In Ethiopia, four journalists released from prison

New York, August 20, 2007—Four imprisoned Ethiopian journalists of now-defunct Amharic-language weeklies were released on conditional pardon on Saturday along with 27 opposition activists, according to news reports and local journalists. The four journalists had been given heavy prison sentences earlier this month in connection with their coverage of deadly post-election unrest in 2005.

Editors Wosonseged Gebrekidan of Addis Zena, Dawit Kebede of Hadar, Goshu Moges of Lisane Hezeb, and freelance columnist Tadios Tantu had received prison terms ranging from four to 15 years after waiving their defense and pleading guilty in anticipation of a pardon.

Today, Ethiopian government spokesman Zemedkun Tekle told CPJ the journalists could resume their activities, but were forbidden from engaging in “any subversive action against the Constitution.” But, he added, they were free to criticize the government “as they were doing before.” He dismissed reports that confessions of guilt had been obtained under duress as “absolutely false and baseless rumors.”

“We welcome these releases and will hold the Ethiopian government accountable for its pledge that the beleaguered free press can resume its work without fear of reprisal,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

Gebrekidan, Kebede, Moges and Tantu were the last members of Ethiopia’s private press corps to be released in connection with the media’s coverage of the election unrest, which left more than 190 people dead, the journalists’ former defense lawyer Weneawake Ayele told CPJ. At least two journalists remain in Ethiopian prisons in connection with their reporting, however, according to CPJ research.

Meanwhile, CPJ remains concerned by the government’s attempt to reinstate genocide charges and other anti-state crimes against nine journalists acquitted in April after 17 months of imprisonment in connection with their reporting. Tekle declined to comment on the issue. Simon reiterated his call to the Ethiopian Supreme Court to deny a reinstatement of unsubstantiated genocide charges against the journalists.

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