Alerts   |   Ethiopia

Another journalist jailed on years-old defamation charge

New York, May 12, 2006—Another Ethiopian journalist has been sentenced to jail under the country’s draconian press law, in a case that dates back at least seven years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed. Tesehalene Mengesha, a former editor at the defunct Amharic-language weekly Mebruk, was convicted of criminal defamation over a week ago and sentenced to 18 months in prison, CPJ sources said.

Mengesha is currently in Kality Prison on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, the same detention center where 14 journalists are being held along with opposition leaders while facing trial on antistate charges. Mengesha’s imprisonment brings the number of journalists jailed for their work in Ethiopia to at least 17.

For more information about Ethiopia’s jailed journalists, see CPJ’s attached fact sheet.

Attempts to confirm the exact date of Tesehalene’s conviction and arrest were unsuccessful, and calls to State Prosecutor Shemelis Kemal went unanswered today. Obtaining information on court cases in Ethiopia is extremely difficult, partly because much of the private press has been shuttered since November 2005 as part of a crackdown on the media.

The case stemmed from an article published in Mebruk during the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war. An individual whom the article accused of working as a double agent during the war brought a complaint against Mebruk, which led to criminal charges being filed against Mengesha, CPJ sources said. The plaintiff denied the allegation, while journalists at the paper stood by the story, a former Mebruk journalist told CPJ.

Mengesha was jailed at least three times between 1997 and 2000 in connection with his work for Mebruk, according to CPJ records.

“Ethiopia’s press law is an affront to press freedom,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “The fact that authorities continue to prosecute local journalists under this law, contrary to stated policy, is outrageous.”

“Tesehalene Mengesha’s imprisonment shows that the media crackdown in Ethiopia is continuing,” Cooper added. “Mengesha should be released immediately, along with all other journalists imprisoned for their work.”

In Ethiopia, editors are held legally responsible for the content of their newspapers, and many have criminal charges pending against them under the press law. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a CPJ delegation in March that the government had decided several years ago not to prosecute under the press law, which dates from 1992. However, CPJ has documented at least five convictions under the press law since the crackdown on the media began.


FACT SHEET for journalists covering Ethiopia’s treason trial

(For in-depth coverage, read CPJ’s special report: http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2006/DA_spring_06/ethiopia/ethiopia_DA_spring_06.html)

Number of journalists in prison while on trial on antistate charges:
14

Number of journalists being tried in absentia in the same trial:
At least 7

Total number of journalists imprisoned for their work in Ethiopia:
17

Number of publications banned: At least 8


JOURNALISTS IMPRISONED WHILE ON TRIAL:

Arrested: November 2, 2005
Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of Hadar
Feleke Tibebu
, deputy editor of Hadar


Arrested: November 9-14, 2005
Zekarias Tesfaye, manager and owner of Netsanet
Dereje Habtewolde
, editor-in-chief of Netsanet
Fassil Yenealem
, manager and owner of Addis Zena
Wosonseged Gebrekidan
, editor-in-chief of Addis Zena [Wosonseged is also serving 8-month prison sentence for defamation to be followed by a separate, 16-month sentence for defamation]
Andualem Ayle
, editor-in-chief of Ethiop
Nardos Meaza, editor-in-chief of Satanaw
Mesfin Tesfaye, editor-in-chief of Abay
Wenakseged Zeleke
, editor-in-chief of Asqual


Arrested: November 27, 2005
Serkalem Fassil, manager of Menilik, Asqual, and Satanaw [Serkalem is pregnant]
Iskinder Nega, owner of Menilik, Asqual, and Satanaw [Iskinder is listed on charge-sheet as a CUD leader, which he denies]


Arrested: November 29, 2005
Sisay Agena, manager and owner of Ethiop and executive member of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA)


Arrest date unknown
Dawit Fassil, deputy editor of Satanaw

Charges against all these journalists (under Ethiopia’s penal code):
• “Outrages against the constitution or constitutional order” [art. 238 (1), (2)]
• “Impairment of the defensive power of the state” [art. 247, (a), (c), art. 258]
• “Genocide” [art. 269 (a)]
Maximum sentence for each charge: Life imprisonment or death


Additional charges against Iskinder Nega:
“Obstruction of the exercise of constitutional powers” [art. 239]
• “Armed rising or civil war” [art. 240]
• “High treason” [art. 248 (b)]


JOURNALISTS SERVING SENTENCES UNDER ETHIOPIA’S PRESS LAW: 3

Abraham Gebrekidan
, former editor of now-defunct Amharic-language weekly Politika
Imprisoned: March 8, 2006
Sentenced: One year for “false news”

Abraham Reta Alemu, former editor of defunct Amharic-language weekly Ruh
Imprisoned: April 25, 2006
Sentence: One year for criminal defamation

Tesehalene Mengesha, former deputy editor at defunct Amharic-language Mebruk
Arrest date unknown
Sentence: 18 months for criminal defamation


CASES UNDER INVESTIGATION BY CPJ: 1

Goshu Moges, publisher and contributor to Lisane Hezeb; former editor and publisher of Tobia
Imprisoned: February 19 and charged with anti-state crimes.

See CPJ’s letter of inquiry (http://www.cpj.org/protests/06ltrs/africa/ethiopia20apr06pl.html) for more information about this case.



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