Letters   |   Ethiopia

CPJ urges Ethiopia's Zenawi to pursue press reforms

February 16, 2010

His Excellency Meles Zenawi
Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Via facsimile: (251) 11 1552020

Mr. Prime Minister,

We are writing to draw your attention to conditions that undermine press freedom as guaranteed in Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution. We would welcome your leadership in furthering reform by working for the repeal of draconian provisions in recent antiterrorism and media legislation. We also call on your administration to abandon practices that obstruct the free flow of information, such as the ruling EPRDF’s absolute control of the government-subsidized and publicly funded national press, the government’s restrictive media regulation and licensing practices, and the state’s censorship of Internet content.

Five journalists are currently in Ethiopian prisons in connection with their work, according to our research, making your country the second worst jailer of the press in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only Eritrea jails more. Three of the journalists were sentenced to prison for their independent coverage of government affairs dating as far back as 2004 under Ethiopia’s now-obsolete 1992 press law, according to our research. The government has declined CPJ’s repeated requests to account for the whereabouts, health, and legal status of two others—Eritrean state television journalists Saleh Idris Gama and producer Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi—who have been held incommunicado and without charge or trial since 2006.

We are also concerned about the administration’s continued prosecution of journalists on charges dating back several years, despite your personal pledge to a CPJ delegation in 2006 to reconsider the practice. In 2009, a contributor to the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, Meleskachew Amaha, spent three weeks in prison in connection with tax charges first filed in 2006, according to news reports. The charges were eventually dismissed. In another case, prosecutors continue to pursue fines that first were imposed in 2007 against four opposition newspaper publishers but were tossed out by a court, according to local journalists. A ruling in that case is expected in March.

Restrictive provisions in two laws have drawn our concern. While we welcome the ban against pre-trial detention of journalists under legislation known as the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, we call on you to push for the repeal of draconian provisions increasing criminal penalties for libel and allowing censorship based on vague national security considerations. We would also welcome your leadership in amending repressive provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation that criminalize reporting deemed favorable to entities the government labels terrorists, including banned opposition groups. We are concerned that the broad and vaguely defined terms will be used to imprison a journalist for up to 20 years for legitimate, independent news coverage.

CPJ research shows that at least a dozen independent journalists fled Ethiopia in 2009 for what they described as harassment, intimidation, threats, and censorship from officials or government supporters. This was the second largest exodus of journalists in Africa after Somalia, according to our research. The journalists who fled include Kassahun Addis, a Washington Post and Time contributor whose independent coverage drew government intimidation, and the editors and staff of the now-defunct independent weekly Addis Neger.

Addis Neger was distinguished for its critical coverage of public affairs, according to local sources, and had been the target of criminal charges and intimidation by security forces, officials, and government supporters during its 26 months of circulation, according to our research. Its managers announced in November 2009 that they could no longer work in safety after the state daily Addis Zemen published opinion columns calling its coverage antistate, according to news reports. The Addis Zemen columns also attacked the weekly Awramba Times, according to local journalists. In press conferences in December, you denied knowledge of the columns but questioned the integrity of the Addis Neger staff, according to media reports. In the weeks following your statements, government-controlled media aired programs that lambasted Addis Neger, Awramba Times and others in the private media, according to media reports.

We would also welcome your leadership in initiating reforms to bring the administration’s management of the government-subsidized and publicly-funded national press in line with the Ethiopian constitution. We believe that the constitutional provision that “any media financed by or under the control of the state shall be operated in a manner ensuring its capacity to entertain diversity in the expression of opinion,” (Article 29, clause 4) is undermined when the board chairmen of Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) and Ethiopian Press, the state publisher, are both ruling party officials accountable to your office.

We also urge you to implement reforms to ensure the independence of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, which issues print and broadcast licenses. In 2009, the authority ordered private Radio Sheger to stop carrying the programs of Voice of America, or VOA; briefly revoked the accreditations of two VOA stringers; and denied print licenses to three journalists who had been imprisoned in 2005, according to our research. The agency is headed by Shemelis Kemal, the prosecutor in the trial of 15 journalists jailed on allegations of antistate crimes in 2005.

Finally, a September 2009 study by OpenNet Initiative, an internationally respected group that examines Internet censorship, identified Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with “consistent” and “substantial” filtering of critical Web sites. Our own Web site, cpj.org, is among those blocked. We believe Internet filtering violates the right to information as guaranteed by the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation and we would welcome your leadership in ensuring an end to this practice.

We welcome any opportunity to constructively work with you on addressing these issues. 

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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