Authorities target journalists reporting on post-elections unrest

New York, July 8, 2005Ethiopia’s Supreme Court yesterday ordered three newspaper executives to reveal the name of a lawyer their newspapers cited anonymously as criticizing a recent court decision.

One of the three, Tamrat Serbesa, editor-in-chief of the private Amharic-language weekly Satanaw, was jailed overnight and released after posting bail. He and the other newspaper officials—Andualem Ayle, editor-in-chief of the private Amharic-language wekly Ethiop; and Tesfa Tegen, managing director of Ethiop—are due in court on July 22 to answer the order. They face potential imprisonment if they do not disclose the name.

The case comes amid a government crackdown on Ethiopia’s private press following disputed May 15 parliamentary elections. Since deadly clashes between government security forces and opposition supporters erupted in early June, authorities have pressed criminal charges against many editors from the Amharic-language press for covering the election’s aftermath. At least eight local editors await trial on recent charges related to their work during this period. Many others report being harassed or otherwise intimidated for their coverage.

Contributing to the repressive atmosphere for the independent press, senior government officials have publicly threatened further legal action against any journalist who “defame[s] the reputation and dignity of a government official or any individual,” according to CPJ sources and a state radio report translated by BBC Monitoring.

“CPJ is greatly alarmed by the government’s use of repressive laws to harass and intimidate journalists trying to do their jobs,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “Ethiopian authorities must publicly recognize the rights of journalists to inform the public and report critically without fear of reprisal.”

According to local sources, the editors of Satanaw and Ethiop have been questioned in connection with their newspaper’s coverage of a recent Supreme Court verdict, in a case brought against the National Election Board by the opposition CUD party. While the CUD had claimed that the board did not have the right to announce provisional election results before the final vote count was released, the Supreme Court ruled in the election board’s favor.

On July 6, Abiy Gizaw, editor-in-chief of the private Amharic-language weekly Netsanet, was arrested and charged with defaming the Defense Ministry in connection with three separate articles, according to CPJ sources. One of the articles alleged that officials in the Ethiopian air force were divided about how to handle post-election unrest; another reported on a separatist movement in Ogaden, an area of Ethiopia bordering Somalia; and a third reprinted a statement released by a group of air force pilots who defected during a training program in Belarus in June, according to these sources. Gizaw was released the same day after paying bail of 500 birr (about US$57).

On June 30, the editors of three other private weeklies were arrested and charged in connection with their work, according to CPJ sources and the Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA). Tadesse Kabede of Lisane Hezeb, Fassil Yenalem of Addis Zena, and Daniel Gezahegne of Moged were released after paying 1,000 birr (US$114) each in bail. Two other senior editors of Lisane Hezeb were summoned and released without paying bail.

Kabede has been charged with defaming the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in an article that criticized church leaders for allegedly failing to speak out against the government’s deadly June 8 crackdown on opposition supporters in the capital, according to CPJ sources and EFJA. Gezahegne was charged with defaming the Defense Ministry for printing a wire service photograph of armed police officers threatening a young student during the crackdown, those sources said. Yenalem was charged with defaming the Defense Ministry after his newspaper ran an interview with a former military commander who was critical of the ruling party, these sources reported.

On June 28, four other editors were arrested and charged with defaming the military in connection with stories in their newspapers about the air force pilots who defected and other articles deemed critical of government security forces. To read more about their cases, see CPJ’s previous alert: