During its 10 years in power, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has come under mounting criticism for its antagonistic attitude toward the country’s burgeoning private press. Authorities have used a restrictive press law to imprison journalists for critical reporting and to intimidate others into silence on sensitive issues, such as government infighting and secessionist ethnic groups. Though the government has recently attempted to improve its image by jailing fewer journalists and reforming its press law, one journalist remained in prison at year’s end and a new draft press law was heavily criticized.
In January, the Information Ministry held a symposium at which it unveiled the new draft press law that Information Minister Bereket Simon had been promising. While Simon claimed that the new law would promote “constructive and responsible journalism,” journalists doubted the motives behind the bill, which was drafted without the media’s input. Journalists’ fears were confirmed by the bill, which called for a licensing regime for all reporters, authorizing the Information Ministry to decide who could practice journalism. Journalists previously convicted of defamation would be prohibited from working.
The bill would require all foreign publications to be vetted by the Information Ministry before distribution, and it would allow the ministry to bar them from circulating for vague reasons. The bill forbids financial aid to newspapers and reporters from foreign organizations or states, a serious issue for the impoverished Ethiopian press. High printing costs and punitive fines have crippled many publications, and journalists are poorly paid.
The law would also establish a 29-member Press Council comprised of representatives from the government, the press, and civil society. According to the bill, the government would determine the council’s powers and procedures to select members.
The bill also retains harsh criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines for practicing journalism without a license and prison terms for distributing a prohibited publication or receiving contributions from foreign states or international groups. Under the draft legislation, courts would also be granted broad powers of censorship and be authorized to impose a three-year ban on media outlets for press law violations.
The Information Ministry’s January symposium did not begin auspiciously, with representatives of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) walking out to protest the government’s refusal to allow private journalists or associations to formally present their views on the bill. Shortly after the symposium, the publishers of nine of the country’s most prominent publications issued a joint statement on the draft law, saying it would highly restrict the activities of the private press and would infringe on citizens’ constitutional right to access information.
To deal with journalists’ criticism, the Information Ministry held another symposium on the bill in February. Information Minister Simon later said that the government had taken some of the journalists’ comments on the bill into consideration and was making amendments. For instance, the government scrapped the law’s access to government information provisions and hired a South African law firm to draft a freedom of information bill instead. Official translations of the amended draft press law and the freedom of information bill were not available at year’s end.
Despite the Information Ministry’s professed receptivity, the attempt to introduce another clearly repressive press law set a bitter tone to relations between journalists and the government all year long. Journalists claim that the new bill would undermine press freedom and be used to muzzle the press in the run-up to the 2005 general elections. The government countered that the new law was meant to foster professionalism in a “private press [that is] engaged in producing stories full of distortions and fabrications on a regular basis instead of offering stories based on accurate reporting.”
In this heated atmosphere, the government closed EFJA’s offices and suspended the organization’s activities in November. EFJA, which has 155 members and has been operating for 11 years, is the country’s only association open to all journalists and is a member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange. Authorities claimed that the reason for the organization’s closure was purely technical, since EFJA had failed to submit a mandatory audit of its budget to the Justice Ministry (as required of all civic organizations) and to renew its license for three consecutive years.
But EFJA representatives contended that the audit was a pretext for authorities to close an organization that has strongly criticized the government and drawn international attention to the plight of the country’s beleaguered press. Around the time of the suspension, strident critiques of the organization’s president, Kifle Mulat, and executive committee began appearing in state and private media accusing Mulat of corruption and the executive committee of poor leadership.
In early December, authorities banned the EFJA executive committee from conducting even the limited activities of hiring an accountant to perform the audit and holding overdue elections for a new executive committee. The government said it would call a meeting of the organization’s membership to carry out these tasks. Mulat said the move was part of a plan to install a government-friendly executive committee that would allow authorities to push through the new press law with less international attention. Though authorities were criticized both locally and internationally for interfering in the internal affairs of the press association, government spokesperson Zemedkun Tekle told the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks news service that EFJA’s suspension would be lifted as soon as the organization submitted its audit report.
Meanwhile, in June, a group of journalists established a new press association–the Ethiopian National Union of Journalists. The new union is supposed to operate independently of EFJA. Some local sources said the organization was formed by journalists who were disenchanted with EFJA’s leadership. But others said the government was behind the union’s creation and would use it as a counterweight to EFJA and to project a better image internationally.
During 2003, the government continued to use Press Proclamation No.34/1992 to charge and imprison journalists, particularly those working for the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop. Former Ethiop Editor-in-Chief Tewodros Kassa spent all year in prison. Kassa was sentenced to two years in prison in July 2002 on charges of defamation and incitement. Editor-in-Chief Melese Shine, who was charged with defamation, spent five months in jail in 2003, unable to pay his bail.
In an even more worrying development, in October, unidentified assailants brutally attacked Ethiop journalist Araya Tesfa Mariam near his home, leaving him with injuries that have impaired his mobility. Though CPJ wrote to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi calling for an inquiry into the attack, there were no reports of an investigation at year’s end. Local journalists said they worried the attack may have come in reprisal for Ethiop‘s aggressive coverage of internal struggles in Zenawi’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of four parties in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. In 2001, a number of hard-line TPLF members split from the party in opposition to the December 2000 peace treaty with Eritrea that ended two years of war.
The U.N. ruling on the border between the neighboring countries made headlines all year, and there was heated opposition within Ethiopia over Badme, the small but symbolic border town that was awarded to Eritrea. In a September letter to the U.N. Security Council, Zenawi called the ruling on Badme “illegal, unjust, and irresponsible” and warned that it could spark further unrest. Some of the local press, both state and private, took up the nationalistic rallying call in provocative editorials and accused the United Nations of shortchanging Ethiopia in the ruling. The feisty comments elicited the concern of the U.N. special representative to the region, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, who appealed to journalists to “stay calm,” Inter Press Service reported.
In 2002, the government opened the Ethiopian Broadcast Agency, which is charged with issuing licenses to the country’s first private broadcasters, but the agency had not issued any licenses by the end of the 2003. Though Ethiopia’s broadcast law–which mandates the liberalization of the airwaves–was enacted three years ago, the government has dragged its feet on putting it into action. Journalists have been left to speculate on whether any stations will be licensed before the 2005 elections, and whether the proposed press law, if it is passed, will give the government more control over private broadcasters.
In December, the Information Ministry and the British Council, a cultural and educational organization, organized a four-day training seminar in the capital, Addis Ababa, for journalists and government officials. During 2003, the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for International Development donated equipment to the journalism school at the private Unity University and were helping the school build its first radio studios.