Fekadu Mahtemework, managing editor of the privately-owned weekly publication Ghion, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of about $227 in October 2019. The charges date back to 2014, under Ethiopia’s previous administration, and were filed against Fekadu in connection to the now defunct Enku magazine and a publishing company owned by his brother.
Police detained Fekadu on October 22, 2019, after an Addis Ababa court convicted him of tax evasion, according to a report by the news website Africa News and the Ethiopian journalist Befekadu Hailu, who is familiar with the case and who spoke to CPJ. The government first filed the charges in the case in 2015, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ.
According to those documents, Fekadu, his brother and business partner Alemayehu Mahtemework, and his brother’s company, Alemayehu Printing and Promotion Company, were co-defendants in the case. Fekadu was accused of assisting the company and his brother on several counts of tax evasion and under-declaration of income for the purposes of tax evasion, according to those documents. The charges specifically focused on Fekadu’s work with Enku magazine, which was owned by Alemayehu Printing and Promotion Company and is now defunct, according to the documents.
On October 29, 2019, Fekadu was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined 7,000 Ethiopian birr ($227), according to tweets by Befekadu.
Prior to his detention, Fekadu sent a statement to friends and colleagues, which was reposted online, in which he said that the case was retaliatory and that he was surprised that it had not been dropped despite the political reforms in Ethiopia over the past year.
Court documents seen by CPJ show the court convicted Fekadu after he failed to present witnesses or evidence in his defense after state auditors testified against him. Befekadu, who has spoken to Fekadu since he was detained, told CPJ that the journalist failed to mount a defense because he thought his case would be dropped, like other political cases. By the time he realized it would not be dropped, it was too late to mount a defense, Befekadu said.
The tax evasion charges were consistent with the previous administration’s pattern of retaliation against critical publications, according to Elias Gebru, a former editor of Enku who spoke to CPJ, and Befekadu’s tweets. Elias said he believed the taxes had been paid at the time. Enku went out of publication in 2014, according to CPJ research and the statement by Fekadu.
Police first accused Fekadu and Alemayehu of tax evasion in early 2014, when authorities summoned the brothers to record a statement and share documents demonstrating that the government had received their tax payments, according to a person associated with Enku who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. Fekadu and Alemayehu were released after recording their statement, the person said.
In August 2014, Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry accused several publications, including Enku, of publishing false news, inciting violence, and undermining public confidence in the government, and many journalists associated with these publications went into exile, according to CPJ research from the time.
Alemayehu fled into exile at that time, according to Fekadu’s statement and Tarikua Getachew, a diaspora-based lawyer who has been researching the case, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
While Alemayehu was in exile, the government charged and convicted him in absentia on false news charges, according to court documents seen by CPJ and the person who spoke to CPJ anonymously. The person said Alemayehu was charged as the owner of Enku, and said that Fekadu was not charged with false news.
In his statement, Fekadu said that he had appealed to government officials to have the tax evasion case dropped, as many cases against government critics have been thrown out in the past year. He said that officials were surprised the case had not been dropped, but said they did not take measures to get the case thrown out.
Two exiled journalists who are familiar with Enku’s history and spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal said that the Ethiopian government had previously used tax charges to target newspapers, especially ahead of the 2015 elections. Lomi, one of the other publications accused of spreading false information in 2014, also faced dubious tax charges, and its publisher, Gizaw Taye, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 18 years in prison, according to a report by Freedom House.
In 2008, police detained Alemayehu and three media workers for five days and impounded 10,000 copies of Enku after the magazine ran a cover story about the controversial trial of a local musician, according to CPJ research. At the time, local journalists told CPJ that Fekadu, who was then editor-in-chief of Enku, had gone into hiding.
Fekadu is detained at Kality prison in Addis Ababa, according to Befekadu. Fekadu plans to appeal his case, Elias and Tarikua told CPJ. Ghion magazine stopped publishing after Fekadu was detained, according to Tarikua.
CPJ emailed the federal attorney general’s spokesperson in early November 2019 asking for comment on Fekadu’s case, but did not receive a response.