New York, March 5, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the release of Tamrat Zuma, former publisher and editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Atkurot, after more than nine months in prison.
At the beginning of 2001, seven Ethiopian journalists were in prison for their work, according to CPJ research, making Ethiopia Africa’s leading jailer of journalists. With Zuma’s release, there are now no journalists in jail because of their professional activities.
Zuma was released yesterday after the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA), aided by international human rights organizations, paid his bail of 16,000 birr (US$2,000), a shockingly large sum for the average Ethiopian journalist.
Zuma, who is a diabetic, was denied proper medical treatment during his detention. He left prison in poor health, having lost a significant amount of weight.
Upon his release, Zuma expressed gratitude to his Ethiopian colleagues and to the international press freedom organizations that fought for his release while he was in detention. “Being a journalist in Ethiopia is like playing with fire,” Zuma told CPJ. “The law is not for the protection of journalists, but for their prosecution.”
Atkurot was shut down over a year ago, because Zuma was unable to pay a burdensome state licensing fee. Zuma has expressed his intention to re-launch his newspaper as soon as he can gather the necessary funds.
On May 25, 2001, Zuma was arrested on four charges of violating the Ethiopian Press Proclamation of 1992. The first charge was defamation, based on an Atkurot article about financial mismanagement at a state-owned leather factory. The second charge, “inciting violence or rebellion,” was based an Atkurot article that quoted a former Ethiopian Army general who predicted the imminent overthrow of the current government.
The third charge arose over Zuma’s inability to pay his newspaper’s licensing fee. According to a local source, the fourth charge was related to an article about alleged improprieties in the relationship between the government and an Addis Ababa church. That article appeared in the Amharic weekly Maebel, for which Zuma was free-lancing at the time.
Zuma claims he did not write the article in question; it appears that he was charged by mistake.
“We are encouraged by Zuma’s release,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “But we remain concerned about the scores of journalists, including Zuma, who still face criminal charges. All of them could be imprisoned at any time should they fail to post the exorbitant bail requirements imposed by local courts.”
According to the EFJA, more than thirty Ethiopian journalists currently face charges related to their work. Many face multiple charges.
“We urge Ethiopian authorities to stop prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs,” said Cooper.