Ethiopian police threaten paper over opposition party coverage

New York, August 5, 2008—Ethiopian police in the capital, Addis Ababa, threatened on Monday to block distribution of an independently owned newspaper if it continues its leading coverage of a new political opposition movement, according to local journalists.

The Amharic-language weekly Awramba Times reported today that it had received two separate phone warnings from top police officials to stop any coverage of “anti-constitutional organizations,” Editor Dawit Kebede told CPJ. The warning referred to the paper’s extensive coverage of the activities of the Netherlands-based Ginbot 7 movement.

Named after the May 15 date in the Ethiopian calendar (the date recalls election day in the 2005 disputed general elections), the movement headed by leading opposition figure Berhanu Nega calls for “all kinds and means of struggle” to challenge the government, according to CPJ research. In its July 29 edition, Awramba Times reported Ginbot 7’s launch of a radio program broadcasting into Ethiopia via satellite and the Internet, according to Kebede.

“In a country that claims to embrace democratic ideals, police have no business telling newspaper editors what political coverage they can and cannot run,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The authorities must stop these crude attempts at intimidation and censorship and allow Awramba Times to publish the news it wants.”

Local journalists said Awramba Times was preparing to issue a special edition this week celebrating its first six months since obtaining a publishing license as one of the first independently owned political publications since the government banned more than a dozen critical newspapers in a brutal 2005 crackdown on the press and political dissidents. Kebede spent 21 months in prison and was released only last year on conditional pardon. Kebede was imprisoned with Nega, who was one of dozens of political dissidents jailed during the crackdown.

CPJ recently protested a pending media bill in Ethiopia that would, among other things, allow prosecutors to summarily impound any print publication deemed a threat to public order or national security. In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom.