New York, February 17, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned the imprisonment of two Ethiopian journalists for failing to pay hefty fines imposed in court cases stemming from their work. Both journalists were released after the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) raised the money to pay the fines, EFJA president Kifle Mulat told CPJ today from Uganda, where he is in exile following a crackdown on the Ethiopian press.
Elias Gudissa, editor-in-chief of the Amharic-language weekly Tikusat, was sentenced to pay 11,000 birr (US$1,267) on February 10 for “defaming the government” and printing “misinformation” in an article printed several years ago about the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Mulat told CPJ. He was released on Wednesday after five days in jail. Tikusat, like much of the private Amharic-language press in Ethiopia, has been barred from publishing for at least several weeks by security forces posted in the government-owned printing press, according to CPJ sources.
Iyob Demeke, former editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Tarik, was sentenced on February 8 to pay 6,000 birr (US$691) for having failed to print the name of the newspaper’s deputy editor on its masthead, Mulat and other CPJ sources said. He was released on Tuesday after six days in jail. According to CPJ records, the case against Demeke dates from 1999. Tarik closed down several years ago.
Two journalists are currently serving prison terms for alleged press crimes under Ethiopia’s 1992 press law. (For more information, see CPJ’s alert: http://www.cpj.org/news/2005/Ethiopia12dec05na.html). Fourteen more are in jail facing charges of treason and genocide. Frezer Negash, a correspondent for the U.S.-based Web site Ethiopian Review, has been in jail without charge since January 27. Negash is several months pregnant. (For more information, see CPJ’s alert: http://www.cpj.org/news/2006/africa/ethiopia30jan06na.html).
“We are disturbed at Ethiopia’s policy of jailing journalists when they are unable to pay fines, especially since the government has agreed to reform the country’s draconian press law,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on Ethiopian authorities to place a moratorium on prosecutions under the 1992 press law until the law is reformed in line with international standards of press freedom.”
In an interview in early February with the pro-government Walta Information Center, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that Ethiopia’s press law would be reformed with the help of “foreign consultants…with reference to press laws of those countries who are advanced in their democratic culture.” International media organizations and the EFJA have long objected to the law’s provisions, under which 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 post 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.
“Authorities must also release all 17 of our colleagues from jail,” Cooper added. “Ethiopia is now Africa’s biggest jailer of journalists.”