Ethiopia has passed a new media law that bans censorship of private media and the detention of journalists, but which critics say maintains other threats to free expression.
"Under the new law, previous restrictions against private media outlets, such as detention of journalists suspected of infringement of the law, has been scrapped," a Parliament statement said.
But opposition members say the law, passed on 1 July, still allows state prosecutors to invoke national security as grounds for impounding publishing materials prior to publication and distribution.
Opposition Parliamentarian Temesgen Zewede told reporters, "Although censorship is abolished, such a right to impound press material before distribution is tantamount to censorship."
The government is also planning to impose strict controls and "draconian" criminal penalties on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a separate law, say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Ethiopia says the draft law on charities and societies is a way for NGOs to be financially transparent and accountable to their stakeholders. But Human Rights Watch says the government's intent is "to consolidate that trend by taking the 'non' out of 'non-governmental' and putting civil society under government control."
For example, the draft law imposes stiff criminal penalties for anyone participating in "unlawful" civil society activity - jail time for participating in a meeting held by an unlawful organisation or disseminating the organisation's information.
Who decides which NGOs are lawful? The government of course - the bill calls for a Charities and Society Agency with extensive powers to license NGOs, monitor their activities and interfere in their management and staffing, says Human Rights Watch.
Plus, all non-Ethiopian NGOs are not allowed to carry out work related to human rights - making it difficult for IFEX members to report free expression violations or engage in human rights activities in the country. Meanwhile, Ethiopian rights NGOs that get more than 10 percent of funding from foreign sources would be considered foreign and would also be closed down.
"The law's key provisions are blunt and heavy-handed mechanisms to control and monitor civil society groups while punishing those whose work displeases the government," say Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. "It could also seriously restrict much of the development-related work currently being carried out by some of Ethiopia's key international partners."
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are calling on donor governments, especially Ethiopia's biggest donors, the United States and the United Kingdom, to speak out publicly against the criminalisation of human rights work in Ethiopia.
"Their policy of silence has had the effect of helping to embolden the Ethiopian government to make further assaults on human rights, exemplified by the draft NGO law," says Human Rights Watch.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, once considered a pioneer of democracy in Africa, had seen his reputation wane since post-election violence that killed 200 people in 2005. Journalists and opposition members viewed as sympathetic to the protesters were then arrested and charged with treason, and now formal political opposition has become nearly extinct in most of the country.

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at1:35 AM


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