Ethiopian police detain editor, impound magazine over pop icon story

New York, May 5, 2008—Police in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, have detained a journalist and three support staffers of a private entertainment magazine since May 2. Local journalists say the detentions are related to a cover story about the high-profile trial of Ethiopia’s most popular pop singer, Tewodros Kassahun.

Deputy Editor and owner Alemayehu Mahtemework and the three media workers from the monthly Enku remained in police custody today without charges and were expected to be taken to court on Tuesday, according to the same sources. Local journalists also reported that Editor-in-Chief Fekadu Mahtemework went into hiding after being summoned for questioning on Saturday.

Mahtemework and the others were picked up early Friday evening as they carried 10,000 copies of the current edition from the printer to their offices. The police impounded all the copies of the paper, allegedly after receiving a tip from an informant at the printer that the cover story could lead to “incitement,” according to local journalists. The story focused on the trial of jailed pop music icon and government critic Kassahun, better known as Teddy Afro, and included interviews with his lawyer and fans.

“The seizure of Enku and the arrests of its staffers is a continuation of the Ethiopian government’s ongoing efforts to stifle the private press from freely reporting on important public issues,” said CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon. “We call on the Ethiopian authorities to abandon these crude tactics of intimidation and release our colleagues immediately. We also condemn this flagrant act of censorship and ask that the authorities return the confiscated copies of the magazine.”

Speaking to CPJ via telephone today, Ethiopian Information Ministry spokesman Zemedkun Tekle claimed no knowledge of the matter, but declared that the police had the right to intervene if there are “problems” with any content. He referred inquiries to the police. CPJ’s calls to Ethiopian federal police were not immediately returned.

Kassahun was arrested and charged last month in connection with a hit-and-run incident in 2006, according to news reports. Kassahun’s popular song, “Jah Yasteseryal,” became a popular anthem of anti-government protesters during unrest following the disputed 2005 parliamentary elections, according to local sources.

Despite releasing 15 Ethiopian journalists who were jailed on trumped-up anti-state charges last year in connection with a brutal 2005 media crackdown, Ethiopian authorities have not relented in their long-standing pattern of repression of independent media through intimidation, arrests, criminal prosecutions, and legal and administrative restraints, CPJ research has found.

In February, police detained three journalists from Islamic newspapers for two weeks and confiscated equipment and filed criminal defamation charges in connection with a public petition critical of the education minister. Meanwhile, three independent journalists acquitted and set free last year have been blocked from launching new newspapers, and two Eritrean journalists, arrested in 2006, continue to be held incommunicado in Ethiopia.