Attacks on the Press 2009: Ethiopia

Top Developments
• Terrorism law criminalizes coverage of sensitive topics.
• Broadcasting Authority serves as government censor.

Key Statistic
4: Journalists jailed as of December 1, 2009.

Ahead of national elections scheduled for May 2010, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) further curtailed the limited freedom of the country’s small number of independent newspapers. The government enacted harsh legislation that criminalized coverage of vaguely defined “terrorist” activities, and used administrative restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and imprisonments to induce self-censorship. In all, four reporters and editors were being held when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In African hot spots,
journalists forced into exile

Country Summaries
Other developments

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was expected to seek another five-year term in the 2010 vote, the first general election since the disputed 2005 vote, which was marred by a bloody crackdown on political dissent and Ethiopia’s once-vibrant Amharic-language press. With control of more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament, virtually all local council seats, and a weakened opposition, Zenawi’s administration tightened its control of the press as well.

In July, the EPRDF-controlled Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives passed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation despite concerns by opposition lawmakers and legal experts about its far-reaching provisions, according to local journalists. Some reporters who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity said they had been pressured by officials and government supporters to censor coverage that scrutinized the legislation, which added to an existing body of law that restricts the press and the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

A provision of the terrorism law punishes “whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging, supporting or advancing terrorist acts” with as much as 20 years in prison, according to CPJ research. The legislation conflated political opposition with terrorism. It contained broad definitions of a “terrorist organization,” including any organization the government bans under the law, and of “terrorist acts,” which include destruction of public property and “disruption of public services,” according to an analysis by Human Rights Watch.

The legislation was detrimental to media coverage of political opposition groups that the government had banned and labeled as terrorist. In August, a public prosecutor convicted in absentia exiled journalists Dereje Habtewold and Fasil Yenealem. They were found guilty of involvement in a coup plot by the “terror network” of exiled opposition leader Berhanu Nega, according to news reports. Habtewold and Yenealem were editors of the political newsletter of Nega’s Ginbot 7 movement, which is banned in Ethiopia. The same week in August, the government invoked the specter of terrorism when it unsuccessfully attempted to force private Kenyan broadcaster Nation Television (NTV) to drop an exclusive report on separatist rebels of the Oromo Liberation Front in southern Ethiopia. In a letter to the broadcaster’s parent company, The Nation Media Group, Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, Disasa Dirribsa, accused the station of speaking for “a terrorist group,” according to the Daily Nation. Nevertheless, the station dismissed the pressure and aired the four-part series, according to Linus Kaikai, NTV’s managing editor of broadcast news.

The terrorism legislation gave security agencies sweeping powers of warrantless interception of communications, and search and seizure, and allowed pretrial detention to extend up to four months, according to CPJ research. It was not clear whether the law would apply to Eritrean state television journalists Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane who have been held incommunicado and without charge since late 2006 on suspicion of terrorism. Gama and Kidane were among 41 people the government said it had “captured” in Somalia. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahde Belay told CPJ in October that he would provide no information about the two journalists.

The government dismissed concerns of potential abuse of the new terrorism law. “This is a government that is committed to the constitutional provisions, and in the constitution, any abuse of power is not allowed,” government spokesman Bereket Simon told the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America.

In fact, the administration’s official rhetoric was largely out of step with its actions, as noted in a 2008 human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department. “While the constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, the government did not respect these rights in practice,” the report said.

The dichotomy was reflected in February, when the Ethiopian government issued a press release asserting the administration’s commitment to “ensure the free flow of diverse ideas and information.” That month, three editors of Amharic-language weeklies were detained by police for their coverage, including Wosenseged Gebrekidan of Harambe, who spent 18 days in custody because he could not post bail in a criminal libel case. The arrest appeared to violate Ethiopia’s 2008 press law, which banned pretrial detention of journalists, according to CPJ research.

The government has had a longstanding practice of bringing trumped-up criminal cases against critical journalists, leaving the charges unresolved for years as a means of intimidating the defendants, and then reviving the cases at politically opportune moments, CPJ research shows. It continued the pattern in 2009. A judge sentenced editor Ibrahim Mohamed Ali of the Muslim-oriented newspaper Salafiyya to a year in prison in connection with a 2007 defamation charge related to a guest column criticizing the Ministry of Education’s proposal to restrict headscarves for female Muslim students at public educational institutions, according to defense lawyer Temam Ababulgu. The same judge handed the same sentence to Asrat Wedajo, former editor of the now-defunct Seife Nebelbal newspaper, in connection with a 2004 “false news” charge. Wedajo’s paper had run a story alleging human rights violations against the ethnic Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

In another case in May, Meleskachew Amaha, a freelancer with Voice of America, was imprisoned for two weeks on spurious tax charges related to his involvement with private media group Addis Broadcasting Company in 2005, according to news reports and local journalists. Amaha was acquitted in July.

The arrests of journalists occurred in the context of waves of arrests of opposition party members, including outspoken opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, who was jailed in December 2008 to serve a life sentence for contradicting government assertions about pardons given to political prisoners in 2005, according to news reports. Mideksa, who was one of the detainees, said the government had coerced statements of culpability from the prisoners.

Opposition political groups said hundreds of members were arrested in 2009, according to news reports, but government spokesman Simon denied the arrests were politically motivated. “Nobody has been imprisoned or killed for political activity, to my knowledge,” he told Reuters in November.

In a June interview with the Financial Times, Zenawi denied that the arrests of political dissidents and enactment of harsh legislation “contributed to an atmosphere where people do not feel free to speak.” He declared: “Have you read the local newspapers? Do they mince their words about the government?”

In reality, journalists with the handful of Amharic-language newspapers that covered current affairs worked under intense scrutiny of officials, government supporters, and the government-controlled media, according to CPJ research. Foreign journalists based in Addis Ababa, who worked under the constant threat of expulsion, were also affected by the government’s heavy hand. “When watched closely, you do tend to become very artful at balancing your pieces,” an international reporter told CPJ on the condition of anonymity.

Pointed coverage of sensitive topics routinely triggered accusations in the state media, threats, and government interrogations, according to local journalists. In November, for instance, the state daily Addis Zemen published columns accusing Addis Neger and Awramba Times of supporting banned political organizations and undermining national interests. Addis Neger, the leading independent political publication with a circulation of 30,000, announced in December it would halt publication “following legal and political harassment and intimidation by the Ethiopian government.” Five of its editors fled the country, citing fears of prosecution, according to news reports. At least 41 Ethiopian journalists have fled into exile this decade, according to CPJ research, although local groups say the number could be much higher.

The EPRDF further tightened its grip on the national public media and media regulatory agencies. In January, the government appointed administration spokesman Simon as board chairman of the national public broadcaster Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency, according to news reports. Simon’s deputy, Shimelis Kemal, formerly the chief government prosecutor who charged 15 journalists with antistate crimes in 2005, was in charge of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, overseeing the issuing of print media licenses.

The Broadcasting Authority, which is accountable to the prime minister, effectively became the government’s censorship arm as it issued restrictions against independent media. It immediately barred any media executive with more than 2 percent ownership share from assuming any editorial position, according to local news reports. In April, it denied licenses to three journalists imprisoned in 2005—award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil; her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega; and publisher Sisay Agena—because of convictions against their now-dissolved publishing companies, according to local journalists. The same month, the authority briefly revoked the accreditations of VOA correspondents Eskinder Firew and Meleskachew Amaha, who had been jailed in May. Finally, in June, it ordered private Sheger Radio to stop carrying programs from VOA.

Authorities also continued to restrict Web sites discussing political dissent and other sensitive issues on the government-run national Internet service provider, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation. In October, OpenNet Initiative—a research project on Internet censorship—released the findings of a study that named Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with “consistent” and “substantial” filtering of Web sites, including CPJ’s site and two major blogging platforms, Blogger and Nazret.