Ethiopia lifts restraints on licenses to 2 freed journalists

New York, February 6, 2007—The Ethiopian government today reversed its decision last month to deny two journalists released from prison last year on pardon from launching new newspapers, according to local journalists. Three other journalists who were acquitted and set free last year remained blocked from launching their own publications.

Publishers Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan received official letters of accreditation for two Amharic-language current affairs weeklies, Awramba Times and Harambe, this afternoon, Kebede told CPJ. The accreditation documents are required to obtain a mandatory commercial license from the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade and Industry, the final step to launch a newspaper, he explained.

Kebede and Gebrekidan, who had applied for press licenses on December 15, told CPJ they would publish messages of solidarity for the three of their former cellmates and fellow publishers who remained blocked from launching their own newspapers. Award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil, her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega, and publisher Sisay Agena were informed last month that their applications had been denied without explanation, according to local journalists. Contrary to Kebede and Gebrekidan, who waived defense and pleaded guilty in anticipation of a pardon, the three journalists were acquitted of all anti-state charges against them.

“We welcome the Ethiopian government’s decision to lift administrative restrictions against our colleagues Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We now appeal to authorities to lift the same restrictions against Serkalem Fasil, Eskinder Nega, and Sisay Agena. It is their constitutional right to launch newspapers, and official statements have previously assured them that the government would not seek revenge against former prisoners.”

In addition to fulfilling all legal requirements under Ethiopia’s 1992 press law, Kebede and Gebrekidan were required to submit their pardon documents and documents describing the editorial policy of the new newspapers, they told CPJ. 

Ethiopian Information Ministry Spokesman Zemedkun Tekle today told CPJ he could not comment on the status of the three other publishers’ applications. “The government will decide,” he said, referring inquiries to Information Minister Berhanu Hailu and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s spokesman, Bereket Simon. Neither Hailu nor Simon immediately returned CPJ’s calls for comments.

Awramba Times and Harambe will join Addis Neger as the country’s few independent political publications since authorities banned eight local papers, including those owned by all five publishers, and forced at least a dozen others to close after deadly post-election unrest in 2005.

Last month, CPJ wrote to Prime Minister Zenawi urging him to intervene in the denial of licenses. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom in 2007.