Freedom of Expression in Ethiopia: The Jurisprudential Dearth

Author:Gedion Timothewos
Position:LL.B (AAU), LL.M (CEU); Addis Ababa University School of Law, Currently on study leave: PhD student, Central European University
Gedion Timothewos
It is almost a decade and half since freedom of expression has been proclaimed
as one of the fundamental rights and freedoms recognized in the FDRE
Constitution. However, there is hardly any Ethiopian jurisprudence on freedom
of expression to speak of at the moment. Although numerous cases (that clearly
gave rise to issues implicating freedom of expression) have been entertained in
our courts, we have yet to develop a body of standards, tests and doctrines
pertaining to the scope, content and legitimate limitations of freedom of
expression. This void of constitutional jurisprudence can indeed undermine
freedom of expression.
Key words:
Freedom of Expression, FDRE Constitution, Ethiopia
Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the
FDRE Constitution. Nevertheless, as is the case for most of the rights
recognized in this Constitution, there is still no corpus of academic exposition
and judicial doctrine developed to elucidate on such matters as the scope,
content and limitations of freedom of expression. This article is not meant to fill
this void. Rather, it is meant to establish the existence of this void, to explore its
causes and possible implications.
The article starts with a brief overview of the traditional theoretical basis of
freedom of expression. That will be followed by a cursory discussion of
freedom of expression as provided under the FDRE Constitution. Then, some
critical questions that might arise in relation to freedom of expression are
discussed. The author argues that no authoritative answer has been given to
these questions in the Ethiopian legal system and, as a result, there is a dearth of
jurisprudence regarding freedom of expression in Ethiopia. An attempt is made
to explore the cause for this jurisprudential dearth and some of its implications.
LL.B (AAU), LL.M (CEU); Addis Ababa University School of Law, Currently on
study leave: PhD student, Central European University
202 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 4 No.2, Autumn 2010
1. Theoretical Basis of Freedom of Expression
Although not central to the principal objective of this article, which is to show
the jurisprudential wasteland that freedom of expression has become in
Ethiopia, in order to underscore the importance of the right, it would be helpful
to explore the theoretical bases and underpinnings of freedom of expression. To
this end, the main justifications that are often forwarded to establish the need to
recognize and protect freedom of expression1 need to be highlighted.
1.1- Freedom of Expression as a Prerequisite for the Search
for Truth
One of the earliest and better known defenses of freedom of expression was
presented by John Milton who wrote a pamphlet, titled Areopagitica in 1644,
decrying a scheme of licensing publications (a system of censorship) introduced
in England at the time. Depicting the system of imprimatur as a peculiar evil of
the prelacy (playing on the anti-catholic sentiments that were prevalent in
England then), unheard of in classical Greece and Rome and without support in
Christian theology, Milton defended freedom of expression as a prerequisite for
the already discovered truth to thrive and for undiscovered truth to be
discovered. He argued that censorship will be “primely to the discouragement of
all learning, and the stop of truth, not only by the disexercising and blunting our
abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery
that might be yet further made both in religious and civil wisdom.”2
This line of argument that defends freedom of expression as being a
necessary precondition in the search for truth has been further developed by the
utilitarian J.S Mill in his famous essay on ‘Liberty’. Mill argued that without
freedom of expression we might be deprived of the opportunity to learn the truth
if we have not discovered it yet, and we cannot perfect our partial knowledge of
the truth we have learnt, or will not have the opportunity to have a clearer
1 One should bear in mind that there is an extensive body of literature on this subject,
particularly emerging form the U.S and historically from English political
philosophers of the enlightenment period. A review of this literature and its
significance and relevance to Ethiopia merits a separate article. For a concise and up
to date discussion of the theoretical justifications of free speech See, Eric
Brandt(2005), Freedom of Speech, Second Edition, (Oxford University Press), pp 7-
23, See also Alan Haworth, Free Speech, Routledge 1998.
2 John Milton(1644,) Areopagitica, (The Harvard Classics. 1909–14), available at
, last accessed on October 29, 2010.

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