Attacks on the Press 1999: Ethiopia

In past years, Ethiopia has had one of the worst records for imprisoning journalists in Africa. At one point in 1998, about two dozen journalists were in prison, many for criticizing the government’s close relationship with Eritrea. But that number dropped by about half after the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted in May 1998. At the end of 1999, eight journalists were in jail–the fewest in many years.

Some Ethiopian journalists claim that relations between government and the independent press have improved. Certain newspapers have been given access to parliamentary proceedings, and some journalists have been invited to the war front. Others disagree, arguing that in reality the government rarely allows access to the battlefront, and then only to selected government journalists, foreign journalists, and Ethiopian stringers for foreign news outlets. All war correspondents are heavily “minded,” and most are very cautious about what they write.

In both government and private media, official war propaganda prevails. “There [has been] a sort of cease-fire between the government and the private press since the start of the war,” said one independent journalist. “They are using us as weapons against the Eritreans, and we are letting them. It is not for our sake that they are becoming more liberal, but for their own.”

According to CPJ sources in Ethiopia, some of the eight journalists in prison at the end of 1999 may have been activists of the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed opposition group. But it was clear that many journalists continued to be arrested and detained on spurious charges, or no charges at all, often with prohibitive bail.

In addition to maintaining the draconian 1992 press law, the Ethiopian government introduced a draft broadcasting law at the end of 1998 that would privatize broadcasting for the first time in Ethiopian history. Parliament passed the bill in 1999, but the final version had still not been made public by the end of the year. It seemed unlikely that it would take effect before the May 2000 general elections.

The first draft of the bill barred foreigners, political parties, and religious organizations from receiving broadcast licenses. Other troublesome provisions in the draft bill included a rule stipulating that broadcast programs could not “violate the dignity and liberty of mankind, the rules of good behavior, or undermine the belief of others.” Moreover, journalists were forbidden to “commit a criminal offense on the security of the state, the constitutionally established government administration, or on the defense force of the country.”

But since the final version had not been published, it was impossible to know whether these provisions remained intact in the version approved by Parliament.

In the first week in December, the Ethiopian Ministry of Information and Culture suspended the publishing licenses of 12 private newspapers for not having the sum of 10,000 birrs (about US$1,250) in their bank accounts. According to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, the newspapers affected were Genanaw, Meyisaw, Tarik, Zeggabi, Kiker, Atlanta, Cantona, Fiker, Kal Kidane, Madonna, Rite, and Hikma.

Independent sources in Ethiopia said that although this action violated the 1992 press law and the Ethiopian constitution, it was in fact a licensing issue rather than an attack on press freedom. Another five newspapers were suspended for nonpayment of taxes and given three months to settle their debts.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government continued to argue that journalists have greater freedom than at any time in the country’s history while warning that “irresponsible reporting” could create chaos among the country’s 70-odd ethnic groups.

March 1
Iyob Demeke, Tarik IMPRISONED

Police arrested Iyob, publisher and editor of the independent weekly newspaper Tarik, and charged him with “violation of the press law” for failing to print the name of the newspaper’s deputy editor in the publication.

He was further questioned about an outstanding charge against him dating from January 1998, based on an article in Tarik alleging that monasteries in the Tigrai region of northern Ethiopia were being used to grow cannabis.

Iyob was released on bail on March 10.

March 3
Tsegaye Ayalew, Genanaw IMPRISONED
Habtamu Demisse, Genanaw IMPRISONED

Tsegaye and Habtamu, editor and deputy editor, respectively, of the independent Amharic weekly Genanaw, were detained on three separate charges under Ethiopia’s press law. The first charge, publishing false information, related to an article in Genanaw (date unavailable) that apparently alleged that the army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Tsadkan Gebre Tensae, and Defense Minister Teferra Walwa were not on speaking terms.

The second was a libel charge based on the administrator of the Modjo textile factory’s claim that he had been defamed in a letter to the editor published in Genanaw (date unavailable). The third charge, creating public confusion and distrust of the government, resulted from an article in the newspaper stating that the new Ethiopian currency had the word “void” printed on it and was therefore fake.

Tsegaye and Habtamu posted bail on March 12 and March 17, respectively. No trial date has been set.

March 5
Tesehalene Mengesha, Mebruk IMPRISONED

Tesehalene, editor of the independent Amharic weekly Mebruk, was arrested on unspecified charges relating to alleged violations of Ethiopian press laws. He was released on July 15 after posting bail.

March 5
Yared Kinfu, Beza IMPRISONED

Yared, editor of the Amharic independent weekly Beza, was arrested in connection with

an article published in the newspaper two years earlier that accused the judicial system in the Harar region of eastern Ethiopia of favoring the Harari ethnic group over other groups in the region.

Yared appeared at the high court in Addis Ababa on March 11 and was charged with publishing false information. He was released the same day on bail of 2,000 birrs (approximately US$264).

May 12
Aberra Wegi, Maebel IMPRISONED

Aberra, deputy editor of the independent Amharic weekly Maebel, was arrested on unspecified charges. He was detained for not being able to pay bail of 2,000 birrs (approximately US$250). In December Aberra was charged with libel and “dissemination of fabricated news,” apparently in connection with an article he had published two years earlier which described tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea before the outbreak of war between the two countries in May 1998. Bail was set at 7000 birrs, which Aberra was unable to pay.

August 23
Bizunesh Debebe, Zegabi IMPRISONED

Police arrested Bizunesh, publisher of the weekly independent Zegabi, and charged her with “violating the press law” by failing to publish the name of her newspaper’s deputy editor. While details of the specific charge were unavailable, local journalists commented that it is commonplace for the Ethiopian authorities to arrest and detain journalists on spurious charges, or no charges at all, frequently setting bail so high that detainees are unable to pay it. Bizunesh had apparently not published any articles which were particularly critical of the government. Bizunesh was unable to raise bail of 5000 birrs (approximately US$650) and remains in Addis Ababa’s central prison.