Attacks on the Press 2002: Ethiopia

In early December, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi surprised his detractors by inviting them to a series of debates on government policies and the future of the country. The organizer of the unprecedented forum, an independent association known as the Inter Africa Group, said the goal was to foster “the exchange of views between the government and other stakeholders” on matters of legitimate public interest. Government critics, most prominently the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), have dismissed the debates as a ploy to “refurbish the badly-damaged image” of the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Ethiopian journalists, however, have welcomed the EPRDF’s sudden openness and were hopeful that it would continue. At year’s end, only one Ethiopian journalist, Tewodross Kassa, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, was in prison for his work. Four other jailed journalists–Tamirate Zuma, Lubaba Said, Melese Shine, and Zegeye Haile–were released during 2002.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia’s press corps remains wary of the Zenawi government. In late January, a joint delegation of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a regional, nongovernmental press freedom group, marched to the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, now known as the African Union (AU), in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to deliver a petition urging the union to lobby member states to end attacks on press freedom in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

In July, a CPJ delegation conducted a five-day fact-finding mission to Ethiopia, which revealed that the government was planning undisclosed changes to its 10-year-old press law. While Information Minister Bereket Simon told CPJ that the new law would promote “constructive and responsible journalism,” journalists argued that the statutes would lead to a crackdown and drive many media outlets out of business. But at year’s end, journalists said that authorities appeared to have shelved the draft law.

Earlier in the year, the government released a code of ethics for reporters, which the EFJA dismissed as a book of restrictive “directives imposed on [journalists] by the rulers under the camouflage of a professional code of ethics.” Authorities said the code was necessary because, they alleged, some independent newspapers are funded by “terrorist” groups and hostile foreign countries, namely the OLF and neighboring Eritrea. Ethiopia fought a border war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, following Eritrea’s 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, which ended in 1991.

Ethiopia’s Broadcast Law was adopted in June 1999, but the government, citing lack of funds and qualified personnel, delayed creating the entity charged with implementing the law’s provisions, the Ethiopian Broadcast Agency. That independent expert body, which will “ensure the expansion of high-standard, prompt and reliable broadcasting service which can contribute to the political, social, and economic development” of the country, finally opened its doors in July and received a long line of applicants, including the BBC and the local Addis Broadcasting Company (ABC), led by prominent economist and human rights activist Berhanu Nega. In an interview with the private Addis Tribune, Nega said that ABC had “no intention or any interest to oppose the government. We want to have responsible dialogue and reasoned discussion about our society.”

Despite Ethiopian leaders’ stated desire to improve relations with the media, old habits die hard. In October, the government accused the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) of “leaking stories” to the media, arguing that the practice could undermine confidence in the peacekeeping mission. The charge came after UNMEE officials briefed reporters on a skirmish between armed Ethiopian militia and Indian peacekeepers.

January 25

Daniel Abraha, Netsanet
Zekerias Tesfaye, Netsanet

Tesfaye and Abraha, publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively, of the Amharic-language weekly Netsanet, were charged with criminal defamation.

The charges stem from a January 18 Netsanet article alleging that Sheik Mohammed al-Amoudi, a wealthy businessman and owner of the Sheraton hotel in the capital, Addis Ababa, has connections with Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The story also claimed that authorities had arrested al-Amoudi for questioning. After the article was published, a representative of the businessman phoned Netsanet and asked the paper to print a retraction of the story, but the paper refused. Al-Amoudi then lodged a complaint with police.

Plainclothes police officers detained Tesfaye while he was eating lunch with friends at an Addis Ababa hotel. Local sources say that Tesfaye had not responded to an earlier police summons for fear that he might be harassed. After making a statement to police, he was charged and then released on a 5,000 birr bail (US$600). On January 31, Abraha was also charged for the same article after he responded to a police summons. He was also released after paying a 5,000 birr (US$600) bail.


Shimelis Asfaw, Ethio-Time

In early March, Asfaw, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethio-Time, appeared before an Addis Ababa court to face charges of “disseminating fabricated information about the government and its officials that could affect public opinion,” the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association reported.

The charges stem from a July 2001 Ethio-Time article alleging that one general in the Ethiopian army had been dismissed from his post, while another general was being detained by police at a secret location. Asfaw was released on a 2,000 birr (US$250) bail, and a hearing was scheduled for May 29. By year’s end, CPJ could not determine the status of the case.

March 1

Kebebew Gebyehu Filate, Tobia

Filate, editor-in-chief of the independent Amharic-language weekly Tobia, was charged under Press Proclamation No. 34 for “inciting violence” and “defamation.” Both charges stem from a 2001 Tobiaýinterview with Wondosen Lema, the vice administrator for a prison in the North Shoa Zone in central Ethiopia, according to local sources. In the articles, Lema alleged that human rights violations were rife in the region, and that the zone’s justice minister, Dawit Argaw, was partly responsible for the region’s poor administration. Filate appeared before an Addis Ababa court in early March. He was released on a 2,000 birr (US$250) bail.

March 8

Wosonseged Gebre Amlake, Ethiop

Amlake, deputy editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly newspaper Ethiop and the affiliated monthly Ethiop magazine, was called to court to face charges of “disseminating fabricated information that could affect public opinion,” according to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association.

The charges stem from a December 2001 Ethiop magazine article alleging that ethnic bias occurred during a personnel restructuring in the Ministry of Justice and in the police force, and that there was tension between police and the public prosecutor as a result. Amlake was released on bail of 2,000 birr (US$250). He was detained again in October in connection with the same article and was released a few days later on a 2,000 birr (US$250) bail. His case remained pending at year’s end.

March 15

Arega Wolde Kirkos Ayele, Tobia

Ayele, editor-in-chief of the independent, Amharic-language weekly Tobia, appeared before an Addis Ababa court in mid-March to face criminal defamation charges that had been filed against him in December 1999. The charges stemmed from two articles about the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation published in the summer of 1999. Local sources say the articles criticized the company’s management and reported that some workers had complained that a non-Ethiopian had been appointed to the post of general manager. Ayele was released on a 1,000 birr (US$120) bail. His case has been adjourned until 2003.

March 20

Melese Shine, Ethiop

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 remained in prison until June, when he was able to make bail.

March 22

Berhanu Mamo, Abyssinia

Mamo, editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Abyssinia, appeared before an Addis Ababa court to face charges of violating the Ethiopian Press Proclamation by publishing an article that could incite ethnic conflict. The article, titled “Oromigna Speaking Generals Fall Under The Suspicion Ring of Tigrigna Speakers,” appeared in 2001 in Abyssinia. Oromigna and Tigrigna are the languages spoken by two of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups. Mamo was released on a 1,000 birr (US$120) bail. His case remained pending at year’s end.

March 26

Tsega Moges, Zare New

Moges, editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Zare New, was questioned by police about a press release printed in the February 23, 2002, issue of the paper from the Benishangul Liberation Front, a separatist ethnic group. The group’s statement called on Ethiopians to fight the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Moges was charged with inciting ethnic violence and released later that day on a 5,000 birr (US$620) bail pending trial.

April 30

Asrat Wodajo, Seife Nebelbal

Wodajo, editor of the independent, Amharic-language weekly Seife Nebelbal, was jailed for failing to post bail after he was charged with publishing false information. The charge stemmed from an article Wodajo wrote that appeared in Seife Nebelbal in 1999 alleging that an official in the Oromia State regional administration had deserted his post and fled the country. Wodajo was released on May 23 after paying a 7,000 birr (US$800) bail.

May 17

Melese Shine, Ethiop

Shine, editor-in-chief of the Amharic- language weekly Ethiop, was jailed after failing to post bail for a charge of inciting the people to rebellion. The charge stemmed from a May 2001 article by Shine in which Abate Angore, secretary-general of the Ethiopian Teachers Association, criticized the government’s handling of April 2001 student protests in the capital, Addis Ababa, during which more than 30 people were killed. Angore also said he believed that the government had a hand in provoking the riots.

The bail for the charge was 2,000 birr (US$250). At the time this charge was brought against him, Shine had already been in jail for nearly two months for failing to pay a 10,000 birr (US$1,200) bail from a previous charge. Shine was released from prison on June 25 after paying bail.

July 7

Tewodros Kassa, Ethiop

For full details on this case, click here.

July 17

Zegaye Haile, Genanaw

Haile, editor-in-chief of the private, Ahmaric-language paper Genanaw, was arrested and sentenced to an indefinite prison term for failing to post US$300 in bail after a prosecutor charged him with “distributing false information” in an article about prison conditions in the town of Nazareth. CPJ visited Zegaye in prison on July 25 during a mission to the country. He was released near the end of the year.

July 25

Wosen Seged Mersha, St. George
Almaz Yeheise, St. George

Mersha and Yeheise, reporter and deputy editor-in-chief, respectively, for the independent weekly St. George, were detained by police in the capital, Addis Ababa. St. George, a sports newspaper, is affiliated with the St. George football club, one of Addis Ababa’s two main football teams. The arrests came after an April 10 article by Mersha criticized a referee who had officiated a game between the two teams in March for being biased. Police informed the two journalists that they were being charged with defamation and then released them after each had paid a 2,000 birr (US$250) bail.

December 2

Henok Alemayhu, Medina

Alemayhu, publisher and editor of the private Amharic-language weekly Medina, was jailed after being unable to pay a 4,000 birr (US$500) bail. Alemayhu is charged with defamation in connection with an article that appeared in Medina in June. According to local sources, the article quoted an opinion piece from the Web site, which is run by an Ethiopian in the diaspora, alleging that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was involved in the May 2001 assassination of Kinfe Gebre-Medhin, Ethiopia’s former security and intelligence chief and a close ally of Zenawi. The article also alleged that Zenawi was insane.

Sources in the capital, Addis Ababa, told CPJ that part of the basis for the lawsuit against Alemayhu was that Medina presented the article as a news item, not as commentary, as it had originally appeared on Alemayhu was released on December 4, after paying bail. His case was pending at year’s end.