New York, May 4, 2012–An Ethiopian court has cited the editor of a leading independent newspaper for contempt after his paper published the verbatim courtroom statement made by the imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega during his trial, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the ruling, which illustrates the growing severity of censorship in Ethiopia.
The Lideta Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, sentenced Temesghen Desalegn, editor of the private weekly Feteh, to a suspended four-month prison term and a fine of 2,000 birrs (US$113) on charges of contempt of the judiciary, news reports said. Desalegn paid the fine, local journalists told CPJ.
Prosecutors had filed a formal complaint on April 11 against Feteh and Negadras, another leading independent newspaper, for “repeatedly publishing articles which put down the court’s responsibility, disgrace its trust and undermine people’s trust on the rule of law,” local journalists said. The court acquitted Negadras Editor-in-Chief Surafel Girma, news accounts said, but the accounts did not explain why.
The two newspapers had published in full the written statement read aloud by Eskinder during a March 28 hearing in his high-profile terrorism trial, local journalists said. In the statement, Eskinder professed his innocence and questioned the independence of the court and the fairness of the proceedings. “The problem is not [the prosecutors’] professionalism but the political interference. When they are forced to come up with a charge with no evidence, they have no choice but to fabricate things,” he said.
“When a journalist can be fined and subjected to a suspended prison term for publishing statements made by a defendant in court, it illustrates the decay of free expression and the rule of law,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “Domestic and international observers, who are watching this trial closely, consider coverage of the defendant’s position to be central in judging the integrity of the proceeding.”
Feteh also published open letters by other imprisoned co-defendants of Eskinder, including prominent opposition leader Andualem Arage, who was injured in a prison attack in February, according to the same sources.
Eskinder faces life in prison if he is convicted on charges of terrorism and incitement to violent revolt for his articles that discussed the implication of the Arab Spring uprisings for the struggle for democracy in Ethiopia, local journalists said. He had also published commentaries critical of the government’s use of a sweeping anti-terrorism law to jail dozens of opponents, including critical journalists, the journalists said.
On May 2, Eskinder was awarded the Pen America’s “Freedom to Write” annual prize for his coverage of Ethiopia’s human rights record.