The directive from Berhanena Selam, in Amharic. (CPJ)
The directive from Berhanena Selam, in Amharic. (CPJ)

In Ethiopia, new printing directive equals pre-censorship

New York, May 9, 2012–Ethiopia’s main, state-owned printing company has directed newspaper publishers to censor any content that may draw government prosecution under the country’s anti-terrorism law or face cancellation of their printing contracts, according to local journalists and news reports.

In late April, the state-owned Berhanena Selam (Light and Peace) Printing Company, which is used by most local newspaper publishers, issued a directive saying it would refuse to print any material it believes would breach Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law, according to the same sources. The legislation criminalizes independent reporting on opposition groups or causes that the government deems terrorist and holds printers, as well as publishers, accountable for material that “promotes terrorism.” The directive, a copy of which CPJ obtained, allows Berhanena Selam the right to cancel any printing contract if the publisher repeatedly submits content the printer considers legally objectionable. (An English translation of the Amharic directive can be read here).

Berhanena Selam said it would require all newspaper publishers to agree to the new terms before further publications would be printed. Local journalists said there haven’t yet been interruptions to printing even though not all newspapers have signed.

“This directive, coming from a state-owned company, is an effort to codify pre-publication censorship under the repressive terms of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law, which the United Nations has criticized for its excessive scope,” said CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes. “This directive must be rescinded immediately.”

Thirteen publishers have jointly protested the directive, claiming it contravenes Article 29 of Ethiopia’s Constitution and the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information law, which both prohibit censorship, the editor of the weekly Reporter, Amare Aregawi, told CPJ. The publishers also drafted a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, he said.

The publishers question the ability of the printing company to determine what may be illegal, Addis Fortune Managing Editor Tamerat Giorgis told CPJ. The printing company declined a meeting, but the publishers still hope to meet and negotiate with the company soon, according to local reports.

The publishers questioned government spokesman Shimeles Kemal at a function for World Press Freedom Day in the capital Thursday over the directive, according to a local news report. Although the printing company is state-owned, he claimed the issue is a private one between businesses, the same report said.

Ethiopia is the second leading jailer of journalists in Africa, with seven journalists imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, according to CPJ research. The verdict of critical blogger and 2012 PEN America press freedom award winner, Eskinder Nega, is expected Friday. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This alert has been modified to reflect the correct spelling of Berhanena Selam.