Ethiopia reinstates hefty fines against publishing houses

New York, March 10, 2010The Ethiopian Supreme Court reinstated fines on Monday against four newspaper publishing companies over their coverage of the disputed 2005 national election. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Ethiopian authorities to end their continuing pursuit of politically motivated charges related to the election.

Judge Dagne Melaku, presiding over a panel of three-judge panel, upheld fines initially imposed in July 2007 against the Fasil, Serkalem, Sisay, and Zekarias publishing houses for antistate crimes related to their newspapers’ reporting on Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, according to local journalists.

Monday’s ruling overturned a February 2009 High Court decision that had struck down the fines. The High Court said that a July 2007 presidential pardon, granted to numerous journalists and political dissidents who were facing antistate charges related to the election, also applied to the four publishing houses.

The publishing houses and their newspapers were forced to close in 2005 and were later banned by the government. The principals in the companies were acquitted of individual charges of antistate activity, although they spent 17 months in pretrial detention, according to CPJ research.

In its ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court ordered the principals in the publishing companies to pay the fines immediately or face the freezing of their assets, according to local journalists. Principals in the Serkalem publishing house, which owned Asqual, Menelik, and Satanaw newspapers, face a fine of 120,000 birrs (US$8,800); officials of Sisay Publishing and Advertising Enterprise, which produced Ethiop and Abay, face a fine of 100,000 birrs (US$7,400); principals in Zekarias, publisher of Netsanet, face a fine of 60,000 birrs (US$4,400), and officials of Fasil, publisher of Addis Zena, face a fine of 15,000 birrs (US$1,100). By Ethiopian economic standards, the fines are substantial.

The administration has used legal and administrative means to harass the owners of the four publishing companies ever since they were acquitted, according to CPJ research. In 2007, government prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reinstate genocide charges against principals in the companies, but the government eventually dropped the effort. The government later blocked two of the publishers, award-winning journalist Serkalem Fasil and editor Sisay Agena, from launching new publications.

“The government continues to use the courts and administrative means to settle political scores against journalists who were acquitted after the 2005 election,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “We call on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to end his administration’s unrelenting harassment of these journalists, which contradicts his public statements in 2007 that the government did not harbor a ‘sense of revenge’ toward its critics in the press.”