Ethiopian editor sentenced to prison; another freed on bail

New York, March 10, 2006—An editor was sentenced on Wednesday to one year in prison on a charge of publishing “false news” in a 2002 report attributed to the BBC, which claimed that Ethiopia was training rebels in neighboring Eritrea. Abraham Gebrekidan, who edited the now-defunct Amharic-language weekly Politika, was immediately jailed, several local sources told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile, pregnant Internet journalist Frezer Negash was freed from custody today after a court on Wednesday ordered her release on bail, chief prosecutor Shemelis Kemel told CPJ. No formal charges have been brought, but Negash, who had been held since January 27, is still under investigation.

A Committee to Protect Journalists delegation raised questions about her case and many others, including another jailed pregnant journalist, Serkalem Fassil, in meetings with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and top Justice Ministry officials on Thursday.

Ethiopian authorities launched a massive crackdown on the private press last November, after protests against alleged poll-rigging turned violent. Police blocked most private newspapers from publishing; drove dozens of journalists into hiding; raided newspaper offices; expelled two foreign journalists; and issued a “wanted list” of editors, writers, and dissidents.

Its publisher, Elias Kifle, is one of several exiled journalists charged in December with treason. Dozens of opposition leaders and at least 14 journalists have been jailed in Ethiopia on treason and genocide charges since November.

As part of the crackdown, a number of other journalists have been prosecuted for alleged press law violations that date back several years. Getachew Simie and Leykun Engeda, for example, were sentenced to prison in December for stories that dated to the late 1990s. (See CPJ’s December 12, 2005, alert..) Simie has been released pending appeal.

Other cases stem from purported technical infractions. For example, Iyob Demeke, former editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Tarik, was fined in February for failing to print the name of the newspaper’s deputy editor on its masthead in one edition. He spent six days in jail before enough money was raised to pay the fine. (See CPJ’s February alert:)

Meeting yesterday with the CPJ delegation, Zenawi said the government would review the prosecution of journalists facing longstanding charges related to their work. The delegation visited Kality Prison, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where opposition leaders and journalists have been held. The 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. (See CPJ’s March 9 alert.}