Ethopia urged to grant publishing licenses

January 30, 2008

His Excellency Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
c/o Embassy of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the United States
3506 International Drive, NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

Via hand and facsimile: (202) 587-0195

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to express our great concern about the government’s denial of publishing licenses to five independent Ethiopian journalists freed last year from prison. We are calling on you to use all your influence to remove such administrative restraints, which contradict the government’s public assurances last year that former prisoners would be allowed to resume their work.

Award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil, her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega, and publisher Sisay Agena have fulfilled all legal requirements to launch two newspapers. They submitted applications for Lualawi and Habesha–current affairs Amharic-language weeklies–after applying for the publishing license in mid-September of last year. Yet the head of the Press Licensing and Permit Office, Fantahun Asres, informed the journalists by phone only on January 1 that their applications had been denied without explanation, according to Nega. By comparison, the ministry approved the registration of newly launched current affairs weekly Addis Neger within one hour of submitting an application in October, according to owner and editor Mesfin Negash, who was never jailed.

The same day in January 1, Asres also informed publishers Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan by phone that their applications to launch two other weeklies, Awramba Times and Harambe, were “totally unacceptable,” the journalists told CPJ. Kebede, who submitted all required documents under Ethiopia’s 1992 press law on December 15, said officials at the ministry additionally required him to submit a document describing his editorial policy for Awramba Times. The journalists had asked for a formal written response from the ministry after submitting the policy description, Kebede said.

Ethiopia’s press law stipulates that a new newspaper is considered registered by default if it does not receive a government response within 30 days, but an official letter of certification from the Ministry of Information is required to obtain a mandatory commercial license. The ministry is officially mandated to “facilitate conditions for the expansion of the country’s media both in variety and in numbers,” according to the law.

Asres declined to comment on the matter, referring CPJ’s inquiries to Information Ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle. Tekle and Ethiopian Information Minister Berhanu Hailu did not return CPJ’s repeated calls for comments. The spokesman at your office, Bereket Simon, also declined to comment on the matter.

The newspapers would have been Ethiopia’s first independent political publications since the government banned eight vernacular papers and forced at least a dozen others to close after the 2005 deadly post-election unrest. In public statements last year following the release of several journalists jailed since 2005, the government asserted it had “no sense of revenge” toward former prisoners. The journalists could resume their activities, barring “any subversive action against the Constitution,” and were free to criticize the government “as they were doing before,” Tekle told CPJ in August.

In addition to allowing the opening of Addis Neger, the government has permitted private commercial station Sheger Radio to open. It has also withdrawn an appeal to reinstate anti-state charges against eight journalists who were acquitted in April 2007, including Fasil, Nega, and Agena, according to defense lawyer Weneawake Ayele. Despite these positive developments, however, at least seven out of 15 journalists released last year felt compelled to flee the country in response to government surveillance, and independent media outlets remain scarce in a media environment gripped by intense self-censorship.

The government has also declined to provide any information about the whereabouts, legal status, and health of two Eritrean journalists detained incommunicado by the government since late December 2006. Eritrean state television journalists Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi’s detentions were disclosed in April 2007 through official statements and an anti-Eritrean propaganda videotape posted on the government Web site Waltainfo. They were among dozens of people the Ethiopian government acknowledged “capturing” in Somalia on suspicion of terrorism, according to news reports.

As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we call on you to ensure that the government removes the barriers that prevent these five journalists from launching their newspapers–a right that the state cannot to deny any citizen who has fulfilled all legal requirements under the press law. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.

Joel Simon
Executive Director
The Committee to Protect Journalists