Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 9, 2006—Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, facing international criticism for cracking down on the press, pledged today that his government would give journalists charged with treason and genocide “their day in court” and a fair and proper trial.
In a two-hour meeting with a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the prime minister also promised that his government would review the prosecution of other journalists facing longstanding charges.
The CPJ delegation was allowed rare access today to Kality Prison, on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, where dozens of opposition leaders and at least 14 journalists have been held following post-electoral riots in November.
The delegation spoke with imprisoned journalists for close to an hour, and it was allowed to inspect the living conditions of 26-year-old journalist Serkalem Fassil, who is five months pregnant. The CPJ delegation appealed to the prime minister to give consideration to her condition and release her on humanitarian grounds. All of the imprisoned journalists professed their innocence.
The prime minister acknowledged there was “poison” in relations between the press and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, but he 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.
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. The delegation met earlier in the day with Justice Minister Assefa Kessito and other justice officials.
Fourteen Ethiopian journalists are currently on trial on treason and “genocide” charges. They have been in jail since November, when Ethiopian authorities launched a massive and ongoing crackdown on the private press. Police have blocked most private newspapers from publishing; driven dozens of journalists into hiding and exile; raided newspaper offices, confiscating computers, documents and other materials; expelled two foreign journalists; and issued a “wanted list” of editors, writers, and dissidents.
Several other journalists have recently served jail time under Ethiopia’s press law, which criminalizes defamation, publishing “false news,” and insulting the Ethiopian government or security forces. The government says a revised press code will be introduced following consultation with international experts.