Attacks on the Press 2007: Ethiopia

Involved militarily in the conflict engulfing Somalia, engaged in a tense stalemate with arch foe Eritrea, assailed by allegations of human rights abuses in the eastern region of Ogaden, Ethiopia eased media repression slightly and released many journalists from prison. Yet the chilling effect of a brutal 2005 media crackdown that led to 15 arrests and numerous newspaper closings hung over Ethiopia’s beleaguered private press in 2007. And continued government harassment drove many journalists out of the country.

On April 9, Ethiopia’s High Court acquitted and set free eight editors and publishers of now-defunct Amharic-language newspapers charged with antistate crimes such as “outrages against the constitution.” The court also tossed out “attempted genocide” charges filed against the journalists, although the government later sought to reinstate them. The acquitted journalists included award-winning publisher Serkalem Fassil, who gave birth to a child in prison.

The other journalists picked up in the 2005 crackdown were set free in July and August after signing incriminating statements, pleading guilty to antistate charges, and then receiving presidential pardons. Many observers saw the statements as being signed under pressure in order to receive a pardon, although government spokesman Zemedkun Tekle said the speculation was “absolutely false and baseless.” A 2006 CPJ report, “Poison, Politics, and the Press,” had concluded that the government’s charges in the 2005 crackdown were baseless.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dismissed suggestions that the government issued the pardons in response to pressure from the United States, according to the private business weekly Addis Fortune. The weekly quoted Zenawi as saying the prisoners would be freed as long as they respected Ethiopia’s rule of law, its constitution, and “constitutionally mandated institutions.” He declared that the pardons showed the government had “no sense of revenge.”

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom over the previous five years. In addition to the 15 journalists arrested in 2005, the country has locked up numerous editors and writers for months at a time on defamation and other charges that sometimes date back several years. The list of problems goes on: At least eight newspapers were forcibly closed during the 2005 crackdown and others have since shut down; dozens of journalists have taken flight from the country to avoid prison; a critical foreign reporter was expelled in 2006; and Web sites were blocked on a recurring basis. In response, spokesman Tekle told the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America that “press freedom in Ethiopia is getting stronger and stronger,” and that CPJ’s report did not reflect the “reality.”

For journalists, “reality” meant ongoing government intimidation. In January, authorities filed a contempt-of-court charge against Addis Fortune for its coverage of the 12-year trial of leaders of the Derg regime of ousted dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. The government cited copy editor Olurotimi Akanbi in connection with a headline and an editorial focusing on delays in the case. The charge was later dropped, but the paper was issued a warning and ordered to publish an apology. In June, authorities summoned 17 journalists and staffers of the private English-Amharic weekly African Best Business Index, interrogating them in a police station for 11 hours about their backgrounds and knowledge of the paper. They were subsequently fingerprinted and released without charge.

Harassment and imprisonment have led many of Ethiopia’s top journalists to go into exile. When CPJ issued a worldwide report in June, “Journalists in Exile,” at least 34 Ethiopian journalists had left the country since 2001—a tally second only to Zimbabwe worldwide. (Their ranks continue to grow: Since CPJ issued its report, another three journalists fled.) Among those who took flight were editors such as Befekadu Moreda, a founder of the respected newsweekly Tomar, whose 2007 resettlement in the United States was documented in the October CPJ special report, “Flight from Ethiopia.”

Several exiled journalists—including editor Abiy Gizaw of Netsanet and publisher Elias Kifle of the influential U.S.-based diaspora Web site Ethiopian Review—have been tried and convicted of crimes in absentia. Kifle, who founded Ethiopian Review as a college student, told CPJ he did not recognize the Ethiopian courts or consider legitimate the treason charge lodged against him in late 2005.

Popular Web sites like Ethiopian Review and others critical of the government were frequently inaccessible during 2007, according to several CPJ sources. In May, Internet monitor OpenNet Initiative cited Ethiopia for preventing its citizens from viewing independent Web sites and blogs discussing political reform and human rights. OpenNet pointed to “overwhelming evidence” based on diagnostic tests run by volunteers it had enlisted in Ethiopia, and said that more extensive censorship could ensue as Internet access expands across the country. In late 2006, security agents directed Internet cafés in Addis Ababa to register all users, but the initiative was abandoned shortly afterward without explanation, according to local journalists.

In an interview with CPJ in May, spokesman Tekle denied any government involvement in blocking Web sites, calling the assertions “baseless.” He said that affected sites should inform the state-run Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation or the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications “if the problem really exists.”

After the forced closing of Amharic-language newspapers during the 2005 crackdown, the remnants of the private press worked under pervasive self-censorship. Newspapers publishing in Addis Ababa focused largely on sports, entertainment, and business news, with very little coverage of politics, according to CPJ research. Addis Fortune, the Reporter, Capital, and the Daily Monitor continued to publish well-regarded news and opinion pieces in English, but they had limited readership beyond the elite, according to local journalists.

Ethiopia’s foreign press corps, shaken by the government’s 2006 expulsion of Associated Press correspondent Anthony Mitchell, continued to operate under a strictly enforced regimen of renewable one-year residency and accreditation permits. In 2006, several reporters were required to submit for review all of the stories they had published since 2005 in order to renew their accreditations, according to CPJ sources.

The foreign press corps was often forced to practice self-censorship because
officials were scrutinizing reports on sensitive topics such as the prosecution of opposition leaders, alleged human rights abuses, and the armed resistance in Ogaden, according to CPJ research. In May, three New York Times journalists reporting on the conflict in Ogaden were arrested by the military in the eastern town of Degeh Bur and held incommunicado for five days. The journalists, including Nairobi Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman, endured threats, questioning at gunpoint, and confiscation of their equipment, according to the paper. Times photographer Vanessa Vick was kicked in the back, the paper reported.

The AP’s Mitchell, 39, died in a plane crash in Cameroon in May, a month after breaking a story about rendition practices between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The in-depth report had forced U.S. and Ethiopian officials to acknowledge a secret program of detaining terrorism suspects.

In April, CPJ learned through official statements and a videotape posted on the government Web site Waltainfo that those detainees included staff reporters Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi and Saleh Idris Gama of Eritrean state broadcaster Eri-TV. The journalists were arrested by Kenyan authorities at the Somali border, held for three weeks, and handed over to the Ethiopian-backed Somali transitional government in January, according to the Eritrean Foreign Ministry. Wahid Belay, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, told CPJ in July that authorities had no information to provide about the journalists. Their whereabouts, legal status, and physical condition were still unknown in late year.

In May, parliament adopted new legislation restricting eligibility for broadcast licenses, granting the Ethiopian Broadcast Agency discretion over when to issue a decision and placing the regulator under the control of the government’s Ministry of Information, according to press reports. In two notable steps in October, Ethiopia’s first independent commercial radio station, Sheger Radio, and its first independent political publication since 2005, the private weekly Addis Neger, were launched.

In late year, lawmakers were drafting a new media bill. Press freedom advocates urged parliament to scrap defamation as a criminal offense and transform state-run news outlets into independent public media, according to news reports. Such liberalization would be at odds with the government’s actions—though not its words. Zenawi continued to promote press freedom in his public comments. “I don’t think people have any qualms about criticizing the government or rejecting its policies, or expressing dissenting views in any way,” he declared in a July press conference, according to Addis Fortune.

Veteran journalists saw a complex picture. Goshu Moges—who was among those who received a pardon on antistate charges—told CPJ that Zenawi’s government had indeed taken unprecedented steps in the past to promote a free press. But Moges, whose career began in 1975 under the brutal Derg regime, also noted that it was Zenawi’s government that had crushed the independent media in recent years. “I went to prison five times,” Moges said. “Many of my colleagues were forced to leave the country, and others are still suffering. This is the price the free press has paid.”