Nairobi, Kenya, March 14, 2006—Deep political divisions in Ethiopia have fueled the massive, months-long crackdown on the private press in that country, gutting the print media, promoting rampant self-censorship, and resulting in the imprisonment of more than a dozen journalists on charges that could bring the death penalty, the Committee to Protect Journalists found during a one-week visit to the country that ended on Monday.
The November 2005 arrests of journalists on treason and genocide charges has marked the substantial and alarming deterioration in press freedom conditions in the east African country, CPJ found. The crackdown came amid a post-electoral political crisis that escalated in November when street protests drew a government show of force.
“The press is a reflection of politics,” said Amare Aregawi, editor of The Reporter, one of the very few private newspapers that have published without interruption during the crackdown. “There’s no tolerance. It’s ’you are either with us or against us,’ and that is reflected in the media.”
The CPJ delegation, which released its preliminary findings at a press conference today in Nairobi, met with Ethiopian journalists, lawyers, diplomats, and top government officials, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. CPJ was also allowed to visit Kality Prison, on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, where dozens of opposition leaders and at least 14 journalists are being held. The delegation was able to speak for close to an hour with imprisoned journalists, all of whom professed their innocence.
In meetings with CPJ, government officials said the crackdown was necessary because of inflammatory reporting by journalists whom they accused of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order. Government officials blamed much of the private press for being captives or agents of the opposition.
Representatives of the private press told CPJ that journalists were being punished for critical reporting. The government itself, they said, has made balanced coverage impossible by refusing to talk to independent reporters. Local journalists complained of constant government harassment, as well as subtle forms of censorship, including pressure on printers not to print their newspapers.
Tamrat Giorgis, an editor with the English-language business weekly Fortune, said recent events had taught him that “all it would take to stop me publishing is one phone call.” Many local journalists, especially those whose newspapers are no longer publishing, were reluctant to meet with the CPJ delegation in public places or in groups for fear of reprisal. The press is itself divided, with tensions high between the private and state media.
Fewer than 10 private newspapers can now be found on the streets, compared with more than 20 during the election period, when critical weeklies in the local Amharic language mushroomed. Self-censorship is rife, according to CPJ’s analysis of news coverage. Among independent publications, only The Reporter, which appears once a week in English and twice in Amharic, and Fortune continued to publish uninterrupted during the crisis, editors told CPJ.
“Ethiopian freedom of the press is a victim from both within and without,” said Aregawi, The Reporter editor. He accused the government of harassing the private press and punishing it for “unnecessary things” but said some journalists had been guilty of shoddy practices. Regardless, Aregawi said, imprisonment on treason charges was unwarranted.
In a two-hour meeting with CPJ, Zenawi acknowledged that there is “poison” in relations between the press and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front but said his government would work to change the situation. “The government has to talk to the private press whatever the character of that private press,” he said.
But progress, he said, would also depend on political developments. “We are aware that the poison is not merely between the press and the ruling party. It’s a reflection of the overall tension between some in the opposition and the ruling party,” Zenawi told CPJ. “It’s a function of that divide. So in the end, removing this animosity will partly depend on how successful we are in terms of reconciling the parliamentary opposition and the ruling party.”
Parliamentary elections last May—only the third since the fall of the notorious Derg regime in 1991—were considered a landmark because they were competitive and drew a large voter turnout. While voting was largely peaceful, unrest began to build after the opposition cited irregularities and the government delayed the announcement of results. Months of political wrangling came to a head in early November when the opposition’s call for a national strike triggered a government backlash. At least 40 people were killed.
Fourteen Ethiopian journalists are currently on trial on charges of genocide and treason, which carries a possible death sentence. They have been jailed since November, when Ethiopian authorities launched the government’s crackdown. Authorities issued a “wanted” list of editors, writers and dissidents; raided newspaper offices; blocked newspapers from publishing; drove a number of journalists into hiding and exile; and expelled two foreign reporters.
Several other journalists have recently been arrested and sentenced under Ethiopia’s press law, which criminalizes defamation, publishing “false news” and insulting the Ethiopian government or security forces. CPJ research shows that several of these cases are based on allegations that date back several years and that center on narrow, technical issues.
Pregnant Internet journalist Frezer Negash was released last week after being jailed for six weeks without charge, but she is still under police investigation, justice ministry officials confirmed to CPJ. Negash is a correspondent for the U.S.-based Web site Ethiopian Review, which is highly critical of the government. Its editor, Elias Kifle, is one of several diaspora journalists charged in absentia with treason.
Diaspora journalists charged include five Washington-based staff members of the Voice of America (VOA), which broadcasts into Ethiopia in Amharic. A source told CPJ that authorities regarded VOA as “anti-peace media” because of its reporting on last year’s deadly riots. State media have been used to smear VOA and the Amharic service of Deutsche Welle.
Zenawi pledged that the journalists jailed on treason and genocide charges would get “their day in court in a fair and proper trial,” but said he could not interfere in the judicial process. He said the government would review the prosecution of journalists under the other, longer-standing charges. Zenawi said it was not government policy to prosecute journalists under the current press code, which is being revised in consultation with international experts and local stakeholders.
The CPJ delegation included Africa Program Coordinator Julia Crawford; Charles Onyango Obbo of Kenya’s Nation Media Group; and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a Johannesburg based journalist and CPJ board member. CPJ will publish a more detailed report at a later date.