A 30-second call using Skype in Ethiopia can now land you a 15-year prison sentence, the latest in a series of draconian measures limiting freedom of speech in this nation. What does this mean for its people and future?
A new Ethiopian legislation will see citizens who use an illegal phone service face up to 15 years in jail and heavy fines for the use of all Voice Over IP (VoIP) services, such Skype or Google Voice. The legislation, which was voted into law last month with little notice from international media, seems to close a loop hole allowing some of its citizens to communicate without being monitored by authorities.
State-owned Ethio Telecom is now empowered to not only prohibit the use of VoIP services, but also video chatting, social media communication, e-mail usage, and any other data transfer service capable of communicating information.
This is the latest in a series of actions that, presented with a ‘security threat management’ veil, seek to limit Ethiopians from free and fair speech.
Independent publishers and media members say the country’s very broad 2009 anti-terrorism law has had a “chilling” effect on press freedom in the private media sector. The law allows lengthy prison sentences for reporting that gives encouragement to groups the government labels terrorists. Ethiopian officials say the law is not an instrument for censorship or to attack press freedom, but rather is used to help Ethiopians enjoy their constitutional rights.
However, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently tabled a discussion on what it calls repressive and harsh treatment of the media with high-ranking members of Ethiopia’s government, using the law to jail journalists supposedly critical of the government and human rights in Ethiopia.
CJPs says authorities are holding three Ethiopian journalists and two Swedish journalists on on “trumped-up” terrorism charges and anti-government plots. All the journalists have denied wrongdoing.
Last month, Voice Of America News Correspondent Peter Heinlein was arrested and held overnight in Addis Ababa on charges of “illegal reporting”.
‘Free Eskinder Nega”
Described as one of Ethiopia’s key voices representing the push for democracy, Ethiopian blogger and journalist Eskinder Nega, is currently facing a life sentence. Just prior to his detention, Eskinder had published an online column critical of the use of the terrorism law to silence dissent and calling for the Ethiopian government to respect freedom of expression and end torture in the country’s prisons. For his work, Eskinder was awarded the PEN American Center Freedom to Write/Barbara Goldsmith award in May 2012. In effect, it’s a tragedy to have a selfless voice like his silenced.
Board members from the CJP and the Africa Media Initiative met in mid June 2012 with a senior figure in the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, calling for the release of journalists being held in the country.
So far the government has expressed some level of openness to listening to the CJP and AMI, who also hope to host seminars and workshops in hopes of strengthening the country’s independent media.
While Ethiopian authorities claim the drastic measures called for under the new law are necessary to protect against security threats, the key issue is that without a free press, Ethiopia’s poverty stricken economy may not get the traction it needs to grow further, its people will become locked within a nanny state society and more importantly the lack of information flow between the nation’s 85 million people will limit their development, expression and self-empowerment.
“Freedom is partial to no race. Freedom has no religion. Freedom favors no ethnicity. Freedom discriminates not between rich and poor countries. Inevitably freedom will overwhelm Ethiopia.” - Eskinder Nega, Sept. 9, 2011, five days before his arrest.
Watch the video below for more background on Eskinder Nega and his work: