CPJ condemns government threats against independent media

New York, November 2, 2005—Ethiopian authorities have threatened to arrest journalists and made statements that could endanger independent reporters in the capital Addis Ababa, where opposition protesters and police have clashed for the past two days. The government also appears to be using state media to smear foreign and independent media.

The government threatened to detain leaders of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA), and journalists it accused of being mouthpieces for the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), according to a statement by the Ministry of Information. Local sources told CPJ that several editors and publishers had gone into hiding since the statement was broadcast on state radio and television on Tuesday.

Information Minister Berhan Hailu also called radio stations Voice of America and Germany’s Deutsche Welle mouthpieces of the CUD, according to a story in the state-owned Ethiopian Herald on Tuesday. He said the stations were “bent on destabilizing the peace and stability of the country.” Both stations are respected news sources in Ethiopia, which has no local independent radio stations. Local journalists told CPJ that the minister’s remarks could endanger the safety of VOA and Deutsche Welle reporters in Ethiopia

International news agencies said at least 23 people had been killed in anti-government protests in Addis Ababa this week. The opposition accuses the government of rigging May parliamentary elections.

The Information Ministry statement accused leaders of the EFJA of “playing a key role in implementing the plan for violence.” It said EFJA leaders and editors of private newspapers who backed the CUD would be detained and “brought to justice.” It did not name individual newspapers.

On Tuesday, police moved into the government-owned printing press, where most private newspapers are published, local sources told CPJ. At least one private newspaper failed to publish on Wednesday due to police intimidation, a source said.

“Through their statements and actions the Ethiopian government is making scapegoats of journalists who are just doing their job,” said Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Journalists have an obligation to cover these important events and present a range of political views, including those of the opposition. We are outraged that the government is undermining their work and jeopardizing their safety.”

The threat to arrest EFJA leaders came after members of the organization’s executive committee were summoned and questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department in Addis Ababa, three weeks ago. To read more about the recent police harassment of the EFJA, see CPJ’s alert: http://www.cpj.org/news/2005/Ethiopia13oct05na.html.

The Ethiopian Herald‘s article follows two worrying attacks on VOA correspondents, both of whom are Ethiopian citizens. On October 30, uniformed police pulled VOA correspondent Eskinder Firew from a taxi in which he was traveling with several other journalists. The police seized his tape recorder and listened to several minutes’ of tape before returning it. A man in civilian dress accompanying the police then threatened to kill Firew if he continued to work for VOA, local sources told CPJ.

On October 26, two unidentified assailants attacked VOA correspondent Meleskachew Ameha with rocks as he was returning home from a panel discussion on the media. He was hit in the head. Local journalists believe the assault was retribution for Ameha’s journalistic work. Police are investigating the attack.

On June 7, the Information Ministry revoked the accreditation of three reporters working for VOA and two for Deutsche Welle. Their accreditation has not been restored, and the journalists are unable to work in Ethiopia. The ministry accused the journalists of filing “unbalanced reports” on the May elections, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring. For more information, see CPJ’s alert.