As it launched cross-border attacks in support of a shaky transitional government in Somalia, Addis Ababa maintained a repressive media climate at home by jailing some journalists, intimidating other reporters, and forcing still others into exile. CPJ’s annual census found 18 journalists jailed for their work in Ethiopia, at least 15 of whom were on trial for antistate crimes that could carry the death penalty. Government actions led to the banning of at least eight newspapers that once published in the capital. Self-censorship was rife among those still publishing. The government expelled two foreign reporters, including a longtime Associated Press correspondent, and it moved to block critical Web sites.
The government’s offensive against the independent press, which began in late 2005, prompted CPJ to send a delegation to Addis Ababa in March. In a meeting with CPJ, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused the jailed journalists of trying to stage a violent insurrection to overthrow the government in the wake of the controversial May 2005 elections. Jailed journalists whom CPJ was allowed to meet denied the charges, saying they were doing their jobs in questioning government actions.
The journalists were charged along with dozens of opposition leaders as part of an alleged antistate conspiracy. Their joint trial, which began in February, was expected to last many months or years. Charges against the journalists included “outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order.” They were also charged with “genocide,” a count later changed to “attempted genocide.” The government alleged that their writing had harmed members of the ruling EPRDF party and the Tigrayan ethnic group that forms its base. Most of the accused did not offer a defense, saying the trial was politicized and the court biased against them.
CPJ questioned the government’s case in a special report in April, “Poison, Politics, and the Press,” in which it reviewed 12 of 20 articles cited by the government as evidence. While the editorials were antigovernment, some harshly so, none called for violence and none made reference to ethnic aggression. CPJ found no evidence to support the prosecution’s contention that the pieces were intended to provoke acts of violence or genocide.
CPJ and human rights groups have raised concerns about the treatment of some of the prisoners, including journalists Eskinder Nega and Sisay Agena. The two were separated from the other prisoners during the August/September court recess and subjected to abuse, according to several CPJ sources. They were not told why they had been moved from Kality to Karchelle Prison, which is known for its harsh conditions, the sources said. CPJ wrote to Zenawi in August expressing deep concern. CPJ sources said the journalists’ conditions had improved somewhat by the time their trial resumed in October.
Other journalists continued to be charged, harassed, and imprisoned under the country’s repressive 1992 Press Law, often on allegations that dated back several years. The actions came despite Zenawi’s assurances to CPJ that prosecution of years-old Press Law charges was against government policy and that his administration would review its handling of the cases. At least three journalists sentenced under the Press Law remained in jail when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.
The Press Law lays down criminal penalties for offenses such as publishing what the government deems to be false information or news that “defames” state institutions. Press Law reform has been a longstanding point of contention between the government and the private press. Zenawi told CPJ in March that the Press Law would be reviewed by international advisers to ensure it met international standards. At the government’s request, donors financed a comparative study of media laws in various countries, which was submitted to parliament for deliberation. Yet for all that, the future of the long-promised reform remained unclear.
CPJ expressed concern about another journalist, Goshu Moges, who was imprisoned in a February “antiterrorism” sweep along with a lawyer who had offered pro bono services to imprisoned journalists. CPJ sought details of the evidence against Moges, but the government did not respond. His arrest followed the first in a series of small explosions in Addis Ababa that the government blamed on Eritrea and antigovernment forces. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. Border tensions persisted between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a bitter war over their frontier from 1999 to 2001. In December, Addis Ababa cited national security concerns in launching an all-out offensive that pushed the Islamic Courts Union from power in neighboring Somalia and restored a U.N.-backed transitional government.
The government continued to target foreign radio services broadcasting into Ethiopia, including the U.S.-based Voice of America (VOA) and critical Web sites run by exiled Ethiopians. More than a dozen exiled journalists working for media outlets abroad were charged in absentia in a late 2005 crackdown; cases against five VOA journalists and one other U.S.-based reporter were later dropped. Ethiopian authorities denied press reports that they were responding to U.S. government pressure.
In January, the government expelled AP correspondent Anthony Mitchell and accused him of “tarnishing the image of the nation” and “disseminating information far from the truth about Ethiopia.” Ethiopian authorities disclosed no supporting evidence for the accusations. Mitchell had reported in Ethiopia for AP and the United Nations news agency IRIN for several years, and he was widely respected for his independent journalism. His expulsion was seen as a major blow to the press corps.
With most private media outlets cowed or silenced, independent Ethiopian journalists turned increasingly to the Internet, according to CPJ sources. In May, sources confirmed that Web sites critical of the government were being blocked, although Information Minister Berhan Hailu denied that the government had taken such action. Sites run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora, including the well-known Ethiopian Review, were among those blocked. Elias Kifle, publisher of Ethiopian Review, was charged in absentia with treason in late 2005, and an Addis Ababa correspondent for the site was imprisoned for six weeks in early 2006 before being released without charge.