July 18, 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 deeply concerned about the recent sentencing of Tewodros Kassa, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, to two years’ imprisonment. Kassa is the second journalist to be convicted and jailed in Ethiopia during the last four months.
On July 10, Kassa was sentenced on two counts of violating Ethiopia’s restrictive Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992.
The first charge, “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence,” stemmed from two Ethiop articles published five years ago. One story reported that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had fired personnel at the Debre Zeit air force base who worked for the former regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and replaced them with pro-EPRDF workers.
The other article alleged that unidentified individuals had failed in an attempt to bomb a popular Addis Ababa hotel.
The second charge, “defamation,” resulted from a five-year-old article in Ethiop alleging that a private investment company that specialized in the development of natural resources had connections in the EPRDF government. According to a source at Ethiop, Kassa was charged even after the newspaper complied with a government order forcing him to write a letter of apology.
This is the second time Kassa has been sentenced to jail in recent years. In June 2000, he was convicted of “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence” for an Ethiop article alleging that a female member of the separatist Oromo Liberation Front had disappeared after poisoning an Ethiopian soldier.
Kassa was sentenced to a year in prison and a 15,000 birr (US$1850) fine. After serving 10 months of his sentence, he was released early on a recommendation from the court.
Kassa joins Lubaba Said, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Tarik, in prison. Said was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison on April 3 for “fabricating news.” The charge against her resulted from two 1996 Tarik articles alleging that government security personnel had abandoned their posts.
According to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, at least 37 journalists have criminal charges pending against them. During the last five months, 20 of them have been summoned to court to face those charges. Exorbitant bail requirements force most Ethiopian journalists, who earn modest incomes, to spend months or even years behind bars on charges for which they have not been convicted.
This legal harassment clearly violates Ethiopian journalists’ right to press freedom, which both the Ethiopian Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee.
Government authorities have repeatedly demonstrated that they will use restrictive laws to silence unfavorable reporting or criticism. Ethiopian journalists will not be free to report the news independently until the Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992 is repealed and the Penal Code is modified.
We therefore strongly urge Your Excellency to do everything within your power to release Tewodros Kassa and Lubaba Said, and to drop the charges facing the nearly 40 other journalists. We also call on you to work toward repealing all criminal press statutes, and to ensure that journalists can practice their profession without fear of reprisals.
Thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.