Ethiopia has been Africa's foremost jailer of journalists in recent years, with seven journalists in prison at the end of 2000. Since January 2001, however, authorities have released a total of six jailed journalists and appear to have eased off on the country's small, beleaguered private media. Today, two journalists remain in jail.
On May 10, a court in Addis Ababa ordered the release of publisher Garuma Bekele, editor Tesfaye Deressa, and reporter Solomon Nemera, all from the defunct Amharic weekly Urji. The three journalists were arrested in October 1997, after Urji covered the killing of three alleged members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an armed separatist organization, by government forces.
Bekele, Deressa, and Nemera were held for more than two years before trial. In October 1999, Garuma and Deressa were convicted of publishing "false information" and sentenced to one year in prison each. Nemera was convicted in February 2000 and given the same sentence.
Under Ethiopian law, all three sentences would normally have been reduced to time served before trial. While in prison, however, the journalists were additionally charged with terrorist activities, a non-bailable offense that is punishable by no less than 15 years in jail.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the terrorism charges for lack of evidence, according to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA). Bekele and Deressa were immediately released.
Nemera continues to be held on a new, unspecified charge. Today, he is one of two journalists jailed for their work in Ethiopia.
The other is Daniel Gezzahigne, deputy editor of the independent Amharic weekly Moged, who was imprisoned on May 4 when he was unable to post bail in a criminal defamation case. Gezzahigne was charged in relation to an article that appeared almost three years ago in another paper, Gemenna, which he edited at the time. The article reported on alleged corruption among religious authorities in Ethiopia's northern Gonder Province.
"We are pleased that Garuma Bekele and Tesfaye Deressa have been released from prison, but they should never have been jailed in the first place," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "We urge Ethiopian authorities to release the two remaining jailed journalists and to abolish unjust laws under which people can be jailed simply for exercising their internationally-recognized right to free speech."
According to CPJ research, more than 150 journalists have been jailed and released in Ethiopia since 1992. The charges include "distributing false news," defaming officials of the government and the powerful Orthodox Church, insulting Ethiopian "values and morals," publishing allegedly pornographic material, and inciting "hatred, unrest and war."
More than 30 journalists have fled the country since 1995. Many of them are said to be living in neighboring Kenya in difficult conditions. Some 80 journalists are currently free on bail awaiting trial for various alleged violations of the press law, according to the EFJA.
In addition to Bekele and Deressa, four other jailed Ethiopian journalists have now been freed since the beginning of this year. They include:
- Tamrat Gemeda, of Seife Nebelbal, imprisoned in October for "inciting the public to violence" in an article about the OLF. After serving a one-year sentence on this charge, he was additionally charged with involvement with the OLF. Gemeda was released on March 8.
- Melese Shine, an editor with the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, jailed in November 2000 for "publishing false information" in an article about Eritrean military activities written a month earlier. He was released on bail on January 6.
- Bizunesh Debebe, publisher of Zegabi, sentenced to six months in prison in July 31, 2000, on unspecified charges relating to an article that she published about an OLF attack against government forces. She was released in early February.
- Tewodross Kassa, an editor for Ethiop, convicted of "disseminating false information that could incite people to violence" in an OLF-related article and sentenced to one year in jail. He was released on bail in late February.