest.  Despite the fact that the restrictions are prescribed by law in the anti-terrorist legislation, it does not serve the purpose of national security as the blog of Zone 9 did not incite any violence, or supported groups who do so. Although the Ethiopian state might be a relatively young democracy in relation to many European states, even a young democratic state must be able to accept forms of social or political criticism if its restrictions do not serve any other democratic purpose. It is clear that in Ethiopia the government has crossed the line in its restriction of the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, they are not the only ‘democratic state’ to do so.

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Iona Mulder

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