Ethiopian government pardons four journalists, revives genocide charges against others

New York, July 24, 2007— Authorities in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa released on conditional pardon last week four journalists who accepted responsibility for deadly post-election unrest in 2005, according to local journalists and news reports. The four were among 38 activists who were pardoned last week. At the same time, the government is attempting to revive genocide charges against nine other journalists. Those charges had been rejected by Ethiopia’s High Court in April.

“We welcome these releases, but we are concerned that the journalists may have been pressured to incriminate themselves to win their freedom,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Additionally, CPJ calls upon the Ethiopian Supreme Court to deny a reinstatement of unsubstantiated genocide charges against nine further journalists.”

Private weekly Addis Fortune quoted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as saying the prisoners would be free as long as they respected the rule of law, the constitution, and “constitutionally mandated institutions.” Zenawi added that the pardons showed the government had “no sense of revenge” and dismissed allegations that it had succumbed to pressure from the United States. U.S. officials had urged authorities to “promote reconciliation” after the prosecutor sought the death penalty for two journalists, according to news reports.

The release came after the prisoners requested clemency in a document in which they admitted they had attempted to overthrow the government. One of the journalists who signed it told CPJ he had done so without duress, but would not disclose details.

A white minibus carrying deputy editor Dawit Fasil of Satenaw and editors Ayele Andualem of Ethiop, Mesfin Tesfaye of Abay,and Wenagseged Zeleke of Asqual left Kality prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in the morning on July 20, local reporters told CPJ. The journalists, two of whom were handed life prison sentences last week, were set free along with 34 opposition leaders on a conditional pardon signed by President Girma Wolde-Giorgis, according to news reports. The pardon did not cover editors Zelalem Gebre of Menelik and Abiy Gizaw of Netsanet, who were sentenced to life in prison in absentia, said local journalists.

Also, last month, authorities appealed to Ethiopia’s Supreme Court to reinstate genocide charges and other anti-state crimes against nine journalists, according to their defense lawyer, Weneawake Ayele. In its ruling, the court had rejected the government’s claim that press coverage of the country’s unrest had harmed the Tigrayan ethnic group, which forms the base of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the nation’s ruling party. Genocide charges carry the death penalty.

Authorities were seeking convictions against nine journalists due to appear before Ethiopia’s Supreme Court in November: Sisay Agena, publisher of Ethiop and Abay; award-winning publisher Serkalem Fassil and columnist Eskinder Nega of Menilik, Asqual, and Satanaw; editor-in-chief Nardos Meaza of Satanaw; publisher Zekarias Tesfaye and deputy editor Dereje Habtewold of Netsanet; deputy editor Feleke Tibebu of Hadar; publisher Fasil Yenealem of Addis Zena; and Kifle Mulat, the exiled president of the banned Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association.

Since April, authorities have released 16 of 18 of the journalists of now-defunct Amharic-language weeklies imprisoned in November 2005 for their critical coverage of the government. Two journalists who remain in prison in connection with this case signed self-incriminating documents on Monday in anticipation of a possible pardon and release, Ayele and local journalists told CPJ. Editors Wosonseged Gebrekidan of Addis Zena and Dawit Kebede of Hadar waived their defense and pleaded guilty. A verdict was expected later this week, according to Ayele.

At least four journalists remain in Ethiopian prisons, making the country the second leading jailer of journalists in Africa after neighboring Eritrea, according to CPJ research. Prime Minister Zenawi dismissed allegations that expressions of dissent and criticism of the government had been stifled as a result of the trial, according to the Addis Fortune.

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