Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the right to freedom of expression

Patrick GriffithAuthor: Patrick Griffith
Programme Attorney, Freedom Now

On Wednesday 17 July 2013, members of the European Parliament’s Sub-committee on Human Rights visited Ethiopia and urged the government to release journalists and opposition activists imprisoned under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 (Anti-Terror Proclamation). The visit is an important reminder that despite widely hailed progress on poverty reduction, the Ethiopian government continues to punish free expression in violation of international law.

Eskinder Nega, an outspoken journalist and blogger who was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in July 2012, is amongst those arbitrarily detained under the Anti-Terror Proclamation. In early 2011, Nega began writing and speaking publicly about the protest movements then sweeping north Africa. Although initially hesitant to draw direct parallels with Ethiopia, he was clearly supportive of the protesters abroad and critical of his government at home. He also consistently emphasised the importance of non-violence. But despite the clear protection of peaceful free expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ethiopia is a party, the government reacted by prosecuting Nega as a traitor and terrorist.

The government’s imprisonment of Nega and his colleagues – such as fellow journalist Reeyot Alemu and oppositionist Andualem Araige – has drawn widespread criticism from the international community. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed grave concern about the imprisonment of Ethiopian journalists and activists “for exercising their peaceful and legitimate right to freedom of expression and association”. Five United Nations (UN) special procedure mandate holders issued a joint statement noting their “dismay at the continuing abuse of anti-terrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression in Ethiopia”, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced alarm over the climate of intimidation created by the targeting of journalists on “overly broad” anti-terrorism charges.

Eskinder Nega an outspoken journalist and blogger who was sentenced to18 years imprisonment in July 2012

In a detailed opinion, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a diverse panel of five independent experts, specifically found Nega’s continued detention a violation of international law. In calling for his immediate release, the UN Working Group held that “the application of the overly broad offenses” against Nega as a consequence of his free expression rendered the detention arbitrary under international human rights standards.

When confronted about the scope and application of the Anti-Terror Proclamation, Ethiopian officials often claim that the offending language was simply pulled from the existing laws of countries like the United Kingdom (UK). However, a close examination reveals that while Ethiopia’s Anti-Terror Proclamation borrows some key phrases, it is significantly more expansive – and vague – than the statutes it purports to mirror.

The provision on “encouraging terrorism” is a glaring example. Article 6 of the Anti-Terror Proclamation provides that:

“[w]hosoever publishes or causes the publication of a statement that is likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission or preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism [is subject to between 10 and 20 years in prison].”

Compared with UK’s equivalent piece of legislation, the Ethiopian Anti-Terror Proclamation simply lifts an introductory paragraph while omitting the following seven sections that define and limit the law’s scope. Putting aside the question of whether British law even complies with international human rights standards, the omission of essential limiting provisions on intent, interpretation, and defences under the Anti-Terror Proclamation leaves the remaining language hollow and without any meaningful application.

When “encouragement of terrorism” is combined with the definition of “terrorist acts” under the Anti-Terror Proclamation, the potential for abuse becomes apparent. Tracking language found in the Organisation for African Unity’s Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism (Convention), Article 3 of the Anti-Terror Proclamation defines terrorism to include “caus[ing] serious interference or disruption of any public service”. Importantly, the Convention defines the intent to disrupt public services—along with intending to influence the government—as part of the mens rea (mental intent requirement). By contrast, Ethiopia’s Anti-Terror Proclamation retains the mens rea of intending to coerce the government, but treats disrupting social services as a component of the actus reus (physical act requirement). By treating the disruption of public services in this way, the Anti-Terror Proclamation significantly expands upon the Convention’s actus reus, which requires that a “terrorist act” physically threaten the safety of people or property. Even assuming, arguendo, that the intent requirement for “terrorist acts” implicitly applies to encouragement also, advocating for peaceful protests—which may be intended to influence policy but that in no way actually endangers people or property—may constitute “encouraging terrorism” under Ethiopian law.

This discussion of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation may seem semantic, but the result is painfully real for the journalists and activists who face imprisonment for exercising basic rights. It’s time to release them and amend the law.

About the Author:
Patrick Griffith holds a JD from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. (United States). He is a program attorney with Freedom Now, a legal advocacy organization that works to free prisoners of conscience and serves as international counsel to Mr Nega.

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18 Comments on “Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the right to freedom of expression”

  1. Seble says:

    I don’t know where you get your facts but if i were you I would research more on who Eskinder Nega truly is before I proclaim him as an individual with dignity and one who should be associated with freedom of expression and free speech. Read the News Paper Asquale which he used to be editor in chief. I am sad that the government didn’t arrest him for inciting genocide. I am so tired of western journalist thinking he is the face of freedom of expression in Ethiopia. He is not and he is an idiot who should rot in jail.

    • Selam says:

      Seble, by such reply , it shows you are anti-democratic and taken by the tribal thinking that meles has put in place for which you and your alike are naively boasting about! Meles was a criminal, a dictator in power for 21 years, who has implemented a racial governing body with TPLF (probably your ethnic group, if not you are one of the few eating the cake with them) …if you raise your voice to send your critics about Eskender a simple journalist, why are you so silent and blinded by meles atrocities? As an Ethiopian (which I doubt you are) you should advocate the voice of the millions terrorized by this bloody regime , in which one ethnic group , tigre is dominated, this is why all Ethiopians call it an Apartheid regime and what Eskender said is absolute truth and you all deserve to be punished for having destroying our nation, stealing it having a high level corrupted government in which HR are daily abused. You are what we call in our jargon , a blinded hater of those who stand for truth and the freedom of 90 millions Ethiopians. TPLF CANCER OF ETHIOPIA , Eskender is absolute right and we shall fight you till the end!

    • Truth-Teller says:

      @Seble, If I may ask, what lesson have you learned from the fall of Derg, Mubarek’s, Gadaffi, Ben Ali, Hassan??… if not that – genocide, dictatorship, marginalizing other ethnic groups, stifling freedom of expression, terrorizing your own people, thuggery, corruption, monopoly on media, telecom and banking, nepotism…. DOES NOT WORK!!!…. The good news for Ethiopians is that if you (and your masters) are scared of a SINGLE individual (Eskinder), it would NOT be hard to throw you all in a trash bag much easy (a dictators-trash bag – like we did to Derg)!! … A wise man once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” …… Speaking of “inciting genocide”, we’ll make sure you and every terrorist-member of this dictatorial regime will face our might of justice (INDEPENDENT justice) for genocide you committed in Ogaden region (that’s a REAL Genocide committed by thug-regime, not “inciting genocide”)…. Maybe now, my message might bring you back to reality!

  2. Hanna says:

    Ethiopia is a sovereign country governed by her own constitution and rule of law. How owners are the members of the European Parliament to dictate our government what it has to do?? Even Ethiopians were able to say at the time of colonization leave alone today,,,,,,,

  3. Argaw Kebede says:

    […] Posted: 30 August, 2013 | Author: AfricLaw | Filed under: Patrick Griffith | Tags: African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, anti-terrorism, Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, Article 19 of the ICCPR, Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, Eskinder Nega, Ethiopia, European Parliament, human rights, journalists, opposition activists, Organisation for African Unity, right to freedom of expression, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, United Kingdom, United Nations |2 Comments » […]

  4. Selam says:

    @Patrick Griffith it goes without saying we , Ethiopians need people like you to put pressure on this bloody regime who is dividing Ethiopians by religions and ethnical sensitivities. Tigre are nearly 5% ethnic group that are trying to cling in power by dividing the Ethiopians in a dangerous path…Had it not be by the patience of Ethiopians and call it if you wish the political maturity of Ethiopians, we would have ended like Rwanda and Burundi. But today Ethiopians are fed up and are rising: you can check yesterday article on BBC reporting the crackdown of the oppositions made by these gangs of corrupted tigre people , so quite frankly, Eskender became the voice of the millions, and we thank you for the effort you are organizing to pressure this facist government in Ethiopia down…we are millions of Eskender now and we will resist these merceneries of tigre woyane till Ethiopia is free. Any comments against Eskender you may receive will surely be the pen of a Tigre voice standing for its ethnic group (5 %) and not the voice of millions others like Oromo 42 % , Amhara 36 %, the majority group that tigre hate and are at work in genocide- ing right now as I write these lines. The real genocide is committed by meles zenawi tyrant and his party , watch this : https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=232718160154058&set=vb.100002476283648&type=2&theater
    A church (Saint Rouphael) is burned in South Ethiopia : Seble who is the genocider really? you better shut your mouth Seble, Also check this : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WSnAFTxStU
    at Seble : can you tell us who did these genocides of gambellas??

  5. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  6. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  7. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  8. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  9. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  10. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  11. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  12. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  13. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  14. […] Ethiopian government has long relied on the same arguments to defend its actions—falsely claiming that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation copies equivalent European standards. The […]

  15. […] use of overly broad national security laws to silence peaceful activists may seem like a surprising overreaction to […]


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