The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned by the Ethiopian government's intervention in the affairs of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA), an independent organization dedicated to promoting press freedom and protecting the rights of journalists.
The Ethiopian Justice Ministry suspended the EFJA from conducting regular activities on November 10, 2003, because the organization failed to submit a certified audit of its budget for the last three years. The budget report is required of all civic organizations. The suspension came despite EFJA's attempt to engage a chartered accountant to perform the audit at that time.
Justice Ministry officials allowed EFJA's executive committee to convene a meeting in mid-November to elect an auditor for the organization's finances. The meeting was canceled, however, over a dispute between the EFJA executive committee and the Justice Ministry concerning the meeting's agenda and whether or not government officials should observe the proceedings, local sources said. The dispute culminated on December 2, 2003, when the ministry banned the EFJA executive committee from administering the organization's affairs.
The Justice Ministry then took over this role itself, convening two poorly attended meetings of EFJA's membership in January 2004. During the second meeting, new executive committee members were elected.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we have observed this sequence of events with growing alarm. While we understand that the Ethiopian Justice Ministry has the right to demand financial reports from civic organizations, EFJA cannot perform the audit if the government does not allow the organization to operate. This government intervention therefore seems excessive and unwarranted.
Although the government and some EFJA members have raised concerns about EFJA's administration, the organization's administrative affairs--including when and how executive committee elections are held--ought to be matters solely for the EFJA membership to determine.
Considering the Ethiopian government's poor record on press freedom issues, it is difficult to believe that authorities do not have a vested interest in the EFJA's administration. Given the government's history of antagonistic relations with the organization, CPJ perceives the interference as politically motivated.
Journalists are facing a critical period for press freedom in Ethiopia, while the government is currently revising a new press law. We fear that if journalists are not allowed to freely elect representatives to safeguard their interests, they will not be able to effectively voice their concerns or lobby to change legislation that curtails their rights.
We urge Your Excellency to ensure that the government ceases to intervene in EFJA's internal affairs and allows all EFJA members, including members of the former executive committee, to participate in the organization's activities. We also call on you to lift EFJA's suspension so that the organization may conduct its audit and resume operations as soon as possible.
We thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.