Journalist jailed for defamation

New York, March 8, 2001 — Ethiopian journalist Tilahun Bekele, editor of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Fetash, was charged with criminal defamation by an Addis Ababa court and jailed, CPJ sources reported.

Bekele has been in government custody since February 7, when he was arrested in connection with an article he had published more than five years ago in another independent Amharic weekly, Maebel. The journalist is accused of defaming the head of the Kirkos Church, an Orthodox congregation in Addis Ababa.

The thousand-year-old Orthodox Church is the most powerful religious organization in Ethiopia, with close links to top decision makers in the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Court documents obtained by CPJ’s local sources allege that Bekele fabricated and distributed “a report that stands against…the basic position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and thus defames the whole establishment.”

On January 31, according to CPJ sources, Bekele appeared before the Fifth Criminal Bench of the High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa. He was ordered to post bail of US$625 or face detention until his trial, which is now scheduled for April 9. Unable to settle the bail requirement, Bekele was arrested a week later and jailed in squalid conditions at the Kerchele penitentiary in Addis Ababa.

In addition to the criminal defamation charge, Bekele faces separate charges over a 1998 Fetash article in which he alleged that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had financed an Ethiopian mineral water company that sold contaminated water. The journalist has been accused of publishing a fabricated and defamatory report, under Ethiopia’s restrictive Press Proclamation of 1992.

Bekele was arrested in September 1998 for this charge. He remained in prison until the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) secured his bail in October 2000, with the help of CPJ and other international press freedom organizations. The case is due to be heard in court on May 8.

Ethiopia has been Africa’s foremost jailer of journalists in recent years. There are currently six journalists in jail, four of which have been held since 1997. Many journalists languish in prison for years because they are unable to post bail.

“This absurd prosecution is typical of the legal harassment to which Ethiopian journalists are routinely subjected in response to their published work,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We call on the government to drop the charges against Bekele immediately and to release him from prison, along with the five other Ethiopian journalists who are currently in detention.”