Ethiopian Flag, adopted in 1996

Ethiopian Flag, adopted in 1996

By Brandon Sams


Ethiopia is a country with a turbid history of free speech and free press rights due to a troubled conflict both internally and externally. According to the 2013 annual Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia was ranked 137th out of 179 countries. As a nation in democratic infancy Ethiopia’s press and speech rights are deemed restrictive in their implementation yet free in constitutional terms. Article 59 of the Ethiopian constitution drafted in 1995 states,

“1. Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference. 2. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference…3. Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements: (a) Prohibition of any form of censorship. (b) Access to information of public interest. 4. In the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operrational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions…” (Maddex, 2008).

However, unpopular and anti-establishment reports from the press have been subject to vast censorship and, in some cases, prosecution and imprisonment.

Historical Background

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is an independent nation in East Africa. It is land-locked with Somalia to the east, South Sudan and Sudan lie to the west, Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, and Kenya to the south. As part of the Eastern African crescent known as the cradle of human life, Ethiopia is one of the oldest locations known to scientists and is largely considered to be the region where modern day humans first came into existence and set-out to migrate to different regions of the world. Politically, Ethiopia has been a monarchy for most of its history which can be traced as far back to the 2nd Millennium B.C.E. Alongside Rome and Persia the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum was known as one of the great and influential world powers of the 3rd century and merely a century later was heralded as the first world empire to officially adopt Christianity as its sanctioned state religion.

Historically, Ethiopia has undergone many political and governmental changes. It was not until 1974 when a council of soldiers known locally as The Derg seized power in the region and instituted a military styled communist government backed and regulated by the Soviet Union and Cuba. This regime was led by Major Mengitsu Haile Mariam in a complete fascist and totalitarian fashion until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The fall of the Soviet Union gave way to local revolutionary groups, specifically the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF in May of 1991 advanced to the capital and forced Mariam to flee to Zimbabwe and concede to turn over the government to the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) with a transitional constitution to match. During this transitional period, Meles Zenawi, the leader of the EPRDF, along with members of the TGE council, swore to oversee the formation of multi-party democracy in Ethiopia. Elections for a 548 person constituent assembly was held in June of 1994 to vote on the newly drafted democratic constitution. The constitution was adopted in December 1994 and immediately led to elections for the first Ethiopian parliament leading to the installment of the current Ethiopian government in August 1995.

Today, Ethiopia has spent 17 years as a democratic republic and is slowly building their nation. With over 70 ethnic groups, 70 languages and over 200 dialects, Ethiopia is one of the more diverse countries in the world and with over 91 million citizen is one of the most populous countries in the world and the second most populous nation in Africa behind Nigeria.  Ethiopia is the largest coffee exporter and grower in Africa and agriculture remains their primary source of revenue. Ethiopia has no national language, though Amharic is spoken by nearly 60% of the population, and of the ethnic groups aforementioned, Amharic and the largely Muslim Oromo account for nearly 80% of the population. The country is still in recovery from civil wars and decades of totalitarian government, but now boasts the largest economy by Gross Domestic Product in East Africa.

Freedom of Speech

Since Ethiopia is still in the infancy of its democratic republic issues, regarding free speech, have rarely been addressed or have been of issue in the seventeen year-old nation. However, the 2009 passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act by the Ethiopian parliament has hindered free expression and the freedom of the people to assemble. The 2009 counterterrorism law has been used to combat dissidents and the opposition parties in the country. Many of those dissidents negatively affected by the counterterrorism law include website bloggers whose freedom of speech, guaranteed in the Ethiopian constitution, has been effectively compromised.  In July 2012, independent Ethiopian website blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison under the Anti-Terrorism Act, having been arrested in September 2011 for criticizing the similar arrests of journalists in the nation. According to advocacy group Freedom Now, a United Nations panel of five independent experts ruled that Nega’s imprisonment was “a result of his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression” (Mehler, 2011).  During the trial of Nega five journalists living in exile at the time also received harsh prison sentences in absentia in the same court ruling. The case was appealed to the Ethiopian Supreme Court, which decided to uphold the conviction and sentencing of Nega as constitutional, even though the Ethiopian constitution bans censorship and protects freedom of expression and opinion.

The Ethiopian parliament has also taken steps to censor Internet access to effectively silence the voices of those bloggers and others opposed to the government and the status quo in Ethiopian politics. According to a 2013 Freedom House report, Ethiopia received a meager 79 for their internet freedom—with 0 being the best and 100 being the worst. The Freedom House report further states that Ethiopia is one of ten countries that utilizes the spyware tool FinFisher. This tool allows the government to secretly monitor computers through webcams, intercept Skype calls, and record everything a user types with a key logger. These revelations further the evidence for Ethiopia’s restrictive and dictatorial Internet regulations. Conversely, the government also restricts access to numerous websites, including opposition sites, news sites, and the sites of groups designated as “terrorist” organizations which is generally a broadened term. The Ethiopian government also restricts access to controversial political sites and blogs, many of which are based abroad and are blocked. The Internet infrastructure of Ethiopia is excessively poor that only about 1% of the population has access to Internet in the first place. However, the internet has always been a medium for dissidents and public outrage to manifest in countries with restrictive governments. Thus, signaling to countries like Ethiopia to monopolize the industry along with restricting it all together. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation is the only internet provider in the nation and is a government-run and regulated corporation. While free speech in Ethiopia has yet to be challenged in court or in the public sphere, censorship is prominent in public discourse and is only a matter of time before the high court hears these grievances.

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press in Ethiopia has been under scrutiny from the government and has taken a swift decline since 2005. In 2005 a criminal code was passed with provisions that set limits and restrictions on the freedom of the press, including restrictions on “obscene” communication, criminal defamation, and criticism of public officials.  Historically, since the country, as it stands today, is young, instances of freedom of press violations have only recently come to light within the past decade. There are no historic cases or decisions made by the high courts or even the Supreme Court of Ethiopia. The restrictions under the 2005 criminal code were exacerbated after the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Act. The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Act was supposedly drafted and signed to confront the challenges that certain armed insurgencies had created in the past several years. However, it has been used extensively against politicians and journalists who work with the opposition parties or express anti-establishment sentiments. Those most affected by the law have been journalist who were arrested simply for publishing information about these groups or for conducting interviews with the leaders and members of these “terrorist” organizations.

In January 2012, a local court sentenced two Ethiopian journalists, newspaper editor Woubshet Taye and columnist Reeyot Alemu, to 14 years in prison. Reportedly, the journalists were imprisoned for plotting terrorist attacks though many in the nation and abroad widely regarded the charges as a response to their often critical coverage of the Ethiopian government. Reeyot’s sentence was reduced to five years on appeal in August 2013, though the sentencing of Taye still stands. In January of 2012 another Ethiopian journalist, Elias Kifle, was convicted on politicized terrorism charges and sentenced for a second time, in absentia, to life in prison. Kifle fled the country in 2007 after being charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison due to his coverage of the government’s repression of post-election protests in 2005.While in exile from his two life-sentences Kifle runs a Washington-based opposition website entitled Ethiopian Review and works as a United States based journalist.

The often selective approach taken by the Ethiopian government in implementing laws, specifically the Anti-Terrorism Act, combined with the lack of an independent judiciary continues to be of grave concern to those journalists and bloggers arrested under the law. They have very few guarantees that they will receive a proper and fair trial, and charges are often filed haphazardly in response to personal disputes with the specific journalist or blogger. Court cases can continue for years, and many journalists have multiple charges pending against them and in extreme cases have even been subject to torture while in detainment by the government.

Ethiopia and the United States – Critical Comparison 

The constitution of Ethiopia guarantees freedom of expression and the freedom of the press in its totality and from censorship. However, much like the United States early in its democratic inception, Ethiopia is in a period of stipulation without implementation, at least in regards to free speech and free press rights or free expression and speech especially in the political arena. These laws are backed-up by the High Court, which sentences people accused of such infractions against the enacted laws, thus holding these laws to be constitutional. In regards to internet censorship, unlike Ethiopia, the United States very seldom censors internet content no matter how obscene, unless it is the usage or distribution of child pornography, or dissident it may be. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) the Supreme Court stroke down anti-indecency provisions in the newly enacted Communications Decency Act because it violated the freedom of speech. Conversely, because Ethiopia does not have a judiciary separate from the other forms of government Ethiopia recently passed the 2005 criminal code placing restrictions on the “obscene” which went largely unopposed. However, it is important to note that Ethiopia’s democracy is only 19 years old compared to the 238 years that America has been a democracy. Therefore, it may possibly be safe to say that given appropriate time Ethiopia could make similar moves the United States had made in these years. From 1787-1804 much of the American laws, such as the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, were seen as restrictive and were not contested in court either.

The 2013 World Press Freedom Index ranks the United States as 32nd on their list while Ethiopia was ranked number 137th, showing a clear disparity between the two sovereign nations. The United States welcomes dissidents and their opinions and comments are challenged or accepted in the free market of thought that the nation allows. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia the Anti-Terrorism Act has been used to silence the opposition to whatever party is in charge. In the landmark United States Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the Supreme Court decided that newspapers should be able to publish classified material and essentially anti-establishment content without risk or fear of government censorship or punishment. The United States Supreme Court decided this because the Constitution is the law of the land in America and prior restraint was held unconstitutional in Near v. Minnesota (1931) except in exceptionally limited cases where national security is of grave concern. The United States Supreme Court decided that the government could not effectively meet the criteria prescribed in Near v. Minnesota, therefore, the newspapers and the Constitution prevails. In Ethiopia, the Supreme Court has decided in the case of Eskinder Nega that governmental oversight over anti-establishment ideas is constitutional and can be used to jail and imprison contrary beliefs that may spark “terrorism.” In their 19 years of democracy they have not set limits and provisions on their idea of what defense of national security does and does not entail, therefore, they attack all dissidence with prosecution and imprisonment.

The United States government and Supreme Court within the last century has fought to balance the freedoms of the individual and the public with the interests and protection of the state. It took the United States over a century of being a country to ensure great protections for its citizens’ rights and liberties, Ethiopia has not reached the allotted amount of time, democratically, to be fairly compared with the United States. While the United States stands as one of the freest countries in the world, Ethiopia is still getting its feet wet in the democratic process. Given some time they could be a great democratic force in Africa; however, today, it is restrictive and antiquated in the handling of free speech and free press. De juror—Ethiopia is a free country reviling the western nations like France and Spain. De facto—Ethiopia is one of the most obstructive governments in the world and contains the most jailed journalists second only to Eritrea on the African continent.


As one of the founding members of the UN and the Organization of African Unity, with Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, serving as the headquarters of the African Union, Ethiopia is held to a higher standard when it comes to civil liberties and freedoms. These rights have been further guaranteed after Ethiopia ratified the U.N. Human Rights Covenant as well as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. The demands from the international community has fell on deaf ears. Only time will tell where Ethiopian democracy ends up in the not so distant future. Either a proper democratic republic or yet another African oligarchy built under the guise of national security.



Works Cited

“Criminal charges against Ethiopian journalist revived – IFEX.” <i>IFEX</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30Mar. 2014. &lt;;.

“Ethiopia.” <i>State Department</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014 &lt; /186406.pdf&gt;.

“Ethiopian Constitution.” <i>Selamta</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. &lt;;.

“Ethiopia.” Freedom House. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <;.

“Ethiopia: Life sentence for blogger, prison for journalists.” – Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. <;.

House, Freedom. Countries at the Crossroads 2011 An Analysis of Democratic Governance. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.

Lansford, Tom. Political handbook of the world 2013. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: CQ Press, 2013.   Print.

Maddex, Robert L.. Constitutions of the world. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2008. Print.

Mehler, Andreas, and Henning Melber. Africa Yearbook Volume 7 Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara in 2010.. Leiden: BRILL, 2011. Print.

“New report calls on Ethiopia to reform repressive anti-terror law – IFEX.” IFEX. N.p., n.d. Web.27 Mar. 2014. <;.

“Press Freedom Index 2013 – Reporters Without Borders.” Press Freedom Index 2013 –  Reporters Without Borders. N.p.,n.d.Web. 27 Mar. 2014. <,1054.html&gt;.

The Europa world year book 2013. 54th ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

*Flag photo courtesy of Wikipedia and permitted under the Creative Commons


One Response to Ethiopia

  1. Stephen Lessard says:

    Thoughtful summary. Thank you. One thing…you are citing Article 29.

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