Clampdown in Addis: The Press Proclamation and the Prosecution of Journalists

Ethiopia’s independent journalists currently work under threat of prosecution from three separate areas of government: a poorly trained police force that sometimes operates independently of the public prosecutor’s office; an inexperienced, partisan judiciary operating in a severely backlogged court system; and overly sensitive government officials who are offended by public criticism of their actions. Journalists are granted certain rights by the Press Proclamation; yet at the same time the vagueness of these guarantees allows the government undue leverage to interpret editorial “intent” in published materials. This grants the government free rein to prosecute and punish journalists for perceived insults against the state and its officials. As a result, many independent publishers employ attorneys on retainer to conduct prepublication reviews of their newspapers and magazines to reduce their chances of becoming targets of government reprisals.

Journalists are often arrested in an arbitrary manner, either on the initiative of police, or when charges have been filed by the public prosecutor. In many cases, police officers decide independently that publications have acted illegally, and they arrest journalists before gathering evidence or filing charges in the courts.

The police often base their actions on the Press Proclamation’s Art. 10, Sec. 10, which prohibits the media from “any defamation or false accusations against any individual, nation, nationality, people or organization,” or “any criminal instigation of one nationality against another, or incitement of conflict between peoples and any agitation for war.” Within 48 hours of an arrest, police can also request 14-day stays from the district courts, renewable for an additional 14 days, to remand journalists into custody while the police gather evidence.

In May 1996, when CPJ asked Justice Minister Mahteme Solomon about the government’s expectations and plans regarding the establishment of a modern police force, he replied, “The police force is in its infancy. Many [police officers] were soldiers who protected the government, not the people.” Modernization of the force would be “very expensive when compared to needs for food, medication, and education,” he said. In early 1996, when the Ministry of the Interior was dismantled, the police force was placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. It remains to be seen, however, whether the police force will become fully accountable to the prosecutor and the courts.

The case of Lullit Gebre Michael, editor in chief of the independent daily The Monitor, exemplifies the danger of allowing police to subjectively interpret the Press Proclamation when they themselves have limited understanding of journalists’ rights or the role of the media in a democracy.

In November 1995, Lullit and publisher Fitsum Zeab Asgedom were arrested at The Monitor’s editorial offices and taken to the Criminal Investigation Department for questioning. The arrests were in connection with two wire stories The Monitor ran from the government-run news wire service, the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). The stories, which ENA had received from the Panafrican News Agency and Agence France-Presse services, reported an assassination attempt on Col. Mengistu in Harare. Lullit tried to verify the information with the Ethiopian ambassador to Zimbabwe, and quoted him in a follow-up article. The ambassador said that he was unaware of the incident and asserted that the Ethiopian government was not involved.

In recounting her experience with the Ethiopian justice system, Lullit said that she realized the police had no knowledge of how the press operates. During questioning, she said, she had to explain to her interrogator that ENA was a government wire service and that The Monitor, like many other newspapers, paid a monthly fee for use of the wire’s news reports. When Lullit went before the court the next day, the judge refused to hear her comments, said that he had not read the articles in question, and remanded her to custody. After nine days of detention, she was released without charge on a 10,000 birr* bond (US$1,600**). Five days later, Fitsum was released on the same conditions. The court ordered the newspaper to suspend publication for three weeks. In August 1996, the case was officially closed without explanation.

The state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV) also carried the ENA story on the Mengistu assassination attempt, but suffered no repercussions. The Monitor’s case, however, was as much a turning point for state journalists as for the independent press because it marked the first time a government news story had been used as justification for prosecuting an independent journalist. As one state reporter told CPJ, “I was bitter when The Monitor editor was arrested for telling the truth. It was a deliberate misinterpretation of the news by the prosecutor.”

Though legal harassment of government journalists is rare, the state press has not been immune to prosecution. In February 1993, editor Tesfaye Gebre Ab and columnists Tsegaye Hailu, Sileshi Tesserna, and Yeshtile Kokab of the government daily Addis Zemen, were detained and charged with “creating fear among the population.” The arrests were in connection with an article discussing the positive and negative effects of democracy in Ethiopia. The journalists were eventually freed on a bond of 10,000 birr (US$1,600) each. In August 1993, after six months of litigation, the First Criminal Bench of the Central High Court acquitted them.

Protecting one’s sources can also lead to prosecution and jail time in Ethiopia. Even though Art. 8, Sec. 4 of the Press Proclamation prohibits the state from forcing journalists to reveal their sources, the state may bring charges under the State Security Act against a journalist who refuses to do so. Conviction on such charges would result in a guaranteed prison sentence. As a result, many independent journalists use pseudonyms to avoid identification by police and the public prosecutor’s office. One private publisher told CPJ that he insists on pseudonyms for reporters who cover controversial issues, like the economy and land lease programs, in the interest of the journalists’ safety.

For attorneys representing the private press, the amorphous nature of the Press Proclamation prevents them from confidently advising journalists on how to protect themselves from future arrests and litigation. The Ethiopian court system is modeled on the Napoleonic Civil Law system, where each offense and penalty is decided on a case-by-case basis without regard to previous rulings in similar cases. Absent prior decisions to incorporate into their defense strategies, attorneys are at the mercy of individual judges’ interpretation of the law.

In interviews with CPJ, a number of attorneys who represent journalists said that even if the court adhered strictly to existing laws and the constitution, the judiciary is not independent, and therefore could not be expected to reach objective decisions. These attorneys pointed out that the dismissal of the majority of Ethiopia’s experienced judiciary in May 1996 landed the country squarely in a crisis. Today the court system is so severely backlogged that many defendants may spend more time in prison awaiting trial than they would if convicted of the charges against them. As one journalist told CPJ, “Christ, in his second coming, will see a judge sooner than the average Ethiopian citizen if the situation continues as it has until now.”

The government’s position that it was necessary to purge the judiciary of those loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie and Col. Mengistu is insufficient justification for citizens’ prolonged imprisonment, in deplorable conditions, while awaiting trial. And the state’s 30-year plan for the establishment of an independent judiciary is not a solution to the court crisis. The government should immediately appoint enough prosecutors, judges, and investigators to end the current state of indefinite pretrial detention.