Addis Ababa, June 11, 2012--The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Africa Media Initiative (AMI) called for the release of journalists being held under Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws and requested a review of those laws as they affect freedom of speech.
CPJ board member Charlayne Hunter-Gault, CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and AMI board member Dele Olojede met Friday in Addis Ababa with Communications Minister Bereket Simon, a senior figure in the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In a two-hour meeting, the delegation also expressed concern about continuing prosecutions of journalists, particularly under the 2009 anti-terrorism statute, which independent publishers and reporters say has a chilling effect on Ethiopia's small private media sector.
Ethiopia is holding seven journalists behind bars, according to CPJ research, making it Africa's second leading jailer of journalists behind neighboring Eritrea. Three Ethiopian and two Swedish journalists are being held under the anti-terrorism law, according to CPJ research.
Ethiopian officials insist that journalists are not being held under security laws for what they have reported. Rather, they have accused the journalists of involvement in anti-government plots and other security-related offenses.
"We in the government so far have not invoked this anti-terrorism law against any individual journalist," Bereket said. "It's not an instrument for censorship, for stifling dissent, or for attacking press freedom; it is an instrument that ultimately shall be used to protect Ethiopians enjoying their constitutional rights," he said.
Imprisoned journalists have denied any involvement in terrorist activities.
Asked about concerns that the law intimidates journalists into silence, Bereket said: "If there are problems in implementation of any law, the government is ready to sit down and review."
Officials said they would consider allowing a delegation of CPJ and AMI representatives to visit journalists in prison, but no response was forthcoming by the end of the mission.
"We knew when we came to Addis that the chasm between the government and the private media was wide and our visit clarified that," said Hunter-Gault.
"However disappointed we are that we were unable to visit the imprisoned journalists to hear their side of the story, we believe we made the point that a healthy democracy needs a vibrant, even critical media--the kind that exists in free societies the world over--and that Ethiopia's development, as well as its image in the world, will depend on how it relates to this important feature of a truly democratic society," she said.
Bereket acknowledged AMI's efforts to assist publishers and journalists and expressed willingness to talk with the country's private media.
AMI board member Olojede welcomed this, adding, "We also note the government's expression of support for AMI plans to organize seminars and workshops that will bring together all stakeholders, with the aim of strengthening independent media in Ethiopia."
The African Media Initiative is a pan-African organization aimed at assisting private and independent media owners and journalists to meet the ongoing challenges of media development on the continent.