Government has taken steps to stifle free expression, persecute writers and activists including PEN America’s 2012 Freedom to Write Honoree Eskinder Nega


(New York, NY) — PEN America is concerned by the Ethiopian government’s repressive actions in response to individuals engaging in peaceful assembly, news reporting, and the expression of opinions online. These events in recent months have set into motion further measures restricting the press and other outlets for free expression.  

On June 29, Oromo musician and public figure Hachalu Hundessa was shot and killed in Addis Ababa, and his death sparked widespread public demonstrations across the Oromia region. The government shut down internet access shortly after Hundessa’s murder, severing communication and information-sharing. After nearly a week of demonstrations mourning Hundessa’s death, some reports say that police arrested over 9,000 people, including journalists, media figures, activists, and opposition leaders. On July 1, PEN America’s 2012 Freedom to Write honoree, journalist, and founder of the political party Baladera for Genuine Democracy Eskinder Nega, was physically assaulted, arrested, and detained, allegedly for attempting to incite violence during the protest. Prosecutors filed terrorism charges against Eskinder on September 10 after holding him in detention for more than two months. The court transferred him to the same prison cell in Kaliti where he previously spent over six years in jail for his journalism.

“Ethiopian authorities’ dual strategies of internet shutdowns and mass arrests are an unacceptable response to political grievances that only serve to suppress the Ethiopian people’s voices,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs. “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has presented himself as a reformer, but a democratic political process encompasses dissent and debate and cannot be answered with internet bans and prison cells. We implore Prime Minister Ahmed to protect press freedom, encourage the free exchange of opinions and information on- and offline, and release unjustly detained journalists and demonstrators.”

In August, some 200 miles south of Addis Ababa, federal security forces ordered renowned community radio station Wogeta FM 96.6 to “cease broadcasting and evacuate the premises and stay away,” according to the station’s manager. The Wolaita Zone locality was another site of sustained protest against opposition leaders and activists during which authorities reportedly again cut off internet access. In September, security officials barred four journalists from flying to Tigray and confiscated their phones and devices in an apparent attempt to prevent coverage of the region’s elections. Several journalists from Oromia Media Network, run by detained opposition leader Jawar Mohammed, have been in custody since the assassination of singer-songwriter Hundessa.

Free expression in Ethiopia demonstrated promise at the start of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s term in April 2018. He included press freedom and free expression as key reforms, and granted amnesty to political prisoners; however, these promises of reform have now stalled and reversed. Journalists have seen increased criminalization of their work, often imprisoned under terrorism or anti-state charges. In February 2020, nearly 300 legislators voted in favor to pass a bill punishing hate speech and disinformation over social media with fines and prison sentences. The overly broad and vague definitions of  ‘hate speech’ and ‘disinformation’ make the law open to arbitrary use and abuse by the authorities.