Ethiopia: Poison, Politics, and the Press

By Julia Crawford

In Ethiopia’s toxic political climate, Zenawi’s government sweeps up journalists and shuts down newspapers.

Posted April 28, 2006


A  scarf tied around her head and her five-month pregnancy just showing under a robe, Serkalem Fassil appeared shy and scared as she talked about life in Kality Prison. Her English is not good, she explained, but yes, the baby is OK. And yes, she added softly, it’s very hard in Kality. Fassil, 26, who worked on three Amharic-language weeklies, is among at least 14 journalists held in this crowded, sweltering prison alongside dozens of political opposition leaders. They are being tried jointly for genocide and treason, charges that could bring life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The journalists are the most notable example of a government crackdown on the press that began in November when post-election street protests drew a show of official force, violence flared, and more than 40 died. The government issued “wanted lists” of opposition party leaders, editors and writers; journalists who weren’t arrested went into hiding. Direct government orders and indirect pressure were blamed for the closing of more than half of the newspapers that once published in the capital. Self-censorship is rife among those still publishing.

The government alleges that the editors and reporters were part of an opposition conspiracy to overthrow the “constitutional order.” The genocide charges rest on assertions that the journalists’ work harmed members of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and the Tigrayans who form its dominant ethnic group.

Many of the shuttered publications did advance the views of the opposition, featuring numerous interviews with party leaders and editorials critical of the government’s handling of the May 2005 parliamentary election, according to interviews and a review of published material. But the government has disclosed no evidence linking published material to acts of violence, nor has it offered any substantiation that the journalists were motivated by anything other than what they saw as their work responsibilities, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found. No evidence has been presented that treason or genocide were planned or occurred, CPJ found.

The charges have enormous emotional resonance in Ethiopia, which fought a bitter war with neighboring Eritrea, and where ethnicity is part of the political landscape. The defendants were not allowed to post bail because of the severity of the charges, enabling the government to effectively silence these critics during their court case. By most accounts, the trial, which began in February, could last many months or even years.

The imprisoned journalists–several of whom were interviewed by CPJ with the government’s permission–said they were doing their jobs in criticizing the administration of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “We’re not against this government,” Fassil Yenealem, the jailed publisher of Addis Zena, told CPJ. “It is through this government that we began to write. But when the government sees people starting to demand more democracy, freedom of expression, and development, they think it’s the fault of the press.”

Government officials stress that there was no private press until the current administration toppled Mengistu Haile Mariam’s notorious Derg regime in 1991. In an interview with CPJ, Zenawi said his government has tried to build democratic institutions, including a free press, even though much of the private media “is in effect a party organ of the opposition.”

Until recently, Western donors regarded Zenawi as a reform-minded leader who had put his troubled country on a path that could be emulated by others in Africa. With a population of more than 70 million, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most populous nations. It is also the seat of the African Union and of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The United States regards Zenawi as an important partner in its fight against terrorism, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave Zenawi a seat on his advisory Commission for Africa.

But if Zenawi’s democratic credentials compared favorably to those of his predecessors, his government has never had a good press freedom record. Ethiopia was Africa’s leading jailer of journalists throughout much of the 1990s, and it drove scores of reporters and editors into exile. The government has a long record of arresting journalists under a restrictive press law, which imposes criminal sanctions for defamation and the publication of news that authorities deem “false.” Editors routinely have multiple press law charges pending against them.

Until recently, the number of journalists imprisoned had dropped as the government backed away under international pressure from its traditionally confrontational stance toward the press. In the run-up to the May election, there was even a new scent of freedom as opposition parties were allowed unprecedented access to state media, including the state monopoly broadcast sector. The number of private, Amharic-language weeklies–most of them highly critical of the government–mushroomed and their sales soared.

Voting was largely peaceful, but unrest began to build after the opposition cited irregularities, including vote rigging allegations and the government’s delay in announcing results.

The first wave of protests in June brought a government show of force, with clashes leading to the deaths of at least 40 people. Unrest boiled again in early November after the leading opposition group, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), frustrated by its inability to challenge the vote, refused to take part in the new parliament. Stonethrowing crowds were met with gun-firing security forces, and another 40 or more people, mostly civilians, were killed. The government then launched a full-scale crackdown, detaining thousands of people, including opposition leaders and journalists.

Along with issuing its “wanted lists,” the government raided newsrooms, blocked newspapers from publishing, and expelled two foreign reporters, including a long-serving Associated Press correspondent. About a dozen exiled Ethiopian journalists were charged in absentia with treason. The U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, which broadcast radio programs into Ethiopia in local languages, were targeted by smear campaigns in state media, endangering their local correspondents.

“This is the worst under Zenawi,” said journalist Befekadu Moreda, who has plenty of perspective, having been jailed nine times over 12 years. “They are going on the path of China–without the economic prosperity.” With at least two journalists imprisoned on press law violations and 14 held for treason, Ethiopia is now the third-leading jailer of journalists in the world after China and Cuba.

Moreda survived the November crackdown but his paper, the Amharic-language weekly Tomar, did not. Printers refused to publish it, Moreda said. On this day in March, he also described frequent government harassment and intimidation. “For the last four months I cannot move freely, the security forces follow me,” he recounted. “The first harassment is smooth; they ask you politely to work with them. Then they accuse you of being a member of the opposition, and they use force.”

Shortly after meeting with CPJ, Moreda fled the country. It was just in time to escape a jail sentence suddenly imposed under the press law for an opinion piece he published five years ago.

Fewer than 10 private newspapers, most of them weekly, are now publishing in Addis Ababa, compared with more than 20 before the November crackdown. Eight newspapers were shut as a result of criminal indictments and the jailing of their top journalists. Several others have been blocked from publishing because the government pressured their printers, local journalists told CPJ. The government denies applying such pressure.

A CPJ delegation–including the Johannesburg-based journalist and CPJ board member Charlayne Hunter- Gault, and Charles Onyango-Obbo of Kenya’s Nation Media Group–heard about ongoing harassment in a series of March interviews with journalists, lawyers, and diplomats. Fear and suspicion were evident. Local journalists were reluctant to meet the CPJ delegation in public places; several spoke only on condition that their names be withheld; telephone interviews were avoided because fear of wiretapping was widespread. Political tension was heightened by a series of small explosions in the capital. Although the government blamed the blasts on the opposition and on neighboring Eritrea, no one claimed responsibility for them.

Local journalists said they were especially chilled by the government’s unprecedented decision to charge their colleagues under the criminal code with crimes carrying possible death sentences. As repressive as the press law is, local journalists said, it carries a maximum jail sentence of three years and defendants are permitted to post bail.

The government appeared to open yet another offensive in February, when police detained hundreds of people in what they called an antiterrorism sweep. Among those arrested was media lawyer Berhanu Mogese, who had offered pro bono services to imprisoned journalists. A colleague, Teshome Gabre-Mariam Bokan, told CPJ that Mogese was arrested the day after he met with visiting European Union envoy Louis Michel.

Authorities appeared to step up enforcement of the press law as well, imposing prison terms and fines in cases that date back several years or stem from technical infractions. Journalists Leykun Engeda and Abraham Gebrekidan are serving sentences of 15 months and one year respectively for publishing “false news” in articles from 1999 and 2002, according to CPJ sources. Iyob Demeke, former editor- in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Tarik, was fined in February for failing to print the name of the newspaper’s deputy editor on its masthead in one edition. He spent six days in jail before enough money was raised to pay the fine.

Zenawi acknowledged that relations between the government and private press have long been confrontational, but he said the treason allegations were different. “They went beyond their normal bias and went for the jugular,” he told CPJ. “They became part and parcel of the day-to-day preparation for the insurrection after the elections.”

The defendants in the treason trial are charged with “outrage against the constitution and the constitutional order.” The indictment, or “charge sheet,” accuses the journalists of working with the opposition CUD, declaring the elections fraudulent, calling for violence, and “disseminating false accusations to create public distrust of officials and transmitting messages that cause conflict among peoples.” The journalists also face the charges of “impairment of the defensive power of the state” by sowing divisions in the armed forces.

Genocide is the final charge against the journalists. Home to dozens of ethnic groups, notably Amharas, Tigrayans, Oromos, and Somalis, Ethiopia has indeed seen ethnic tensions flare into violence. Tigrayans form the base of the ruling EPRDF, while the opposition CUD draws substantial support from the Amharas. The CUD platform called for constitutional reforms to effectively abolish Ethiopia’s “ethnic federalism,” under which state boundaries are drawn along ethnic lines.

The government’s genocide charges, however, are vague and unsubstantiated. The prosecution cites the beating of one Tigrayan individual, an arson attack against another, “acts causing fear and harm to the mental health of members of the ethnic group,” and “indirect and direct acts causing harm to members and supporters of the EPRDF by excluding them from social interactions.”

The charge sheet cites no evidence linking journalists to these incidents, which do not themselves appear to constitute genocide. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

As evidence against the journalists, the government has cited more than 20 editorials and more than a dozen press interviews with CUD leaders. At CPJ’s request, Chief Prosecutor Shemelis Kemal provided a sampling of 12 of the pieces in the original Amharic. CPJ analyzed English translations of the pieces. While the editorials are antigovernment, some harshly so, none calls for violence and none makes reference to ethnic aggression. CPJ found no evidence to support the prosecution’s contention that the pieces were intended to provoke acts of violence or genocide.

Amare Aregawi, editor of The Reporter, one of the few private newspapers that have published without interruption, said much of the post-election newspaper coverage was shoddy and exploited public tensions. But, he said, “There is no evidence that I would call treason myself.” Aregawi said government authorities typically refuse to speak to the private press. When Zenawi spoke with invited domestic reporters this year, the prime minister noted that it was the first such meeting in 14 years.

That breakdown is symptomatic of the deeper political divide. “The press is a reflection of politics,” Aregawi said. “There’s no tolerance. It’s ‘you are either with us or against us,’ and that is reflected in the media.” Zenawi, who acknowledged a “poison” in his government’s relationship with the press, said much the same. “We are aware that the poison is not merely between the press and the ruling party,” the prime minister said. “It’s a reflection of the overall tension between some in the opposition and the ruling party.”

Most of the jailed journalists said that they would not offer a defense because they believe the charges are baseless and the proceedings politicized. Sitting in Kality Prison, the jailed publisher Fassil Yenealem was asked if he had a message for the prime minister. “The journalists should be released,” he said. “Banning the press means banning democracy. The prime minister has done some very good things in the last 14 years. The media are not against the government but against injustice.”

Fighting Words?

Here are English translations of excerpts from two editorials cited by the Ethiopian government as evidence against journalists being tried for treason:

Ethiop, August 17, 2005: “The constitution clearly states that a human being cannot lose his or her life except in one way. Article 15 reads: ‘Every person has the right to life. No one shall lose his life except under penalty for a capital offense.’ Was a legal provision ever invoked before those 40 innocent young kids were massacred in public? If the rulers violate their own constitution, and if the opposition then violates the constitution in order to save the country from a crime, who should be the one responsible for a crime? …

“There cannot be free elections until the electoral board, which is a stooge of the EPRDF (ruling party), is dismantled. Justice cannot be found in the courts that are governed by EPRDF cadres and are filled with those who have enriched themselves with embezzlement. Getting rid of these elements through a national coalition government would indeed bring about lasting peace and stability.”

Addis Zena, Sept. 19, 2005: “The people of Ethiopia have clearly been robbed of their voices. A party or a government that conspired to rob the voice of its own people should never be given legitimacy. Even if it wants to stay in power, the people would only chant ‘Thief! Thief!’ and would not let it happen. And because the electoral board has been the main organizer and accomplice of such robbery, it should be denounced and should lose its credibility. …

“Opposition parties must provide wise leadership in recovering the voice of the people from the party that has stolen it in order to stay in power.”
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Recommendations to the Ethiopian government

• CPJ calls on the government to ensure that all journalists jailed for their work are released immediately and unconditionally. At minimum, it should ensure that any journalist detained is guaranteed basic standards of due process, including the right to be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest and of any charges against them; the right to trial within a reasonable time; and an enforceable right to compensation for unlawful arrest or detention.

• The government should immediately introduce a moratorium on all criminal prosecutions under the 1992 Press Proclamation.

• We urge the government to introduce legal reforms in line with international standards by removing all criminal sanctions for press offenses such as defamation, insulting the government, and publishing false information. Such reforms should be introduced before the end of this year.

• CPJ calls on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to ensure an immediate halt to the harassment of journalists by government officials and security forces, along with an end to any intimidation of printers and media distributors.

• Government employees should refrain from making public statements, including ones in the state media, that paint independent or foreign media as enemies of Ethiopia and that could endanger their journalists. We call on the prime minister to publicly rebuke any such statements.

• Government officials should routinely provide information to all media on issues of public concern, notably by holding regular, open press conferences and making themselves available for interview by members of the private media.

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