ETHIOPIA The government unleashed a sudden and far-reaching crackdown on the independent press in November following clashes between police and antigovernment protesters that left more than 40 people dead. Authorities detained more than a dozen journalists, issued a wanted list of editors and publishers, and threatened to charge journalists with treason, an offense punishable by death in Ethiopia. Dozens of journalists went into hiding during the crackdown, virtually silencing the local private press.
For nearly a week, security forces in Addis Ababa battled opposition supporters who accused Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of rigging polls in May that returned him to power. In June, security forces fired on demonstrators in similar protests.
The government accused members of the private press of acting as “mouthpieces” for the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which had refused to participate in the government after the disputed elections. It published a list of those it planned to prosecute for trying to “violently undermine the constitutional order in the country.” The list identified 17 editors and publishers from eight private newspapers, as well as Kifle Mulat, president of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA).
Security forces arrested scores of opposition leaders, along with thousands of their followers, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, and other prominent figures who had commented on the elections. At least 13 journalists whose names were on the government’s list were held and denied bail. One was sentenced in December to eight months in prison on defamation charges dating to 2003. Medical personnel who gave casualty information to reporters working for international outlets were arrested, along with some local journalists’ family members. Only a handful of mostly pro-government private newspapers were able to publish; more than a dozen others were blocked from publishing by security forces stationed at the state-owned printing press. On November 9, the prime minister said that treason charges would be brought against opposition leaders and journalists arrested in connection with the clashes. In a telephone interview with CPJ, Information Minister Berhan Hailu declined to give examples of evidence that would warrant a treason charge against a journalist.
State-owned media, which include Ethiopia’s sole radio and television station, carried propaganda smearing private and foreign media. State broadcasters showed photographs of many of the journalists on the government’s “wanted list,” and called on the public to inform police of their whereabouts. An Information Ministry statement broadcast on state-owned media accused EFJA leaders of “playing a key role in implementing the plan for violence.”
The minister said that the U.S. government-funded Voice of America (VOA) and the German Deutsche Welle radio were opposition mouthpieces “bent on destabilizing the peace and stability of the country,” the state-owned Ethiopian Herald reported. Both stations are popular news sources in Ethiopia, which has no local independent radio stations. Local journalists told CPJ that the minister’s remarks, which came on the heels of a violent attack on a VOA stringer by unidentified assailants, could endanger the safety of VOA and Deutsche Welle reporters in Ethiopia. In June, the Information Ministry had revoked the accreditation of three local correspondents working for VOA and two working for Deutsche Welle, accusing the journalists, all Ethiopian citizens, of filing “unbalanced reports” on the elections. Several fled the country, fearing further persecution by authorities.
The November crackdown followed lesser attempts to curtail press freedom in the wake of the May 15 elections, which were marred by violence, allegations of fraud, and pointed criticism by European Union monitors. While the vote was initially marked by a peaceful, high turnout, demonstrations erupted a month later as opposition supporters protested delays and irregularities in announcing the results. On June 8, security forces fired on protesters in the capital, Addis Ababa, killing more than 30 people, while thousands of opposition supporters were arrested without charge. Official results eventually pronounced Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front the winner, with significant gains for the CUD. The CUD claimed that the election had been stolen.
CPJ documented a surge in court cases against journalists who reported on the election aftermath; other journalists resorted to self-censorship. After the June protests, the Justice Ministry warned that any journalist found to be “disseminating fictitious reports that could not be substantiated” would be prosecuted. Between June and September, at least 17 editors of private Amharic-language weeklies were arrested because of their post-election coverage. At least seven were accused of criminal offenses such as defaming the Defense Ministry and the military. Several editors were arrested more than once.
Under Ethiopia’s press law, criminal charges can be brought against journalists for defamation, incitement to violence, and the publication of false news, among other offenses. Court cases can drag on for years, and journalists are regularly jailed for not being able to pay bail or for missing court hearings. Editors, who are held legally responsible for the content of their newspapers, routinely have multiple charges pending against them.
In August, two newspaper editors were found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reveal the sources of anonymous quotes criticizing a controversial Supreme Court verdict in a case involving the National Electoral Board. The verdict had rejected the opposition CUD party’s claim that the election board improperly announced provisional results before the final count was determined. Satanaw editor Tamrat Serbesa was sentenced to a month in jail for contempt, while Ethiop editor Andualem Ayle was fined.
Authorities arrested Fikre Gudu, a prominent newspaper distributor in the capital, on June 8 and jailed him for a month without charge. In August, police rearrested Gudu and held him for four days in connection with an interview he gave to the private weekly Asqual about his previous imprisonment. In the interview, Gudu described poor prison conditions and said that his arrest was part of the crackdown on independent media following the elections. According to local sources, police accused Gudu of using the interview to spread false information and defame the prison system.
Journalists based outside Ethiopia were also targeted. In August, Zenawi and other high-ranking officials pressed charges in a U.S. court against four Ethiopians accused of broadcasting defamatory reports on Tensae Ethiopia Voice of Unity radio, a station run by expatriate Ethiopians in Europe and the United States. Tensae broadcasts on shortwave and on the Internet to Ethiopia. The charges were dropped in September, perhaps as the result of international pressure.
In October, federal police summoned and questioned four leaders of the EFJA about the organization’s activities while it was officially banned from late 2003 to the end of 2004. The Federal High Court later ruled the ban illegal. In the interrogations, police 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. Some local sources thought that the police action against EFJA president Mulat, vice president Taye Belachew, accountant Habetamu Assefa, and treasurer Sisay Agena came in retaliation for the organization’s reporting on the legal harassment of journalists following the elections.
Fighting between government forces and secession movements, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), remained sensitive topics for Ethiopian journalists. The OLF wants a separate state for Oromos, one of the country’s largest ethnic groups, in southern Ethiopia. In 2004, violent protests by Oromo students led to a government crackdown on ethnic Oromos, including state-employed journalists—many of whom fled the country. In May 2004, two Oromo journalists at Ethiopian Television (ETV) were arrested and accused of aiding the OLF. Shiferaw Insermu, an ETV entertainment reporter, and Dhabasa Wakjira, news director of ETV’s Oromo-language service, remained in jail at year’s end. It was not clear whether their imprisonment stemmed from their journalism.