The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today called on the authorities in Ethiopia to stop the legal harassment of journalist Yayesew Shimelis and to guarantee freedom of expression and press freedom in the country.

Shimelis, who works as an independent journalist and has a program called Ethio Forum that airs on Tigray TV, has been repeatedly harassed by the police. Most recently, he was detained on March 27  after he published information on his Facebook page about the government’s alleged preparation of 200,000 burial plots for those killed by the Covid-19 virus. His Facebook page was taken down for a short period of time, and Shimelis took to Twitter to issue an apology over any alarm he might have raised. He was arrested a day later after he tweeted the apology.

Shimelis was initially charged under anti-terror law but later the charges were amended to those under a controversial new hate speech law. Shimel’s lawyer told IPI that what followed was a series of court hearings, appeals from the police to the courts for additional time for investigations, unwillingness to release him on bail, and delays due to unsigned paperwork. Shimelis was finally released on bail on April 23. A court hearing was scheduled for May 15 but it was rescheduled for June 11 by a notice on that date and, according to the lawyer, no reason was given for the postponement. The police kept him detained for a total of 27 days despite numerous court orders to release him on bail.

According to Shimelis’s lawyer, the journalist is facing charges that carry fines of up to around 3,000 euros and four years of imprisonment. The charges are filed under a new hate speech that punishes the sharing or creating of social media posts that are considered to result in violence or disturbance of public order. The law was published only four days before Shimelis’ initial arrest and has been criticized for its vagueness and potential to constrict freedom of speech in the country. He is believed to be the first and so far the only journalist to be face charges under the new law.

Problematic new hate speech law

Yared Hailemariam, coordinator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, told IPI the hate speech law stemmed from what he said was legitimate concern over the ethnic and religious divisions and tension in the country. Social media had been used by instigators to spread false news to incite ethnic discord, in some cases leading to violence.

“For the last two years, those tensions have increased and there was pressure from both the public and the civic organizations to control hate speech and fake news. The problem is that we have no independent judiciary system or police force, so the law is being manipulated at the local level by administrators to silence dissenters”, Hailemariam  told IPI, “This has led to people worrying about what they can and cannot say, because they do not know what will be interpreted as hate speech.”

The return of the bad old ways?

Despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and the first 100 days of his rule seeing steps to improve media freedom in the country, progress appears to have stalled. Though the prime minister opened up the country’s media landscape by, among other things, allowing previously banned news sites and blogs to operate once again, and released many journalists and bloggers from prison, the current situation has seen these advances in press freedom being partly stalled by crackdowns and harassment of the media professionals on the local level.

According to Hailemariam, the biggest threats for freedom of expression stem from structures and actors still in place even after the change in the head of government. 

“A political will exists at the top to improve the situation regarding media freedom and freedom of expression. But at the local level those people who were in power for the last 27 years are still in place. These local administrations use all kinds of laws, like the criminal code and the hate speech law, to harass journalists and others”, Hailemariam said.

The president announced a state of emergency for the country in early April, a measure that has in the past been used to excessively curtail civil liberties and human rights. Complicating things is the fact that the pandemic has also put the nation’s elections, originally scheduled for August, on hold. The decision was made by the electoral board in late March amidst concerns that the postponement may heighten the tensions that run on ethnic and political lines within the country.

“The country is now facing a constitutional crisis because of the postponement, as the constitution does not have a provision in place for this kind of an emergency”, Hailemariam explained. “The mandates for the parliament and the government run out in June and September respectively, so the prime minister has proposed extending the state of emergency until February or even longer, or to amend the constitution. However, these measures have been denounced by members of the opposition, parts of which want to establish a transitional government after the mandates expire.”