These editors and publishers of Amharic-language newspapers were arrested in a massive crackdown on the private press and opposition that followed antigovernment protests in the capital, Addis Ababa, in November 2005. They were charged in December 2005 along with dozens of opposition leaders with conspiring to overthrow the government. The charges could bring death sentences upon conviction. All of the defendants were denied bail.
The joint trial of these journalists and opposition leaders began in February, with most observers expecting it to last many months or even years. Charges against the journalists included “outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order,” “impairment of the defensive power of the state,” and “attempted genocide.” Nega faces additional charges of “obstruction of the exercise of constitutional powers,” “inciting, organizing and leading armed rebellion against the government,” and “high treason.” He was charged as a leader of the CUD opposition party but has denied the accusation.
The journalists refused to put up a defense, saying the charges were baseless and the proceedings politicized. A CPJ analysis of evidence provided by the prosecution found that the journalists’ work was often antigovernment but did not constitute incitement to violence or genocide. In April, CPJ issued a special report, “Poison, Politics, and the Press,” outlining its findings.
In March, a CPJ delegation was allowed to visit Kality Prison near Addis Ababa and meet with some of the jailed journalists. The delegation spoke with Nega, Fassil, Agena, and Yenealem, all of whom said they had been doing their jobs as journalists in criticizing the government. Prisoners complained that their conditions were difficult.
When the trial went into recess in August and September, CPJ received reports that Nega and Agena had been moved to the capital’s Karchele Prison, known for its harsh conditions. Several sources said these prisoners were abused and that their visiting rights were severely curtailed. The two were not told why they had been moved to another prison, the sources said. After CPJ wrote a letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi expressing concern about the prisoners, sources said conditions improved somewhat.