Ethiopia’s High Court convicts four editors, three publishers

New York, June 11, 2007— Ethiopia’s High Court today convicted four editors and three publishers of now-defunct weeklies of anti-state charges linked to their coverage of the government’s handling of disputed parliamentary elections in 2005, according to local journalists.

Two of the editors were convicted of charges carrying life imprisonment or death.
The journalists were arrested after a  massive government crackdown on the media and opposition groups in November 2005. The media was targeted for its coverage of how the government handled disputed elections the previous May. More than 190 people were killed when authorities crushed post-election protests contesting the ruling party’s victory.

The Committee to Protect Journalists last month named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom.

 “We condemn this verdict which falls within the government’s pattern of judicial harassment to intimidate and silence the private press,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “The severity of the sentences in these cases compounds our outrage. We call on the authorities to abandon criminal prosecutions of journalists.”

Those convicted worked for Amharic-language weeklies shuttered after the crackdown. Editors Andualem Ayle of Ethiop and Mesfin Tesfaye of Abay, who were convicted of “outrages against the constitutional order,” face possible execution or life in prison. Editor Wenakseged Zeleke of Asqual could get up to 10 years in prison on similar charges.

Deputy editor Dawit Fassil of Satanaw, who had been released on bail in April after 16 months in prison, was returned to Kality prison today on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. He faces up to three years in prison on charges of “inciting the public through false rumors.”

The Addis Ababa court also convicted three publishers on related charges: Serkalem, which owns Asqual, Menelik and Satanaw newspapers; Sisay, publisher of Ethiop; and Fasil, which puts out the Addis Zena newspaper. The companies could face heavy fines or be dissolved, defense lawyer Weneawake Ayele told CPJ. All the newspapers involved in the court proceedings were forced to shut down after the crackdown.

The ruling follows the acquittal in April of eight editors and publishers on similar charges, including award-winning publisher Serkalem Fassil, sister of Dawit Fassil and owner of the Serkalem publishing house.

Ethiopia remains Africa’s second leading jailer of journalists, behind only Eritrea, according to CPJ research.