Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to Parliament Thursday. (CPJ)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks to Parliament Thursday. (CPJ)

Ethiopia steps up terrorism allegations against journalists

New York, October 24, 2011–Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last week accused journalists in the country of being “messengers” with “terrorist” groups, while a state newspaper accused the chief editor of an independent publication of having terrorist ties and called on security forces to “take action” against him. The Committee to Protect Journalists today said it condemns this campaign of intimidation against the private press.

In comments Thursday to Ethiopia’s ruling party-controlled Parliament, Zenawi said many journalists in Ethiopia are working with “terrorist” groups as “messengers.” He claimed the government has evidence linking imprisoned journalists to terrorist acts and is aware of other journalists working in Ethiopia with terrorist ties, local journalists told CPJ.

Since June, government authorities have arrested six independent journalists on alleged terrorism charges including Awramba Times Deputy Editor Woubshet Taye, Feteh columnist Reyot Alemu, freelance journalists Eskinder Nega and Sileshi Hagos and two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye. Referring to Ethiopia’s private press as “vagabonds,” Zenawi accused the private press of not understanding their profession, according to local reports.

Earlier this month in an interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Zenawi said Persson and Schibbye were accomplices to terrorists and “are not journalists.”

Zenawi’s remarks to parliament came one day after state-run daily Addis Zemen (“New Era”) published a scathing attack against independent weekly Awramba Times in what appears to be part of prolonged smear campaign against the paper and its chief editor, Dawit Kebede. The Amharic-language daily published an opinion piece entitled “How long shall we tolerate violence-mongers,” that urged security forces to “take action” against Kebede, according to a translation of the article commissioned by CPJ.

The paper accused Kebede, a CPJ international press freedom award winner, of working with “terrorist groups” and called on the government to revoke the conditional pardon that led to his release in 2007 after 21 months in prison – a stint that followed the 2005 post-election crackdown on Ethiopia’s private press. The recent Addis Zemen comments are the latest installment in a series of articles critical of the independent weekly, according to local journalists. In July, Judge Muluken Teshale dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by Kebede and his Blue Earth PLC media company against Addis Zemen Editor-in-Chief Anteneh Haylu and the paper’s publisher, the Ethiopian Press Agency, according to CPJ research.

“This latest outburst by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is part of a systematic campaign to use allegations of terrorism to wipe out critical journalism in Ethiopia. The smear campaign by state media contributes to the climate of fear,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “Through this intimidation of the private press, Ethiopia is sacrificing its legitimacy as a democratic government.”

The entire staff of the former leading independent paper, Addis Neger, fled into exile in 2009 after Addis Zemen accused the paper of promoting anti-constitutional groups by covering the banned political party Ginbot 7.