New publications, familiar questions

By Mohamed Keita/Africa Research Associate on August 7, 2008 4:48 PM ET

Journalists in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, today reported that police interrogated the editors of Awramba Times and Harambe, two fledgling independent current affairs weeklies over a series of political stories.

Officers questioned Dawit Kebede of Awramba Times over editorials and interviews in five separate editions of his newspaper since April, Deputy Editor and lawyer Wondrad Debretsion told CPJ. The news items included an editorial challenging the government's assertion of high voter turnout in April's general elections, and a column by opposition leader Berhanu Nega comparing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, according to Debretsion. Editor Wosonseged Gebrekidan of Harambe was also questioned over three similar stories.

Today's development follows Wednesday's sentencing of Mesfin Negash, the editor-in-chief of the current affairs weekly Addis Neger, to a one-month suspended prison term for publishing an interview of the lawyer of jailed outspoken pop icon Teddy Afro. Negash, who spoke to CPJ via telephone shortly after his release, was detained by High Court Judge Leul Gebremariam on contempt of court charges and spent two days in the cells of the Addis Ababa Police Commission. The author of the comments, defense lawyer Million Assefa was sentenced to a month and 20 days imprisonment and remains behind bar, according to local journalists.

Negash said the one-month suspended prison sentence he received today was his first criminal conviction. In a statement, Addis Neger announced it would appeal the ruling, expressing concern about a potential "chilling effect" on media coverage of court cases in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Negash expressed gratitude to CPJ for displaying "solidarity" during his ordeal.

Addis Neger, Awramba Times and Harambe have suffered government harassment since becoming the first independently owned political publications since the government banned more than a dozen critical newspapers in a brutal 2005 crackdown on the press and political dissidents.

Speaking to CPJ, Awramba Times' Debretsion expressed the frustrations of many independent journalists:

"Editors are becoming afraid to report anything opposing the government. A democratic government never does anything like this. If they're a democratic government, they have to allow us to report what's going on in Ethiopia and in any other country. Most of the times they're trying to stop journalists from doing what they're supposed to do. If there's a democracy, they should give us a chance to analyze things which are not good, not bad, which are true, which ones are not true; they have to give us a chance to do criticism against the government or other opposition parties.

"It's becoming routine for journalists: You report something, then you go to the police station. ... If they continue like this, our democracy might be under question mark." .


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