Addis Ababa, October 9, 2001—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today completed a fact-finding mission in Ethiopia with a visit to jailed journalist Tamirate Zuma at the Kerchele Penitentiary in the capital, Addis Ababa.
In the last year, Ethiopia has seen a gradual improvement in its press freedom climate after nearly a decade as Africa’s leading jailer of journalists.

Zuma is currently the only journalist jailed for his work in Ethiopia. He is being held on various charges, including defamation and inciting the people to rebellion.

During a one-week stay in Addis Ababa, CPJ Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi was received by senior government officials. He met with opposition and human rights activists, as well as with journalists from both the state and private press. Sorokobi also conveyed CPJ’s views at a press conference on October 3 that was well attended by local and international journalists.

In an October 8 meeting with Deputy Justice Minister Ato Ali Suleiman, CPJ urged the Ethiopian government to release Zuma and to repeal the more restrictive provisions of Ethiopia’s Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992, the legal instrument used to jail Zuma and many other Ethiopian journalists in recent years.

Sorokobi also urged the government to improve the private media’s access to government information and to drop pending charges against nearly 80 local journalists. A broad amnesty for press offences would give Ethiopian journalism a much needed boost, Sorokobi argued.

The deputy justice minister reacted positively to CPJ’s suggestions, saying that there was an urgent need for improvement of press conditions in Ethiopia. He agreed to forward CPJ’s recommendations to the relevant government institutions.

Ethiopia’s last jailed journalist
Zuma, former editor of the now defunct Ahmaric weekly AtKurout, was arrested in late May for failing to post bail of 16,000 Birr (US$2,000) on four separate charges of violating Press Proclamation No. 34.

The charges include defamation, based on an AtKurout article about alleged financial mismanagement at a government-owned leather factory, and inciting violence or rebellion, based on another article in which a retired general was quoted predicting the imminent overthrow of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government.

During a one-hour conversation with Sorokobi in the prison director’s office, Zuma complained of not having access to proper medical care and newspapers.

Prison director Ato Nigusie Gedere promised to address these issues immediately, emphasizing that he was opposed on principle to the jailing of news professionals. Gedere justified the detentions, however, by claiming that many Ethiopian journalists were prone to ethical lapses. This view was echoed by nearly all government officials interviewed by CPJ during the last week.

Zuma said that he was generally in good spirits and that CPJ’s visit was a big morale boost. But he also expressed concern for his family, especially his elderly parents, whom he was supporting financially until his arrest.

Signs of improvement?
During his stay in Addis Ababa, Sorokobi spoke at a panel discussion on ethics in African journalism and the government’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the press. Held at Addis Ababa’s Yerusalem Hotel on October 6, the meeting brought together journalists from all sides of Ethiopia’s highly politicized media scene.

The ruling EPRDF is sensitive to criticism and still holds hundreds of opposition and labor union activists in prison.

In the last year, Ethiopia has seen a gradual improvement in its press freedom climate after nearly a decade as Africa’s leading jailer of journalists. (That infamous distinction is now held by neighboring Eritrea.) At the end of 2000, seven Ethiopian journalists were in prison for their work, according to CPJ research.

CPJ plans to release a full report on its findings at a later date.