CPJ letter outlines press freedom agenda for government

His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Office of the Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Via facsimile: 251-155-2020

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently completed a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia to assess conditions for local journalists. During a one-week stay, CPJ Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi met with senior government officials, with opposition and human rights activists, and with journalists from both the state and private media.

Ten years ago, you seized power and promised wide-ranging democratic reforms, including freedom of the press. These reforms were slow in coming, but over 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. At the end of 2000, seven Ethiopian journalists were in prison for their work, according to CPJ research.

While CPJ is pleased that most of these journalists have now been released, we are deeply concerned that journalist Tamirate Zuma remains in jail. We are also very troubled by several bureaucratic and legal hurdles that continue to hamper the development of a free and independent press:

  •  While the Ethiopian Constitution specifically guarantees freedom of the press, judges often use the Penal Code to jail reporters. The code was adopted more than 40 years ago, under Emperor Haile Selassie, and should have been superseded by the current Constitution. In addition, police often detain reporters without formal charges for longer than the 14 days prescribed by law.
  •  Harsh criminal defamation and official secrecy laws remain on the books. Several Ethiopian journalists have been jailed recently on charges of criminal defamation and inciting war and ethnic hatred. CPJ believes that civil litigation is an adequate remedy for people who feel they have been defamed and that journalists should never face criminal sanctions for their work. Moreover, Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992 gives the government sweeping latitude to prosecute and jail journalists for “any criminal offense against the safety of the state…” These provisions have been and are used to silence journalists who criticize your government.
  •  The detention of Tamirate Zuma, former editor of the now-defunct weekly Atkurot, demonstrates your administration’s continued mistrust and hostility toward the private press. Moreover, pending court cases against some 80 other journalists bode ill for a genuine expansion of press freedom in Ethiopia.
  •  Unwieldy layers of government bureaucracy block publications from securing licenses. Newspapers should not be subjected to regulations that restrict the free flow of information. Ethiopia’s arcane licensing procedures make it difficult for publishers to secure permission to print. For example, newspapers are obliged to submit licensing applications to the Ministry of Information, but the ministry claims it cannot grant licences without consulting other bodies, including the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which supposedly make the final decision in consultation with the Media Committee at the House of Representatives. Ultimately, no government body takes responsibility for the licenses, leaving applications in bureaucratic limbo.
  •  The 10,000 birr (US$ 1,185) annual license renewal fee is an onerous burden with no apparent legal basis. Although the information minister and other government officials interviewed by CPJ cited Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992 as the basis for this demand, a careful reading of the proclamation reveals no such provision.
  •  The government monopolizes broadcasting and the Internet. In June 1999, new legislation was passed to open the broadcasting market to private investors. Yet the new provisions have not been implemented. Reasons for the delay are unclear, and Ministry of Information officials were unwilling to clarify them in conversations with CPJ. Officials did state that the broadcasting bill outlaws political parties and religious groups from operating radio or television stations in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Ethiopian media activists told CPJ that a private corporation close to the ruling coalition has been operating a nationwide private radio network known as Radio Fana, previously a clandestine propaganda broadcaster for Your Excellency’s former TPLF guerrilla movement. In addition, members of opposition parties and civic organizations told CPJ that they are denied access to state TV and radio.
  •  Journalists are routinely denied access to official information, despite Your Excellency’s October 11 announcement that the government will allow the private press to attend official briefings and conferences. This decision leaves room for future press freedom abuses because you specified that access would be granted only to reporters from “responsible and constructive” private newspapers.
    In the past, Ethiopian officials often justified restrictions on press freedom by invoking state security in light of the war with neighboring Eritrea. This argument had little merit while the war was still on and has no merit whatsoever now that hostilities are at an end. CPJ therefore urges Your Excellency to do everything within your power to ensure that Tamirate Zuma is immediately and unconditionally released from prison, and that outstanding charges against other Ethiopian journalists are dropped. We also urge you to ensure that all regulations designed to restrict the press are abandoned, and that all news media, not just those deemed “responsible and constructive,” have access to government information.

    We are pleased that Your Excellency has already taken concrete steps to improve press freedom conditions in Ethiopia. During CPJ’s visit to Addis Ababa, government officials acknowledged that many serious problems remain. We believe that the war’s end gives Ethiopia an opportunity to foster a truly independent and pluralistic press. We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters and await your reply.


    Ann K. Cooper
    Executive Director