The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned that Tewodros Kassa, the imprisoned former editor-in-chief of the Amharic language weekly Ethiop, has been newly convicted on a four-year-old defamation charge, delaying his scheduled release from prison.
Kassa was sentenced on July 7, 2002, to two years in prison 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 stories published in 1997. The first 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 second article alleged that unidentified individuals unsuccessfully tried to bomb a popular hotel in the capital, Addis Ababa. The second charge, “defamation,” resulted from another 1997 article in Ethiop, which alleged that a private investment company specializing in natural-resource development had connections in the EPRDF government.
Kassa’s release from prison was expected in July 2004, since he had served his full two-year sentence. But CPJ sources said that in June 2004, just as Kassa was to be released, he was sentenced to three more months in prison on another defamation charge. His colleagues have recently visited him in prison.
CPJ records show the new charge dates from November 2000, and stems from an Ethiop article headlined “Businessman Killed by Unidentified Force,” which alleged that local businessman Duki Feyssa might have been killed by state security forces. A relative of Feyssa brought the charge.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues worldwide, we respectfully urge Your Excellency to repeal all criminal sanctions
for press offenses, which have a chilling effect on press freedom and violate international standards.
CPJ has documented many instances in which your government has used these sanctions to systematically harass and punish the independent press. Defamation cases are often
drawn out over years. Journalists must respond to regular summonses to appear in court, and can be jailed for missing a hearing or being unable to pay bail. Merid Estifanos, former editor-in-chief of the private Amharic language weekly Satanaw, was jailed for a month in April, when he was unable to pay an additional bail imposed after he missed a court hearing connected with his ongoing trial on criminal defamation charges. [See CPJ ‘s April 6 alert. alert.]
We urge Your Excellency to do everything in your power to see that Tewodros Kassa is released immediately and unconditionally from prison, and that the criminal cases against him and many other Ethiopian journalists are dropped.