C1: Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?
The law formally guarantees fundamental freedoms for Ethiopian internet users, but these rights have been routinely flouted in practice. The 1995 constitution provides for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and access to information, while also prohibiting censorship.
In April 2021, the Media Proclamation, which reformed media laws in the country, entered into effect. The new law, which Prime Minister Abiy has linked to supporting freedom of expression and press freedom, allows for partial foreign ownership of media companies and decriminalizes defamation. The 2008 Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, known as the press law, also affirms constitutional safeguards on fundamental rights. The Media Proclamation repealed problematic provisions of the 2008 law that restricted free expression, such as complex registration processes for media outlets and high fines for defamation. The criminal code previously penalized defamation with a fine or up to one year in prison.
In November 2020, the Council of Ministers declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray. A task force formed to execute the state of emergency was granted broad powers to curtail rights, including by cutting off communication infrastructure to Tigray; such actions sharply restrict access to information and freedom of expression online. In previous years, the government imposed states of emergency multiple times to halt protests in Oromia and Amhara.
In April 2020, during the previous coverage period, the government declared a five-month state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the declaration, the Council of Ministers gazetted state-of-emergency regulations that significantly curtailed the rights of Ethiopians, including a provision that prohibited the dissemination of “any information about COVID-19 and related issues which would cause terror and undue distress among the public.” The regulations further obligated media outlets and professionals to ensure their reporting on COVID-19 is “without exaggeration, appropriate, and not prone to cause panic and terror among the public.” Article 93 of the constitution permits the government to suspend the “political and democratic rights” upheld by the constitution when a state of emergency is declared.
The judiciary is officially independent, but in practice, it is subject to political interference, and judgments rarely deviate from government policy.
C2: Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards?
Several laws designed to restrict and penalize legitimate online activities remain in place from the previous government, and a new law was passed during the previous coverage period.
In February 2020, the Ethiopian government enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation, a law intended to combat online disinformation and speech that “deliberately promotes hatred, discrimination, or attack against a person.” The law criminalizes posting or sharing content on social media that authorities determine to cause violence or disturbance of public order. Violating the law carries fines of up to 100,000 birr ($2,700) or up to five years’ imprisonment, with the steepest penalties for people with more than 5,000 followers. The law does not carry penalties for tagging such content.
Activists, civil society organizations, and the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression criticized the law for profoundly chilling free expression in Ethiopia.
The 2016 Computer Crime Proclamation also criminalized an array of online activities. Civil society activists expressed concern that the law would be used to intensify a crackdown on critical commentary, political opposition, and public protest. For example, content that “incites fear, violence, chaos, or conflict among people” can be punished with up to three years in prison. Other problematic provisions ban the dissemination of defamatory content, which can be penalized with up to 10 years in prison, and the distribution of unsolicited messages to multiple email addresses (spam), which carries up to five years in prison.
The 2012 Telecom Fraud Offences Proclamation extended the violations and penalties defined in the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the criminal code to electronic communications, including both fixed-line and mobile internet services. The antiterrorism legislation, which was repealed in January 2020, prescribed prison sentences of up to 20 years for the publication of statements that can be understood as a direct or indirect encouragement of terrorism, which is itself vaguely defined. The law also banned VoIP services such as Skype and required all individuals to register their telecommunications equipment—including smartphones—with the government. Security officials typically enforced that rule at checkpoints by confiscating ICT equipment from people unable to produce a registration permit, according to sources within the country.