Editor convicted over misidentification

New York, November 3, 2008–An Ethiopian Federal High Court judge convicted an editor today on criminal charges of “inciting the public through false rumors” over a reporting mistake, local journalists told CPJ.

Editor-in-Chief Tsion Girima of the private weekly Enbilta is being held in Kality prison, outside the capital, Addis Ababa, pending sentencing on Tuesday.

Charged under article 486 of the revised penal code; Girma faces up to one year in prison, according to her former lawyer, Kassahun Asefa, who had worked for her pro bono. The October 3 edition of Enbilta mistakenly identified the judge overseeing the high-profile trial of Ethiopian pop musician Tewodros Kassahun as Judge Mohamed Amin instead of Judge Mohamed Umer, Girma told CPJ last week. Enbilta did not write a correction but used the right name in the following edition, she said.

Enbilta is one of a few politically critical independent publications that still exist in Ethiopia after a government crackdown on the independent press in the aftermath of the 2005 elections. 

“It is outrageous that a journalist can be convicted over a reporting error,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “This conviction cannot stand. Tsion Girma should not be sent to prison.”

Girma, Deputy Editor Habte Tadesse, and editor Atenafu Alemayehu were arrested on October 22, the morning after reporting to police for questioning, according to local journalists. Girma was released the next day on bail of 2,000 birr (US$200) and Tadesse and Alemayehu were released on October 24 without any charges, Girma said.

Girma is the second journalist to face criminal charges this year over coverage of Kassahun’s trial. Editor Mesfin Negash of the leading weekly Addis Neger was sentenced to a one-month suspended prison term for publishing an interview with the singer’s lawyer that was critical of the former judge overseeing the trial.

Ethiopian authorities routinely use police detentions, threats, and legal and administrative restraints to censor reporting. CPJ named Ethiopia the world’s worst backslider on press freedom in 2007.