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Attacks on the Press in 2001 - Ethiopia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2002
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2001 - Ethiopia, February 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566235.html [accessed 25 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is no longer Africa's foremost jailer of journalists, but severe structural and legal difficulties still impaired the growth of the independent press. Ethiopia's rulers held one journalist in prison at year's end, while seven others were freed in the course of the year.

The freed journalists included Garuma Bekele, Tesfaye Deressa and Solomon Nemera, from the defunct Oromo-language weekly Urji. All three were jailed in October 1997 for criticizing "ethnic federalism," Ethiopia's contradictory state ideology. All three fled abroad upon their release on June 1.

Ethnic federalism, a doctrine enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution, empowers ethnic groups to secede. But it also authorizes the state to crack down on separatists and other critics. In recent years, more than 60 Ethiopian journalists have been jailed and about a dozen publications put out of business for lambasting the official philosophy.

Although the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a multi-ethnic coalition, real power rests firmly with Zenawi's own minority Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which introduced ethnic federalism after toppling a Marxist regime in 1991.

In early 2001, the EPRDF government announced that it was abandoning ethnic federalism in favor of "revolutionary democracy," although the constitution was not amended. Many observers, including local journalists, argued that the shift was merely cosmetic.

On February 13, authorities in the remote northwestern state of Benishangul-Gumuz jailed Befekadu Moreda, editor of the newspaper Tomar, over a story on the secessionist demands of the local Berta people. Befekadu was released on bail after two weeks, half of which he spent on a hunger strike to protest his detention.

The fall issue of CPJ's biannual magazine Dangerous Assignments magazine featured "A Letter From Ethiopia," a harrowing prison diary by Bizunesh Debebe, former editor of the newspaper Zegabi and one of Ethiopia's few female journalists. Debebe has spent most of the last three years in jail on various work-related charges, most related to her articles about the government's oppression of the southern Oromo people. At press time, Debebe was out of jail but faced another court hearing in March 2002.

In March, long-standing tensions within the TPLF exploded into a full-fledged power struggle between moderates loyal to Zenawi and hardliners who apparently opposed Ethiopia's December 2000 peace treaty with Eritrea. The crisis fueled the Zenawi government's normal hostility toward the independent press, which covered the politicking aggressively.

On March 26, Zenawi was quoted as saying that the splinter group "posed a grave danger to the country." Soon after, the government launched a major crackdown, which lasted for months, arresting over 140 party and state officials, opposition and human rights activists, university lecturers, and businessmen on charges of corruption.

On March 28, the Amharic daily Eletawi Addis folded after just eight months in circulation, leaving 150 journalists and other staff members jobless. The paper's publisher shut it down after a row with editor-in-chief Solomon Abate. Informed sources told CPJ that the publisher, who has close ties to the ruling elite, clashed with Abate over Eletawi Addis' aggressive coverage of the crackdown.

Abate later told the BBC that he and his staff "took it as immoral and unethical to remain silent." The publisher, for his part, argued that the paper was supposed to concentrate on social issues, rather than dwelling on politics.

In late April, Addis Ababa University students rioted to protest the police presence on their campus. Government officials dismissed the riots as an uprising of "hoodlums and lumpen." Meanwhile, local police moved aggressively to restore order. At least 38 people died in the unrest and police detained over 2,300 students.

Sixty newspaper vendors were arrested on April 20, a move that temporarily halted the circulation of most local private papers.

In June, as the crackdown escalated, security forces sealed the offices of The Daily Monitor newspaper and arrested publisher Fitsum Zeab Asgedom for alleged improper financial dealings.

In early October, CPJ completed a 10-day fact-finding mission in Ethiopia with a visit to jailed journalist Tamirate Zuma at the Kerchele Penitentiary in Addis Ababa. At year's end, Zuma was the only journalist jailed for his work in Ethiopia. He was convicted on various charges, including defamation and inciting the public to rebellion.

CPJ also met with senior government officials, opposition and human rights activists, as well as with journalists from both the state and private press. In the course of the mission, CPJ urged authorities to release Zuma and to repeal restrictive clauses in the Press Proclamation No. 34/1992, under which journalists can be jailed on vague charges such as criminal defamation, incitement to violence, or spreading false information. CPJ also insisted the private media must be given access to government information.

Toward the end of the CPJ mission, Zenawi told lawmakers that "responsible and constructive" private newspapers would henceforth have access to official information and briefings. Zenawi, who in the past has dismissed local independent newspapers as the "gutter press," said that the non-state press could perform a constructive role in developing a democratic culture in Ethiopia.

Since then, officials have apparently been trying to win the confidence of independent journalists, whose main representative body, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) remained wary of the government's actual intent.

Meanwhile, CPJ remained concerned about the status of some 30 Ethiopian journalists and media workers who fled to Kenya over the past three years to avoid prosecution for press offenses at home. Most of them have been granted refugee status and have been living in private accommodations in the capital, Nairobi.

The local office of the UNHCR, which has jurisdiction over their cases, has been trying to force the journalists into the Kakuma Refugee Camp outside Nairobi, where Ethiopian government operatives are apparently active. The journalists have so far refused to move into the camp, citing security concerns.

In early December, CPJ wrote to the UNHCR in Nairobi arguing that the journalists had a legitimate fear of persecution and should not be sent to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. The agency had not yet replied at year's end.

February 7
Tilahun Bekele, Fetash IMPRISONED

Police arrested Bekele, editor of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Fetash, for failing to post bail in a criminal defamation case stemming from an article of his that had appeared more than five years earlier in another Amharic-language weekly, Maebel.

On January 31, the Fifth Criminal Bench of the High Court in the capital, Addis Ababa, ordered Bekele to post bail of US$625 or face detention until his trial, which was then scheduled for April 9. Unable to settle the bail requirement, Bekele was arrested and jailed at the Kerchele Penitentiary in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Bekele was released from prison on April 9, after a second judge voided the bail requirement.

The journalist had been accused of fabricating "a report that stands against ... the basic position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and thus defames the whole establishment," according to court documents obtained by CPJ's local sources.

The 1,000-year-old Orthodox Church, the most powerful religious organization in Ethiopia, has close links to top leaders in the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front.

In addition to the criminal defamation charge, Bekele faced separate charges under Ethiopia's restrictive Press Proclamation of 1992 after he alleged in a 1998 Fetash article that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had financed an Ethiopian mineral water company that sold contaminated water.

Bekele was arrested on this charge in September 1998. He remained in prison until the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association secured his bail in October 2000, with the help of CPJ and other international press freedom organizations. The case was ultimately dismissed.

February 13
Befekadu Moreda, Tomar IMPRISONED

Police arrested Moreda, editor of the Amharic-language weekly Tomar, in his office and took him to the Addis Ababa Police Station, where he was detained for four days before being removed to the remote district of Benishangul. He was held there for 10 days and then freed on bail.

The arrest apparently came in response to a January 31 article in Tomar that reported on the secessionist demands of the Berta people in Benishangul District. CPJ sources in Addis Ababa said the editor was charged with violating the Press Proclamation by publishing an article that could incite people to violence. The same sources also reported that the Benishangul governor phoned Moreda after the article appeared and asked him to reveal his sources, and that the journalist refused.

To protest his detention, Moreda began a hunger strike on February 16. On the morning of February 17, security officers moved the journalist to Benishangul, about 800 kilometers (480 miles) from Addis Ababa, making it virtually impossible for his family, friends, and lawyer to visit him in jail.

Moreda appeared before a district court in Benishangul on February 22, when he was again asked to reveal his sources. The journalist refused, citing a provision in the 1992 Ethiopian Press Proclamation that guarantees confidentiality of sources and emphasizing that freedom of the press is protected by the Ethiopian Constitution.

CPJ protested the editor's imprisonment in a February 26 letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

On February 27, Moreda was released on bail by the police commissioner of Benishangul. Although the charges were still pending at press time, authorities did not pursue the case.

March 16
Likune Engida, Dagmawi Wenchife LEGAL ACTION

Engida, publisher and editor of the private Amharic weekly Dagmawi Wenchife, was charged with disseminating false information and criminally defaming the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. He was released the same day after posting bail of 1,000 birr (US$120). A second hearing was scheduled for May 8.

The charges stemmed from a January 3 Dagmawi Wenchife report that the bank had lost as much as one billion birr (US$120 million) because of computer problems related to the date change over the new year.

Because of increases in printing costs, Dagmawi Wenchife was forced to stop production shortly after Engida's arrest. The paper started appearing again in early March.

At the end of the year, the case had not progressed in court.

April 21
Seifu Mekonnen, Mebrek IMPRISONED

Police secretly detained Mekonnen, a reporter for Mebrek, an Amharic-language weekly based in Addis Ababa, and held him for five days without filing charges.

The police questioned Mekonnen about his alleged involvement in a recent spate of anti-government rioting, as well as his ties to a local human rights group, according to the journalist.

Mekonnen disappeared shortly after the Ethiopian Human Rights Council held a press conference to dispute government charges that the council, along with opposition parties and the independent press, had incited students and others in Addis Ababa to riot against the presence of police on local campuses. When Mekonnen's name did not appear on an official list of detainees, his relatives alerted the local press.

Police also arrested some 60 newspaper vendors on April 20, effectively halting the circulation of most local private papers. The majority of the vendors were released on April 22 after signing statements in which they agreed to cease working for an indefinite period, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association reported.

At least 38 people were killed during two days of street confrontations between protesters and police forces. Several thousand people were held for questioning afterward.

Mekonnen reappeared five days after he was reported missing. He said that he had been in police custody the entire time.

On April 23, CPJ circulated an alert about the case.

April 27
Nita Bhalla, BBC HARASSED
Zelalem Gemechu, Voice of America HARASSED

Bhalla, a correspondent for the BBC, and Gemechu, a stringer for the Voice of America, were harassed by police while covering riots in Addis Ababa.

Bhalla was attacked while photographing police antiriot officers beating women and children. One of the officers rushed toward her and snatched her camera, which he damaged beyond repair. She was briefly manhandled and warned against portraying Ethiopia "in this way," the BBC said. Her translator was also roughed up but suffered no serious injuries.

That same day, Gemechu told CPJ, he was tailed by police officers after they saw him recording audiotape of the riot. The next day, an unnamed police officer confiscated Gemechu's recording gear while he was taping the forcible evacuation of the university by security forces.

The two-day wave of riots, sparked by student opposition to police presence on local campuses, reportedly caused the deaths of at least 38 people. It also disrupted the circulation of local newspapers, whose roadside vendors were among the more than 2,000 people rounded up for questioning.

May 2
Daniel Gezzahegne, Moged IMPRISONED

Gezzahegne, deputy editor of the Amharic weekly Moged, was arrested after answering a summons to appear in court on defamation charges stemming from an article published nearly three years ago in the now-defunct Amharic weekly Gemenna, which he edited at the time. The article alleged widespread corruption among officials of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the northern province of Gonder.

Police charged that Gezzahegne had ignored several previous summonses, but the journalist claimed to have received only one, on May 1.

At a hearing on May 4, the court set bail at 5,000 birr (US$600). Unable to raise the money, Gezzahegne was remanded to Kerchele Prison in Addis Ababa pending the resumption of hearings in October. He posted bail and was released on May 25.

The charges were still pending at year's end.

May 25
Tamirate Zuma, Atkurot IMPRISONED

Zuma, former publisher and editor-in-chief of the defunct Amharic-language weekly Atkurot, was arrested and imprisoned on charges of failing to pay a publishing license fee, inciting violence or rebellion, and defamation. All three are crimes under the Ethiopian Press Proclamation.

The first charge stemmed from a licensing requirement. Strapped for cash, Zuma was unable to pay the fee to renew his annual publishing license. In the second case, Zuma is accused of inciting people to violence or rebellion, a charge resulting from a recent Atkurot article that quoted an interview from the U.S.-based magazine Ethiopian Review. In it, a former official in dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg regime, Gen. Haile Meles, predicted the imminent overthrow of the current Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front government.

The third case is a defamation charge resulting from an Atkurot article that reported on financial mismanagement at a government-owned leather factory. As of December 31, Zuma remained in jail. In October, a CPJ delegation visited the journalist during a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia.

June 1
Tsegaie Ayalew, Genanaw IMPRISONED

Ayalew, editor of the Amharic weekly Genanaw, was arrested and imprisoned on a charge of defamation. The charge resulted from a two-year-old Genanaw article about a corruption scandal at the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation.

Ayalew remained in jail until early July, when he managed to post bail of 500 birr (US$60). His case was still pending at year's end.

June 26
Yoftahe Tsegaye, Kicker IMPRISONED

Tsegaye, editor-in-chief of the weekly sports newspaper Kicker, was sentenced to one month in prison after being charged with publishing and distributing a newspaper without renewing his press license.

Ethiopian sources said that Tsegaye could not afford to pay the license renewal fee. He was released at the end of July.

July 11
Lubaba Said, Tarik IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Said, editor-in-chief of the independent Amharic weekly Tarik, was jailed at Addis Ababa Prison because she was unable to post bail of 1,000 birr (US$130). She faced criminal charges over two articles that appeared in Tarik almost two years ago alleging that government security personnel had abandoned their posts.

According to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, prosecutors charged that "by publishing such articles [Said] disseminated fabricated news at the national level that could have negative psychological effects on members of the Defence Army and cause disturbances in the minds of the people."

Said was released on July 20 after posting bail. Her trial was then adjourned until September, but no further developments had been reported by year's end.

July 4
Berhan Hailu, Wogahta IMPRISONED
Merid Zelleke, Satanaw IMPRISONED
Mengistu Wolde Selassie, Moged IMPRISONED
Leykun Ingida, Dagim Wonchif IMPRISONED
Henock Alemayhu, Medina HARASSED
Daniel Abraha, Netsanet HARASSED
Tilahun Bekele, Netsebrak HARASSED

On or around July 4, police in the capital, Addis Ababa, arrested seven independent newspaper editors after they ran stories about the foreign minister's possible defection from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's faction of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

The story originated on an Ethiopian Web site, ethiopiancommentator.com. Wogahta, a new Tigrigna-language Sunday weekly, was the first print publication to pick up the story. Wogahta's article, titled "Where Are You Mr. Mesfin? You Are Not in Your Office," speculated that Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin had quit to join a splinter group of the TPLF.

Zenawi's TPLF is one of several parties in the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition.

Wogahta's report was based on the fact that Mesfin had not been seen in his office for several days, during which time the minister's house was surrounded by security guards. Though the paper speculated that the guards were there to protect Mesfin against Zenawi's agents, local sources said that guards were assigned to the homes of all Cabinet ministers after the May 12 assassination of Intelligence and Security Chief Kinfe Gebre-Medhin, a close ally of Zenawi.

The other six newspapers published similar stories in the following days, most of them lifting their content from the Woghata story.

Ingida, who was the first to be called in, was questioned and then released on 5,000 birr bail (US$650). (In Ethiopia, police can demand bail for the release of suspects even before formal charges have been brought against them.) Police considered Ingida's offense less serious since the article in Dagim Wonchif was more contextual and contained less serious allegations.

Zelleke and Selassie were held in police custody until July 13, an exceptionally long detention in such a case. Hailu was detained for 48 hours after her interrogation. Alemayhu was released after questioning on 3,000 birr (US$400) bail. Abraha and Bekele were released on bails of 5,000 birr each.

Shortly after the stories appeared, Mesfin was interviewed by government media. The minister denied the reports and verified that he was still in office and with Zenawi's TPLF.

By year's end, no formal charges had been filed against any of the editors involved in the case.

October 31
Ato Behailu Desalegn, Capital LEGAL ACTION

Desalegn, editor of the English-language business weekly Capital, was summoned to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Division in the capital, Addis Ababa, and charged with criminal defamation. He was released hours later after posting bail of 2000 birr (US$230).

The charges stemmed from an October 28 Capital story about the advertising campaign of a local company called Moha Soft Drinks.

Authorities claim the article caused financial losses to Moha Soft Drinks because customers became wary of its products after reading the story.

The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association strongly protested the charges against Desalegn.

November 26
Tilahun Bekele, Maebel LEGAL ACTION

Bekele, former editor of the Ahmaric-language weekly Maebel and currently editor of the weekly Netsebrak, was sentenced to one year in jail for criminal defamation.

The presiding judge admonished Bekele and then ordered his release. The judge released the journalist because he had already spent two years in jail for failing to post bail in connection with the same case.

Crown Mineral Water filed the suit after an October 1996 article in Maebel alleging poor hygienic standards at the company's refineries.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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