Freedom House plays fast and loose with the facts

Freedom House plays fast and loose with the facts

(Negash Mekuriya 12/06/13)

The American-based organization "Freedom House" recently released its "freedom on the net" report regarding Ethiopia. The latest report - just other reports by Freedom House - designates Ethiopia as "not free". The report is merely another version of the "Freedom in the World" report that the organization publishes annually. For decades, Freedom House has been designating nations as "free", "partially free" and "not free" based on the surveys it annually conducts using an ideologically loaded methodology. As usual, Freedom House's report reached at this conclusion based on an analysis full of factual and logical flaws. For example, the latest report claims:

"in July 2012, the criminal code was applied to digital communication under the Telecom Fraud Offences law for the first time."

This is a very dubious statement since the Telecom Fraud Offences legislation entered into force in October 2012. There is no way the legislation can be applied in July 2012 as Freedom House claimed. Similarly, Freedom House said in the report:

"the Telecom Fraud Offences law had placed bans on certain advanced communication applications, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)—including Skype and Google Voice—call back services, and internet-based fax services."

The inaccuracy of this statement can easily be observed by paying visits to internet cafes in any city of Ethiopia or by a careful reading of the legislation. In fact, at the time of the adoption of the legislation, the government has clearly stated its purpose and scope as follows:

"The Ethiopian Parliament approved the draft Proclamation on Telecom Fraud Offences as Proclamation 761/2012. The new legislation voids the previous prohibition on private use of VOIP services under the 2002 Telecom legislation which included Skype and Google Talk......the use of VOIP, including Skype and Google Talk and similar services was not banned."

Freedom House's report contains even more highly flawed statements. In an attempt to accuse the government of Ethiopia, the report says:

"the government maintains a strict system of controls over digital media..... Such a system is made possible by the state’s monopoly over the country’s only telecom company, Ethio Telecom.....Furthermore, the government’s ability to monitor online activity and intercept digital communications became more sophisticated with assistance from the Chinese government,"


This remark is flawed in several ways. Firstly, there is no crime in developing the technological capability to control the digital media, as long as it is exercised according to the law. (We will elaborate this point below). Secondly, despite what the remark would lead you to assume, even the United States implements a complex set of mechanisms to filter the internet. United States blocks not only terror-group affiliated websites but also entertainment websites to protect big corporations' interests. The reality in the United States is summarized by one website as follows:

“The Internet in the United States is highly regulated, supported by a complex set of legally binding and privately mediated mechanisms. The USA practices forceful seizures of domains, people and computers that it does not agree with many times without notification, causing the websites to be unable to continue operating, some high profile cases are Napster, Wikileaks, PirateBay, Defense Distributor (3D printed gun), MegaUpload.

Public dialogue, legislative debate, and judicial review have produced filtering strategies in the United States that are different from those found in most of the rest of the world. Many government-mandated attempts to regulate content have been barred on First Amendment grounds, often after lengthy legal battles. However, the government has been able to exert pressure indirectly where it cannot directly censor. With the exception of child pornography, content restrictions tend to rely more on the removal of content than blocking; most often these controls rely upon the involvement of private parties, backed by state encouragement or the threat of legal action.”

Given these facts, it is clear that the technological capability to control digital media exists in United States as well as China. Therefore, whether one acquires the technology from USA or China is a matter price and quality, nothing else. Freedom House's focus on China is nothing but a typical western uneasiness with the rise of China and its role in providing unconditional loans that are much needed for the developmental state path of Ethiopia. Indeed, the track record of China's telecom industry cannot be any worse than the Americans as revealed recently by the NSA surveillance scandal. Freedom House's report also makes a vague legal criticism. The report claimed:

"Constitutional provisions guarantee freedom of expression and media freedom in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, in recent years the government has adopted problematic laws that restrict free expression.  The Telecom Fraud Offences law extended the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and 2004 Criminal Code to electronic communications.....[It] established criminal liability for certain types of content communicated electronically."

Indeed the FDRE Constitution guarantees the right to privacy, but also provides the restrictions that can be imposed on it. Under Article 26 Right to Privacy, the Constitution declares:

26(3). Public officials shall respect and protect these rights. No restrictions may be placed on the enjoyment of such rights except in compelling circumstances and in accordance with specific laws whose purposes shall be the safeguarding of national security or public peace, the prevention of crimes or the protection of health, public morality or the rights and freedoms of others.

It is in line with this constitutional provision that Ethiopia has gradually increasing its technological capability and the legal framework to expand the access to and the supervision on digital media. One of these is Article 23 of Ethiopia's anti-terrorism legislation, which stipulates that “ or electronic evidences; evidences gathered through interception or surveillance or information obtained through interception conducted by foreign law enforcement bodies; and confession of a suspect of terrorism in writing, voice recording, videocassette or recorded in any mechanical or electronic device” shall be admissible in court for terrorism cases.

However, the legislation clearly and strictly prescribes that any police search should be supported by court warrant. In fact, the legislation placed a number of restrictions on how a warrant might be given and the manner of its execution. Under Article 18, the legislation provides:

18.1) The court on the basis of the information presented to it by the applicant, may give covert search warrant by having into consideration: a) the nature or gravity of the terrorist act or the suspected terrorist act; and b) the extent to which the measures to be taken in accordance with the warrant would assist to prevent the act of terrorism or arrest the suspect.

18.2) A warrant issued in accordance with this Article shall specify: a) the address of any premise to which the warrant relates, and the names of the occupiers, if known; b) the maximum duration being 30 days, the period during which the warrant is valid and the date on which the warrant is issued; and c) if necessary, the type or description of evidences to be searched for and seized.

It should be noted that these evidentiary rules are not only constitutional but also similar to those found in the laws of Germany, Italy and Norway. For example, in Germany, intelligence is admissible as evidence in connection with a defined list of serious crimes, including terrorist activities. Under Italian laws, the police and other investigating authorities the powers to conduct the interception of communications. Norway's legislations permit for police surveillance (including electronic and technical measures) of individuals if there are good grounds for believing a terrorist act is being prepared.

Puzzlingly, Freedom House gives no credited for the government despite the exponential growth of telecom services. To the contrary, the report claimed:

"Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration in the world, as meager infrastructure, a government monopoly over the telecom sector, and obstructive telecom policies have notably hindered the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the country.....access to ICTs in Ethiopia remained extremely limited and hampered by slow speeds and the state’s tight grip on the telecom sector."

One may ask how a government that invests as much as 10% of the GDP on telecom could be said to have "hindered the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the country"?

As everyone knows, Ethiopia has been undergoing a breath-taking expansion of telecom services and infrastructures for more than a decade. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet subscription grew by thousands percent each year since year 2000. As far back as, the government set ambitious targets; like, enabling every Ethiopian access telecommunication services within 5 km of her residence, increasing Tele-density for fixed line by fivefold and Tele-density for mobile by fifteen-fold, expanding the number of Internet users by more than eleven fold as well as providing 15,000 (almost all then existing) Kebeles with at least five telephones lines.

Most of the targets were met by 2010, while over-performance was reported in some areas. As a result, as of June 2012, the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at 17 million (from about 5 mil. in 2011) and the number of internet service users reached 2.5 million (from 100,000 in 2011), according to the data from the relevant Ministry. This clearly demonstrates the government's commitment to expand the access and use of telecom services. Do we expect such extensive investment from a government that wants to "hinder the growth of information and communication technologies"?

However, for a poor country like Ethiopia, this kind of huge expansion cannot succeed without hitches and glitches here and there. The biggest challenge comes from overload of servers and network transmitters, besides vandalism on fiber optic lines. In yet another typical ideologically biased statement, Freedom House's report says:

"Government investments in expanding access to remote areas of the country were found to be associated with political motives....., the government has sought to increase access for government offices and schools in rural areas via satellite links.....the projects have increased the ubiquity of the state as both a service provider and political entity across the country."

It should not be overlooked that the Ethiopian ruling party, EPRDF, had long known and promoted the dynamic role of telecommunication technologies. The expansion of telephone services in the rural areas were hoped to deliver much more than faster exchange of market information for farmers. Indeed, it was with the explicit objective of expediting public mobilization for development and entrenching participatory democracy that the government launched major ICT projects in 2005; such as, among many, the School Net (to connect 600+ high schools); the Woreda-Net (to connect 600 Woredas) and the HER Net (for higher education institutions). All overseen by Ministerial level steering committees.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to anticipate that these telecom facilities will empower the mass, thereby enhancing its ability to assert its rights and make demands. And, the government not only anticipated that prospect but also wished to make it a reality as empowering the mass is the underpinning of the developmental state paradigm. Of course, for an advocate of the neoliberal paradigm who wishes to see a weak state where big business plays the major political and economic role, this situation could be seen as a bad thing that "increased the ubiquity of the state" - as Freedom House's report remarked.

There are several more factual and analytical flaws in the report that we didn't cover here due to space and time limitations.  Nonetheless, it is important to note that these flaws are not accidental rather a natural outcome of a methodological problem that arose from ideological bias.

The ideological bias of Freedom House's methodology could be observed from the factual and logical flaws that we presented above. But, for the sake of clarity we shall quote from a blog post by a blogger in Ethiopia (Daniel Berhane) that expounds the matter in depth:

Freedom House claims not to have ‘a culture-bound view of freedom’. Yet, it admits that the countries labeled as ‘free’ are those that qualify as a ‘liberal democracy’.

It should be noted that democracy and Liberal democracy are not synonymous, as the later goes beyond the minimal democratic principle of ‘majority rule and minority respected’ and attaches ‘a particular catalogue of social, political, economic, and religious rights’ into the concept of democracy. Indeed, Freedom House is often criticized as too rightist, due to its inclination to classical liberal notions.

Freedom House's assessment of political rights is more concerned with assessing institutional features of democracy rather than participativeness, responsiveness and public perception of its legitimacy, and similar features. Perhaps, that may be in part due to an ideological presupposition that representative democracy can deliver those features regardless of socio-economic differences across nations. The underlying assumption that liberalism is the highest form of political organization is unmistakable.

Indeed, the yardsticks employed by Freedom House are found on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it claims, but those are not all the rights listed thereon. Freedom House uses only those rights known as ‘negative rights’ (freedom from); that is, prohibitions on the power of the state to restrain or dictate the actions of individuals.

The problem is that the ‘negative rights’ cannot be fully realized without the attainment of the enabling conditions. Those enabling conditions, also known as ‘positive rights’, are also listed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – including right to education, right to a healthy life, equality of genders, right to social security, right to work.

They are considered positive terms (“rights to”) because they require more the intervention than the abstention of the state for assuring the equitable production and distribution of the values or capabilities involved.

Apparently, Freedom House’s choosing to focus on ‘negative rights’ is resultant of its inclination towards the Anglo-American variant of liberal democracy that is largely based on classical liberal principles.

Finally, we shall conclude this article reminding readers that while Ethiopia is not perfect, it recognizes the importance of citizens having unrestricted access to information in order to make informed decision that affect their daily lives and their long-term interests, as Prime Minister Hailemariam underlined last month. In this regard, the Prime Minister elaborated:

"Ethiopia’s  policy towards the media  as embodied in the Information Act envisages nothing less than all round rapid effort to establish good governance, grass roots empowerment, decentralization of much of the authority for policy making to lower local self-administrative units and create rapid sustainable development."  It was “an integral component of all the important strategic goals aimed at cementing the values of free thinking, rule of law, culture of transparency and the creation of a national consensus on all that unites our society."

"the Government recognized the value and importance of popular participation, the presence of a diligent civil society, and an active and vibrant media that provides accurate, relevant and timely information to the public and promotes uninhibited public dialogue and discussion, as well as an a free flow of information that contributes to the success and fruition of its media policy.

However, as the Prime Minister highlighted “there is always room for improvement and as a developing country, we are open to suggestions on improving our media industry”.

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