According to local sources, Estifanos appeared before a federal court in the capital, Addis Ababa, on April 2, in connection with a defamation charge stemming from a September 2001, opinion piece, titled "The Hidden Agenda of Prime Minister Meles."
The article accused Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of supporting the government of neighboring Eritrea and alleged that Eritrea had defeated Ethiopia during the two-year border war between the two countries from 1998 to 2000. Despite various U.N.-sponsored peace efforts, the two countries have yet to agree on a border, and severe tensions between them persist.
Estifanos did not write the article, but as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, he was held responsible for its content. Following the article's publication, Estifanos was charged with defaming the prime minister, and ordered to pay bail of 1,000 birr (US$120) while awaiting trial. According to local sources, he could face more prison time if convicted.
At the April 2 hearing, the court told Estifanos that since he had missed his previous court hearing, the court had imposed an additional bail of 3,000 birr (US$360). When Estifanos was unable to pay this amount, the court ordered that he be transferred to prison.
"We call on Ethiopian authorities to release Merid Estifanos immediately, and to work toward removing criminal penalties for press offenses," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.
One other journalist remains in prison in Ethiopia. Tewodros Kassa was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in July 2002, on charges of defamation and "disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence."