Attacks on the Press 2004: Ethiopia


In the run-up to 2005 elections, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came under increasing criticism from local journalists and international media organizations for its antagonism toward the country’s private press. Authorities continued to imprison journalists for their reporting and to intimidate others into silence on sensitive issues, such as government infighting and Ethiopia’s tense relations with its neighbors. Throughout 2004, local journalists and international press freedom groups petitioned the Ethiopian government to revise a repressive press bill, with little success.

Ethiopia’s private print media are mostly concentrated in the capital, Addis Ababa, where a number of local- and English-language publications present a variety of viewpoints. Under Press Proclamation No. 34 of 1992, criminal charges can be brought against journalists for such offenses as defamation, incitement to violence, and the publication of false news. Court cases can drag on for years, and journalists are regularly jailed for not being able to pay bail or for missing court hearings. Many journalists have multiple charges pending against them.

In September, Tewodros Kassa, former editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, was released after two years and three months in prison. Kassa was sentenced to two years in jail in July 2002 for defamation and “disseminating false information that could incite people to political violence.” In June, while still in prison, Kassa was sentenced to an additional three months for a separate defamation charge, dating from 2000. At least four other journalists spent time in jail in 2004.

Authorities used the courts to harass journalists who wrote about sensitive topics, such as the periodic fighting involving ethnic groups and ethnic secession movements. In May, the editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Seife Nebelbal was charged with “inciting people to separate a region that has been constitutionally established.” Charges were filed after the newspaper published an editorial defending the right of members of the Oromo ethnic group to secede from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is divided into regional administrative areas based on majority ethnicity, in line with its 1994 constitution, but the militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has fought for years to create an independent state, Oromia, in southern Ethiopia.

Violent protests by Oromo students in March sparked a crackdown on ethnic Oromos, including state-employed journalists. Between March and May, at least 10 Oromo journalists working for state-owned media fled the country, claiming they faced persecution. In addition, two Oromo journalists working for the government-owned Ethiopian Television were arrested and imprisoned in May. Local sources said Shiferu Insermu and Dhabasa Wakjira were accused of aiding the OLF; it was not clear whether the arrests stemmed from their journalism.

Tensions between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea were another sensitive topic for the press. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, and the two countries fought a devastating border war between 1998 and 2000. A U.N.-backed peace process faltered over Ethiopia’s refusal to accept a 2002 independent boundary commission ruling that awarded the disputed border town of Badme to Eritrea. In December, Wosonseged Gebrekidan, editor-in-chief of Ethiop, was charged with inciting the army to rebel in an article published in 2003 that accused the government of not doing enough to keep Badme from being awarded to Eritrea. In November 2004, the Ethiopian government had announced that it was willing, in principle, to implement the commission’s ruling.

Given Ethiopia’s already harsh statutes, journalists were dismayed by a draft press law unveiled in 2003. The bill’s provisions included restrictions on who can practice journalism; government-controlled licensing and registration systems; and the establishment of a government-controlled Press Council that would prepare and enforce a Code of Ethics. The law also retained harsh criminal penalties for press offenses, including prison terms of up to five years. While Information Minister Bereket Simon promised the bill would promote “constructive and responsible journalism,” local journalists feared that it would undermine press freedom and be used to muzzle the press in the run-up to the 2005 general elections.

In July 2004, in response to local and international protests that the bill was drafted without input from journalists and media organizations, the government organized a discussion with some members of the local media. In September, following further deliberations with representatives from international media organizations, Bereket said he would review several contentious articles in the bill, including the provisions on the Press Council and restrictions on the confidentiality of journalistic sources. According to a press release from the International Press Institute, whose representatives attended the discussions, the minister also agreed to review licensing and registration requirements for journalists and editors, and articles in the local press quoted the minister as saying that he was willing to eliminate criminal penalties for press offenses. However, none of these changes to the draft had been announced by year’s end.

The government lifted its ban on the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) in January, after disputed elections in which a new executive committee was elected. In November 2003, amid vocal protests by the EFJA and its members against the draft press law, the government shut down the organization. Authorities claimed that the EFJA had failed to submit a certified audit of its budget for the last three years. But some local journalists said they believed that the audit was a pretext for authorities to close an organization that had strongly criticized the government and drawn international attention to the plight of the country’s beleaguered press.

In December 2003, authorities barred 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 Justice Ministry then took over this role itself, convening two poorly attended membership meetings in January 2004. During the second meeting, new executive committee members were elected, after which the ban on the organization was lifted. However, throughout 2004, state-owned media and government officials warned that members of the former executive committee were barred from communicating with media outlets and foreign organizations, according to local sources.

At a press conference in April, the new executive committee made corruption allegations against the former committee. Accusations against former EFJA President Kifle Mulat had appeared in local state-owned and private media since the group’s suspension. The dispute between the former executive committee and the new one continued throughout 2004, with each side claiming to be the legitimate leadership of the EFJA and refusing to recognize the other.

In December, the Federal High Court ruled on a court case launched in February by members of the former executive committee against the Justice Ministry, which they accused of interfering in the EFJA’s internal affairs. The court ruled in favor of the old executive committee, saying that the ban imposed on its members should be lifted, and that the leadership election held in January was null and void. At year’s end, it was unclear what actions the association’s members would take.

Since Ethiopia’s literacy rate is less than 50 percent, radio is a powerful medium for transmitting information. While laws allowing for the licensing of private broadcasters were passed in 1999, the government has delayed accepting applications for licenses since then. In June, Bereket said that licenses for private radio stations would be issued ahead of the elections, but he also warned that delays in licensing private stations were necessary since they could prove harmful to society, according to the private Addis Ababa-based daily Reporter.

The ruling party’s Walta news service announced in July that the Ethiopian Broadcasting Agency would take “the appropriate control measures on the dissemination of balanced and accurate information” on the radio once private stations were licensed. In September, the ministry announced that only two FM frequencies would be made available, prompting protests from private media companies. At year’s end, there were more than a dozen applicants for the two available frequencies, but neither had been allotted.

In early December, police arrested two men accused of operating an unlicensed FM radio station in the eastern Harari Region. According to local sources, the station was broadcasting locally produced programs on religion, health, and cultural issues.