Ethiopia blocks freed journalists from launching newspapers

New York, January 2, 2008— Three Ethiopian journalists told CPJ the government denied them applications to launch new newspapers on Tuesday. All the journalists spent 17 months in prison following the country’s 2005 elections. The newspapers were slated to become the country’s first independent political publications since authorities banned eight local papers and forced at least a dozen others to close after the 2005 deadly post-election unrest.

Award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil, her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega and publisher Sisay Agena fulfilled all legal requirements and submitted applications for Lualawi and Habesha—two current affairs Amharic-language weeklies—since mid-September. By comparison, newly launched current affairs weekly Addis Neger cleared its registration with the ministry within one hour in October, according to owner and editor Mesfin Negash, who was never jailed.

Ethiopia’s 1992 press law stipulates that a new newspaper is considered registered if the government fails to issue an official letter of certification within 30 days, but the document is required to obtain a mandatory commercial license, according to CPJ research.

Ethiopian Information Minister Berhanu Hailu and ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle did not return CPJ’s calls for comment today. Another ministry official, Fantahun Asres, head of Press Licensing, declined to comment on the matter to CPJ on Monday, but informed the journalists by phone on Tuesday that their applications had been denied, according to Nega.

“Despite public assurances in July that it would allow former prisoners to resume their work, the Ethiopian government instead is using bureaucratic tactics to deny independent journalists an outlet,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the government to remove such obstacles and allow our colleagues the right to publish newspapers.”

Fasil and Agena, the former owners of four banned newspapers, had their former publishing companies fined and dissolved in July 2007, three months after Ethiopia’s High Court acquitted them of anti-state charges. Authorities subsequently withdrew an appeal to reinstate the charges in October, according to local journalists.

Ethiopia’s ministry of information is mandated to “facilitate conditions for the expansion of the country’s media both in variety and in numbers,” according to the press law, but independent media outlets remain scarce, according to CPJ research. Last October, authorities allowed two independently owned media outlets to open: private commercial station Sheger Radio and current affairs weekly Addis Neger, although both operated under intense self-censorship, according to local journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom in 2007.