Reporters Without Borders today condemned the continuing judicial harassment of the independent, Amharic-language publication Ethiop, whose editor Wosonseged Gebrekidan has just spent a week in prison because he was unable to pay the bail set by the federal high court in a libel action.
Gebrekidan, who used to be Ethiop’s managing editor, was finally released on the evening of 31 December after the bail was paid with the help of the Ethiopia Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) and international NGOs. Ethiop is both a daily newspaper and a magazine.
"It is unacceptable that the Ethiopian courts continue to impose exorbitant fines and bail amounts on journalists in defamation cases," Reporters Without Borders said. "This is a standard practice that is consciously used with the aim of sending journalists to prison as they are very often unable to pay the sums demanded."
Ethiop has been one of the targets of this judicial harassment for years, Reporters Without Borders noted, calling on the authorities to put a stop to this situation so that its journalists, and the journalists of all the independent press, can work freely.
"We also urge the government to keep its recent promises to international press freedom organisations about accreditation, the protection of sources and the creation of an independent press council, and we point out that it is high time Ethiopia followed its African neighbours and decriminalized press offences," Reporters Without Borders added.
Gebrekidan has several prosecutions pending. In the article that just earned him a week in prison, which appeared in March 2001, he wrote that the justice ministry had prematurely dropped a case against Eteneshe Abreha, a businesswomen accused of demolishing her neighbours’ house without legal permission.
A libel action was also brought against Ethiop on 2 December by Harqa Haroye, justice minister in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front government, on the basis of governmental declaration on the press 34/85 and article 206 of the criminal code. It named Gebrekidan as well as former editor Andualem Ayele and deputy editor Tesfa Tegegne Tadesse and concerned an article about political movements within the army and The Hague’s arbitration on the border with Eritrea.
The federal high court sentenced Ethiop former editor Tewodros Kassa to two years in prison on 10 July 2002 after finding him guilty under the press law and article 480 of the criminal code of "publishing false information that could incite people to political violence" and "harming the reputation" of businessman Duki Feyssa.
Kassa had reported that Duki had been suspected of links with the armed separatists of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and was killed by the authorities. Duki’s son had accused Ethiop of sullying his father’s reputation. Kassa had already been sentenced to a year in prison on the same charges in 2000.
Melese Shine, another of Ethiop’s editors, was imprisoned by the federal high court on 20 March 2002 because of an interview with a former imperial army colonel now living in exile in Sudan and a profile of the prime minister based on the statements of former aides and colleagues. He was charged with "defaming the head of government" and "interviewing a bandit claiming to be the leader of an illegal organisation." He was held in a police station in Addis Ababa until released on payment of 10,000 birrs (about 1,350 euros) in bail.