AFTER PRIME MINISTER MELES ZENAWI AND ERITREAN PRESIDENT Isaias Afeworki signed a peace treaty on December 12, 2000, Zenawi announced that the end of the two-year-long border war would allow his government to strengthen Ethiopian democracy. But with seven journalists in jail at year’s end, it was unclear whether the newly reelected prime minister would end his government’s vengeful crusade against the local independent press.
Journalism in Ethiopia is regulated by Press Proclamation No. 34/1992, under which journalists can be jailed on vague charges such as criminal defamation, incitement to violence, or spreading false information. Many journalists face multiple charges and are forced to remain in jail pending trial, or while serving multiple sentences. Massive fines sometimes accompany prison sentences, and non-payment of fines is punishable with more jail time and additional fines.
The tragic death of Makonnen Worku, former editor of the newspaper Maebel, dramatically illustrated the system’s hopelessness. Worku, who had recently been released from prison on bail after spending three years in and out of jail for various press-law violations, committed suicide in January after learning that he faced new charges.
In the past, Prime Minister Zenawi has argued that press freedom threatens democracy by promoting strife among Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, some of which boast armed separatist movements such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Authorities have taken Zenawi’s comments as a cue to arrest journalists for “terrorist activity” and “inciting ethnic hatred.”
Four Ethiopian journalists have been in jail since October 1997 for reporting on separatist movements. They are Tesfaye Deressa, Garuma Bekele, and Solomon Nemera of the Oromo-language weekly Urji, and Tamrat Gemeda, editor of the Amharic-language weekly Seife Nebelbal. All four served out their initial sentences, but remained in custody after additional charges were filed against them. The latter three are now accused of “belonging to a terrorist movement,” a non-bailable offence.
Three more journalists were arrested during the past year and remained in jail at year’s end. In early June, Tewodros Kassa, editor of the independent Amharic weekly Ethiop, was sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly fabricating news that could incite people to violence. In August, Bizunesh Debebe, editor of the independent Amharic weekly Zegabi, was sentenced to six months in prison for “endangering national security” through her writings.
At year’s end, more than twenty other journalists were free on bail while they awaited trial for various violations of the Press Proclamation. At least four others fled into exile during the year, bringing the tally of self-exiled Ethiopian journalists to well over 30.
Ethiopian journalists are poorly paid, and local publications face tremendous financial pressures. Printing costs have risen over 200 percent in four years; many suspect the government of engineering the increase to drive independent media out of business. The country’s only printing presses, which are all partly owned by the state, announced a 30.5 percent rate increase in August. Despite a September protest by 36 out of the country’s 39 private publications, authorities dismissed the matter as a market dispute.
Many independent newspapers are unable to cope with bureaucratic requirements such as proof of solvency, which requires prospective and existing newspapers to maintain bank balances of 10,000 birr (US$1250) as a bond against any offenses that their journalists might commit. Publications that fail to prove solvency at the start of every year, or whenever requested by the Ministry of Information and Culture, lose their publishing licenses. In February, the private newspapers Atkurot, Goh, and Moresh stopped publishing because they were unable to meet this requirement.
Ethiopian journalists also face obstacles to information gathering and distribution. The government often restricts the flow of information by denying the private press access to briefings and conferences, and government officials often refuse to meet with independent journalists. Meanwhile, radio remains the most important mass medium, because of the high rate of illiteracy and because most newspapers are only distributed in the capital, Addis Ababa. But despite repeated promises to liberalize the airwaves, the government retains tight control over all broadcast media.
Government officials frequently complain that independent journalists are unprofessional. It is true that most Ethiopian reporters lack formal training, largely because the country’s educational system is so dilapidated. To remedy this problem, Addis Ababa’s private Unity College launched the country’s first journalism and communications degree program in February. The program will focus on developing skills such as news reporting, writing, journalistic ethics, and radio and newspaper production.
Last year also saw the launch of Ethiopia’s first two independent daily newspapers (the government publishes two daily papers). On September 5, the thrice-weekly Monitor became the country’s first private English-language daily. On September 11, Eletawi Addis became Ethiopia’s first private Amharic-language daily. The latter was launched by the founder of Unity College, whose journalism students will be closely involved in the production of the newspaper.
Offering some counterweight to the powerful forces aligned against press freedom in the country, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Organization (EFJA) won legal recognition in March, seven years after submitting its application to the authorities. Two months later, the EFJA was admitted into the International Freedom of Expression Network (IFEX) in New York. Later in the year, the group successfully raised money to bail out three imprisoned journalists.
Tesehalene Mengesha, Mebruk
A federal court in Addis Ababa sentenced Mengesha, deputy editor of the Amharic weekly Mebruk, to a one-year prison term on charges of disseminating false information about the head of state, Meles Zenawi.
This action came in response to a 1998 Mebruk article entitled “The Government of the Dictator Shall Be Destroyed. Meles Zenawi Is a Dictator!” The article alleged that the government had been granting military status and rank to “bandits” who had no military knowledge or training.
After four months in prison, Mengesha was tried and found guilty as charged. The journalist then spent an additional four months in Addis Ababa’s Kerchele prison. Mengesha was released from prison in late April, after prison authorities reduced his sentence for good behavior.
Makonnen Worku, Maebe
Makonnen Worku, an editor at the Amharic-language weekly Maebe, killed himself after undergoing prolonged government harassment. Worku, 28, had been in and out of prison for the last three years of his life for allegedly violating Ethiopian press laws. He was released on bail just days before he himself in his Addis Ababa home.
Worku’s suicide came in the wake of new charges for unspecified press crimes. Some sources in Addis Ababa alleged that the judge in charge of his case had refused to acknowledge his bail payment and had issued a warrant for his arrest.
In February, the independent newspapers AtKurout, Goh, and Moresh closed down, possibly on orders from the Ministry of Information and Culture. CPJ sources suspected that the three papers were unable to afford the mandatory bank deposit of 10,000 birr (US$1240) required to prove financial solvency before the ministry will issue a publishing license.
In December 1999, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) reported that twelve licensed independent weekly papers had been banned and another five had been forced out of business because of rising printing costs and problems related to distribution.
By June, AtKurout was once again appearing on a weekly basis and Goh had also resumed publication, but Moresh was not yet available by year’s end.
Tewodros Kassa, Ethiop
The Federal High Court convicted Kassa, editor of the private Amharic weekly Ethiop, of “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence.”
The charges were based on an Ethiop article which alleged that a female cadre of the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had disappeared after poisoning an Ethiopian soldier.
Kassa was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 15,000 birr (US$1850), according to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA).
On November 13, the jailed Kassa was called to court to face the new charge of “defaming the good reputation of Duki Feyssa by disseminating false information through the newspaper.” According to the EFJA, this charge resulted from an Ethiop article titled “Businessman Killed by Unidentified Force,” which suggested that local businessman Duki Feyssa, a suspected OLF member, might have been killed by state security forces. When Kassa finishes his current jail term, he will be forced to fight this new charge.
Bizunesh Debebe, Zegabi
Debebe, editor of the private Amharic weekly Zegabi, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for publishing “OLF Launches Attack in Bale,” an article about the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that authorities claimed could incite people to criminal activity.
Debebe also faces a charge of publishing Zegabi under an expired press license in 1999. The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) raised money for her bail, and she was released from prison at the end of January, 2001. Her trial was scheduled for March.
Taye Belachew, Tobia
Belachew, former editor of the private Amharic monthly magazine Tobia, was sentenced to pay a fine of 12,000 birr (about US$1500) for “spreading false charges against the government and arousing hatred against the Tigrean-speaking people.”
The charges related to two opinion pieces that Belachew had published in recent editions of Tobia. Both articles commented on Ethiopia’s past history and current political challenges, including its war effort against neighboring Eritrea.
Melese Shine, Ethiop
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
Shine, editor of the private Amharic weekly Ethiop, was charged with “disseminating false information that endangers national security.”
The charge resulted from a September article entitled “Eritrean Opposition Forces Being Trained in Areas of Rama and Assayita,” which claimed that Ethiopia was organizing Eritrean opposition forces as a retaliatory measure.
The Federal High Court had recently reduced bail requirements for violations of the Press Law. In Shine’s case, however, the court demanded bail of 10,000 Ethiopian birr (US$1200), an exorbitant sum for an independent journalist in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the trial was postponed until October 2001.
With the help of international press freedom groups, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association was able to raise enough money to pay Shine’s bail, and complete all other necessary formalities to secure the journalist’s release. On January 6, 2001, the Federal High Court ordered Shine’s release; he was freed the next day.