April 8, 2002
His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Office of the Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Via facsimile: 251-155-2020
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged by the ongoing prosecution and imprisonment of journalists in Ethiopia. We are particularly concerned about Lubaba Said and Melese Shine, two local journalists who are currently in jail for their work.
On April 3, Said, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Tarik, was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. The charge resulted from two 1996 Tarik articles alleging that government security personnel had abandoned their posts.
The prosecutor said that, “…by publishing such articles the accused has disseminated at [the] national level fabricated news that could have [a] negative psychological effect on members of the Defence Army and cause disturbances in the minds of the people,” according to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA).
Said, who is married with children, began her prison term the same day.
Shine, editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, appeared before an Addis Ababa court on March 20 to face two charges of violating Ethiopia’s Press Proclamation, including “defaming the head of state,” and “publishing an illegal article in collaboration with an outlaw.”
The charges stem from two articles that appeared more than a year ago in Ethiop. Both stories were based on an interview with Col. Emiru Wonde, leader of an illegal opposition party, in which Wonde criticized Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
On March 26, Shine was granted bail of 10,000 birr (US$1,200). Unable to raise this sum, he remains in prison. Shine is also scheduled to appear in court in May to face a separate charge of violating the Press Proclamation, but CPJ was unable to determine the nature of the charge.
According to the EFJA, more than 30 Ethiopian journalists currently face criminal charges for practicing journalism. Because courts often impose exorbitant bail requirements, many also face potential jail time.
Meanwhile, during the last two months, at least 10 journalists have been either summoned to court to face criminal charges or questioned by authorities because of their writing.
According to the EFJA, these include:
- Kebebew Gebyehu Filate, editor of the Amharic-language weekly Tobia.
- Arega Wolde Kirkos Ayele, deputy editor of Tobia.
- Wondwossen Gebre Kidan, deputy editor-in-chief of Ethiop.
- Shimelis Asfaw, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic- and English-language weekly Ethio-Time.
- Tsega Moges, editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Zare New.
- Berhanu Mamo, editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Abyssinia.
- Kifle Mulat, publisher and editor-in-chief Ethio-Time.
All the prosecutions violate Ethiopian journalists’ right to press freedom, which is guaranteed both by the Ethiopian Constitution and by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ethiopia’s Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992 is one of the most repressive press codes on the continent, and authorities regularly use it to silence critical journalism.
Ethiopia was Africa’s leading jailer of journalists at the beginning of 2001, with seven in prison. Alarmed by this situation, a CPJ representative visited Addis Ababa on a fact-finding mission last October. We were encouraged when the last jailed journalist was released in March 2002.
Today, the fact that journalists continue to be regularly prosecuted and incarcerated for their work demonstrates that the threats to press freedom in Ethiopia are systemic. This problem will not be resolved until the Press Proclamation and criminal defamation laws are repealed and the Penal Code is modified.
We therefore strongly urge Your Excellency to release Lubaba Said and Melese Shine immediately, to drop pending charges against more than 30 other Ethiopian journalists, and to stop prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs.
We also urge you to do everything within your power to ensure that the Press Proclamation and all other legislation that criminalizes press offenses is repealed.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your response.