Attacks on the Press in 2008: Ethiopia
In February, the government authorized the private, Amharic-language newsweeklies Awramba Times and Harambe, reversing an earlier decision to deny them licenses. The publishers, Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan, were among a number of journalists pardoned in 2007 after spending 21 months in detention on trumped-up antistate charges. Authorities continued to deny licenses to three other former prisoners: award-winning publisher Serkalem Fasil; her husband, columnist Eskinder Nega; and publisher Sisay Agena. All three were acquitted of the same antistate charges in 2007.
For much of the year, commercial licenses were subject to the approval of the Ministry of Information, which wielded its authority arbitrarily. In an unexpected move in late October, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the dissolution of the Ministry of Information. It was not immediately clear what structure would replace the ministry.
In April, the country held local council and parliamentary balloting—the first since the disputed 2005 elections that led to widespread protests and violence. Ethiopia’s splintering opposition boycotted the April elections to protest alleged intimidation, and the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, in power since 1991, swept seats across the board.
Political coverage proved risky, particularly when it involved the exile-based Ginbot 7 movement. Named for the date in the Ethiopian calendar on which the tumultuous 2005 election took place, the movement, headed by opposition figure Berhanu Nega, calls for “all kinds and means of struggle” to challenge the government.
In August, when Awramba Times reported Ginbot 7’s launch of a radio program broadcasting into Ethiopia via satellite and the Internet, the paper received phone warnings from police officials to stop any coverage of “anticonstitutional organizations.” The same month, publisher Kebede was questioned by police over a series of political stories in five separate issues of Awramba Times, including an editorial challenging the government’s assertion of high voter turnout in April’s general elections, and a column by the Ginbot 7 leader that compared Zenawi to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Harambe publisher Gebrekidan was also questioned over similar stories.
Authorities escalated their crackdown on Awramba Times in November by suddenly activating an old case after the newspaper published the transcript of a radio interview of Ginbot 7 leader Nega discussing the U.S. presidential election and democracy in Ethiopia. A public prosecutor charged owner and Editor Dawit Kebede and Deputy Editor Wonderad Debretsion with “inciting the public through false rumors” in connection with a March interview with opposition leader Yacob Hailemariam. Local journalists interpreted the timing of the charge as retaliation for publication of the Nega interview.
The high-profile trial of pop music icon Tewodros Kassahun, a government critic, was also a sensitive topic. Kassahun, better known as Teddy Afro, was jailed in April in connection with a fatal 2006 hit-and-run accident, and his court appearances triggered rare, spontaneous public demonstrations of fans and supporters. Kassahun’s popular song “Jah Yasteseryal” had been a popular anthem of antigovernment protesters during the unrest that followed the 2005 election, according to local sources.
In May, in response to a cover story on Kassahun’s trial, which included interviews with his lawyer and fans, police blocked distribution of 10,000 copies of the entertainment magazine Enku and arrested the deputy editor and owner, Alemayehu Mahtemework, along with three staffers. Police alleged that the story could incite people to violence, and they detained the journalists for five days without charge. The copies were not returned until August.
In another twist, Federal High Court Judge Leul Gebremariam detained Mesfin Negash, editor-in-chief of the leading independent weekly Addis Neger, in August on contempt of court charges for publishing an interview with the singer’s lawyer. The lawyer was critical of Gebremariam’s handling of the Kassahun case. Negash was handed a suspended prison term, but the paper appealed the ruling and expressed concern about a “chilling effect” on media coverage of court cases. The appeal was pending in late year.
Critical coverage of influential business interests also posed dangers. Journalists with the English- and Amharic-language weekly Reporter, including Managing Editor Amare Aregawi, received anonymous threats over a series of investigative reports alleging that people close to billionaire Sheik Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi had mismanaged his investments, according to local journalists. On October 31, three men attacked Aregawi as he was walking near his office, bashing his head with a stone and leaving him unconscious, witnesses told CPJ. Three men were arrested, and their cases were pending in late year.
Aregawi, one of the country’s best-known journalists, also endured six days of imprisonment without charge in August in connection with a story about a labor dispute at a government-run brewery in the northern city of Gonder. His reporter, Teshome Niku, the author of the story, was briefly detained in June. Neither was formally charged.
“It’s becoming routine for journalists: You report something, then you go to the police station,” Awramba Times Deputy Editor Debretsion told CPJ in August. Zenawi saw things in a different light. “I don’t think the political space is in any way being constrained,” he told the Los Angeles Times that same month.
The foreign press corps continued to operate under a strictly enforced regimen of renewable one-year residency and accreditation permits—a government tactic that discouraged critical reporting. An insurgent conflict in the Ogaden region, human rights violations, and the ongoing food crisis were among the stories that received little attention among the resident foreign press. Reacting to Aregawi’s arrest, a foreign journalist who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals wrote in an e-mail to CPJ, “I wish I could do something without risking expulsion.”
The government actively targeted foreign-based media outlets. Beginning in January, CPJ received reports that the broadcast signals of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America (VOA) and the German public Deutsche Welle were being jammed. Reacting to the reports, an Ethiopian Information Ministry spokesman, Zemedkun Tekle, told VOA that the allegations were “utterly baseless.”
Authorities abruptly broke diplomatic ties with Qatar in April, accusing “the output of its media outlets” of “direct and indirect assistance to terrorist organizations,” according to an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry statement. In an interview with CPJ in November, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahid Belay said the statement referred to the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite station. The broadcaster had aired a critical series on the plight of civilians in Ogaden, where an insurgency was led by ethnic Somalis from the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front. No direct action was taken against Al-Jazeera, but diplomatic ties had not been restored by late year.
The Ogaden region remained virtually inaccessible to the media, and coverage was largely limited to reports by international groups that detailed human rights abuses and official government responses. The government’s censorship did not, however, stop the rebels from releasing statements on their Web site, which remained blocked in Ethiopia.
In August, Addis Ababa journalists said they could not access CPJ’s Web site, instead getting messages saying “the page cannot be displayed.” Bereket Simon, a senior adviser to Zenawi, told CPJ that the government had no policy of blocking Web sites. Simon said he had not received any complaints about blocked sites from Ethiopians, and he questioned whether such reports were credible. CPJ’s Web site remained blocked in late year. Dozens of foreign-based sites and blogs have been inaccessible to Ethiopian users on a recurring basis since 2005, according to the OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship issues.
Authorities asserted that they had made efforts to improve conditions for the media. Speaking to Newsweek in April, Zenawi said the government was replacing the repressive 1992 press law with a new press law “that we very much hope will put our legislation on par with the best in the world.” In fact, the new Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, while banning in principle censorship and pretrial detention of journalists, also maintained repressive criminal libel statutes and vague national security restrictions. The measure, which became law in December, increased fines for defamation to 100,000 birrs (US$10,000) and granted prosecutors discretion to summarily impound any publication deemed a threat to public order or national security. Local journalists, legal analysts, and most opposition lawmakers denounced the measure, saying it was adopted without full public consultation. Activists also challenged separate legislation that would set harsh restrictions on nongovernmental organizations operating in the country. That bill was pending in late year.
In a historic milestone, in June, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority approved the country’s first private, foreign-language radio station, Afro FM. Addis Fortune quoted a broadcasting authority official as saying that the station had been selected without competition after several other potential bidders did not submit applications. Afro FM was expected to broadcast in English, French, and Arabic and target an elite audience of middle-class Ethiopians and expatriates.
Two years into their detention, Eritrean journalists Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi and Saleh Idris Gama remained held in secret government custody. The two staff reporters of Eritrean state broadcaster Eri-TV were among dozens of “suspected terrorists” detained in late 2006 in the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. In an interview with CPJ in August, Simon said a court case was pending, but he declined to provide details about the reporters’ whereabouts, health, or legal status.