Ethiopian journalist sent to jail for not identifying source

New York, August 8, 2005—Ethiopia’s Supreme Court has sentenced a newspaper editor to one month in jail on a contempt charge after the editor refused to identify an unnamed source who criticized an earlier court ruling. The editor of a second paper was fined in a related case.

Tamrat Serbesa, editor-in-chief of the private Amharic-language weekly Satanaw, was sentenced Friday in connection with the paper’s coverage of a Supreme Court verdict in a case involving the National Election Board. The court rejected the opposition CUD party’s claim that the election board improperly announced provisional results of the May 15 parliamentary elections before the final count was determined.

On July 7, the Supreme Court ordered Serbesa and Andualem Ayle, editor-in-chief of the private Amharic-language weekly Ethiop, to reveal the sources of anonymous quotes published in their newspapers criticizing the verdict, including one in Satanaw attributed to an unnamed lawyer who deemed the verdict “shameful.”

Ayle was ordered to pay a fine of 2,000 birr (US$220) in Friday’s decision.

“In pursuing this contempt case, the court was clearly intent on punishing those who would dare criticize its rulings. It sends a chilling signal to the entire Ethiopian press corps that the court will not tolerate public scrutiny,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on Ethiopian authorities to release Tamrat Serbesa immediately and unconditionally.”

The charge was brought amid a government crackdown on Ethiopia’s private press following the disputed election. Since deadly clashes between government security forces and opposition supporters erupted in early June, authorities have pressed criminal charges against more than 10 editors from the Amharic-language press in connection with their coverage of the election’s aftermath. Many other journalists report being harassed or otherwise intimidated for their coverage.

One of those facing criminal charges stemming from coverage of this period is veteran journalist Amare Aregawi, editor of the English- and Amharic-language Reporter. Two local sources told CPJ that state media in Ethiopia have also run a smear campaign against The Reporter, accusing it of inciting the population to revolt against the government.