The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by the recent jailing of Melese Shine, editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop. Another journalist, Tewodros Kassa, the former editor-in-chief of Ethiop, has been imprisoned since May 2002.
Shine was charged with defamation under Ethiopia's Press Proclamation No. 34/1992 after a letter to the editor published in Ethiop in November 2001 alleged that Melkamu Gettu, the administrator of the state-owned Ras Desta Hospital in the capital, Addis Ababa, had embezzled hospital funds.
In an April 29 court hearing, the public prosecutor requested that Shine be denied bail because the journalist had violated the Press Law several times. The court refused to rule on Shine's bail request that day and ordered him to remain in custody until a verdict on his bail is rendered—a decision that local sources say is highly unusual. Journalists in Addis Ababa expressed shock that a press offense could result in the denial of bail, a ruling usually reserved for the most serious crimes. Shine has been jailed in the Addis Ababa Prison Center since April 29. His next bail hearing is scheduled for May 27.
Meanwhile, Tewodros Kassa has been languishing in prison since May 2002. He was convicted on July 7, 2002, on two counts of violating the Press Proclamation. The first charge, "disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence," stemmed from two stories: One reported that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had installed party supporters in positions at an air force base; the other reported on a failed bomb plot in Addis Ababa. The second charge, defamation, resulted from an article alleging connections between a private investment company and the EPRDF government. Kassa was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.
In addition, another Ethiop journalist was briefly jailed last week. Deputy editor-in-chief Wosonseged Gebrekidan was charged with defamation after a May 2002 letter to the editor in Ethiop criticized Habtemariam Seyoum, a former Ethiopian ambassador to France. Gebrekidan appeared before an Addis Ababa court on May 14 and was jailed because he was unable to pay 2,000 birr ($US240) bail. He was released on May 16 after fellow journalists secured his bail.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, we believe that the prosecution and imprisonment of these journalists is designed to silence critical reporting on matters of legitimate public concern. Journalists should never be imprisoned for fulfilling their professional duties.
The continuing criminal prosecution of journalists in Ethiopia is especially disconcerting at a time when the government is in the process of drafting a new press law. Early drafts of the law show no signs of greater conformity to international press freedom standards and instead maintain harsh criminal penalties for press offenses and allow the government broad powers of censorship.
We call on Your Excellency to do everything in your power to see that Melese Shine and Tewodros Kassa are immediately released from prison, and that the criminal cases against them are dropped. We also urge you to work toward decriminalizing all press offenses and to allow Ethiopian journalists to practice their profession freely, without fear of state censorship or reprisals.
Thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.