Ethiopian judge detains editor over pop singer case

New York, August 4, 2008–An Ethiopian judge overseeing the high-profile trial of an imprisoned pop singer jailed the editor of an independent weekly for contempt of court today. The contempt charge came after the weekly published an interview with the singer’s lawyer, according to local journalists.

Mesfin Negash, editor-in-chief of the current affairs weekly Addis Neger, could be sentenced to as many as six months in prison because of a July 26 interview with Million Assefa, singer Tewodros Kassahun‘s lawyer, according to local journalists. The newspaper quoted Assefa as saying that he would file a disciplinary action against High Court Judge Leul Gebremariam over alleged bias in his handling of the singer’s case, the journalist said. Kassahun, better known as Teddy Afro, has been behind bars since April, charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident in 2006.

“The arrest of our colleague Mesfin Negash is an example of how authorities will find justification to detain journalists who cover sensitive issues, and criminalize independent reporting,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “We call on the authorities to release our colleague immediately. The editor of Addis Neger has been arrested just because he was doing his job.”

Today’s arrest follows the release last week of a magazine impounded over similar coverage of the outspoken singer’s trial.

At 10 a.m. this morning, two plainclothes police officers presented a summons at the paper’s office in Addis Ababa that ordered Negash, Managing Editor and lawyer Abiy Teklemariam, and Deputy Editor-in-Chief Girma Tesfaw to appear before Judge Gebremariam, Teklemariam told CPJ. Teklemariam and Tesfaw were released after four hours.

Addis Neger journalists have been summoned and questioned by police over four separate stories in recent weeks, according to Teklemariam. The contentious stories included investigative reports into an alleged secret erotic massage parlor, alleged inadequate infrastructure at an elementary school, and alleged corruption by a church priest, he said. Addis Neger reporter Abraham Begiizew was recently detained for five hours and warned by Judge Gebremariam because he gathered reactions of fans and supporters of the singer following a court hearing, he added.

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. Meanwhile, three independent journalists acquitted and set free last year remain blocked from launching new newspapers, and two Eritrean journalists remain held incommunicado.