May 6, 2020

Freedom of speech at risk in Ethiopia amid COVID-19-related restrictions – Rights group

Ethiopian authorities have been using the COVID-19 outbreak and a state of emergency declared on April 8, as a pretext to silence critical voices and limit free speech, according to a prominent rights watchdog.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this in a statement on Wednesday.

“A new state of emergency declared on April 8, 2020, gives the government sweeping powers to respond to the pandemic, heightening concerns of further arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of journalists and government critics,” the group said. In particular, HRW cited the detention of Elizabeth Kebede, a volunteer lawyer with the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association, one of the leading women’s rights groups in the country, who is accused of “disseminating false news in Facebook posts.”

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In addition, the watchdog urged the Ethiopian authorities to drop charges against Yayesew Shimelis, a journalist who criticised the government’s response to COVID-19 outbreak on social media, who is accused of violating anti-terrorism law.

“The authorities should drop charges against Yayesew Shimelis, release Elizabeth Kebede, and stop detaining people for peacefully expressing their views,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at HRW, said, as quoted in the statement.

Ethiopia has so far confirmed 145 COVID-19 cases and four coronavirus-related fatalities.

On March 16, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the first anti-coronavirus measures, which included a call on “media institutions to deliver accurate information to the public.”