Nairobi, July 11, 2012–A veteran Ethiopian state journalist who was twice imprisoned on vague corruption and copyright charges and recently convicted on the lesser charge was released today on account of a reduced sentence, local journalists said.
A panel of judges at the Lideta Federal High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, sentenced Abdulsemed Mohammed, a former senior producer with government-controlled broadcaster Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA), to three and half years in prison but said he could go free on account of time already served. The judges also put Abdulsemed on probation for two years, the local journalists said.
Abdulsemed and another senior ERTA journalist, editor Haileyesus Worku, were first arrested in 2010 on corruption charges–a non-bailable offense under Ethiopian law– brought by the Ethiopian Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, local journalists said. At the time, Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon told CPJ the journalists had been caught “red-handed” trying to sell ERTA materials to an unnamed third party.
However, prosecutors repeatedly requested additional time to carry out investigations and eventually dropped the corruption charges, amending the accusations to copyright infringement. The journalists were released on bail in July 2011, having served 15 months, according to local journalists and news reports. Haileyesus fled into exile, while Abdulsemed remained but was unable to work as a journalist, according to local journalists. Both had worked for the state broadcaster for more than a decade.
Abdulsemed was re-arrested last month after judges convicted him on copyright charges for possessing copies of ERTA’s programs without the station’s consent, according to news reports. Haileyesus was convicted in absentia.
“While we’re relieved that Abdulsemed Mohamed has been released, he should not have spent a single day in prison on criminal charges that appear frivolous and politically motivated,” CPJ East Africa Consultant Tom Rhodes said. “This guilty verdict casts a further chill over a press corps that has been targeted repeatedly by authorities.”
ERTA, established by the Ethiopian constitution as a publicly-funded national outlet, operates under the tight grip of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party, according to CPJ research. Ahead of 2010 elections, in which the party swept 99% of parliamentary seats, the Meles administration replaced senior, independent-minded professional journalists like Abdulsemed with party loyalists, according to CPJ research and local journalists.