New York, October 13, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned police harassment of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA), which criticized a government crackdown on the press after the opposition disputed the outcome of this year’s elections.
Four EFJA leaders reported this week to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in the capital, Addis Ababa, where they were questioned about the organization’s activities when it was officially banned from late 2003 to the end of 2004. The Federal High Court has since ruled the ban illegal.
EFJA president Kifle Mulat, vice president Taye Belachew, accountant Habetamu Assefa, and treasurer Sisay Agena were fingerprinted, held for several hours, and questioned. The police made all four guarantee 2,000 birr (US$237) bail.
A fifth executive committee member, public relations officer Tamiru Geda, has also been summoned by the CID, although he is currently living in exile, according to local sources.
The EFJA was shut down in November 2003 after authorities claimed that it had failed to submit a certified audit of its budget. However, some local journalists said that this was a pretext to close down an organization that had strongly criticized the government and Ethiopia’s dismal press freedom record. Soon afterwards, the Justice Ministry notified the EFJA executive committee members that they were barred from carrying out any activities for the organization, including communicating with “third parties” in their official capacity. Throughout 2004, state-owned media and government officials continued to warn that the original members of the executive committee were barred from communicating with media outlets and foreign organizations, according to local sources.
In response to a legal suit brought by the executive committee against the Justice Ministry, the Federal High Court decided twice – in December 2004 and March 2005 – in the committee’s favor, ruling that the Ministry’s ban was illegal, according to local sources.
In this week’s interrogations, however, the CID accused the EFJA leadership of illegally carrying out EFJA activities, including issuing press releases and speaking with reporters on press freedom issues, during the ban. Mulat told CPJ that police officers claimed not to know about the High Court’s decision.
“CPJ is alarmed by the authorities’ latest attempt to intimidate EFJA leaders,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “This is an intolerable assault on a press freedom organization whose right to operate has been upheld twice by the federal court.”