Reporters Without Borders today appealed to United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan for “urgent mediation” in Ethiopia, where editors of privately-owned newspapers have been imprisoned, forced underground or charged with treason since an outbreak of rioting and a violent crackdown by the police.
“The Ethiopian government is once again yielding to panic and sending its police to settle its differences with the opposition,” the press freedom organisation said. “Appropriate methods exist if Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wants to challenge press reports. And if they do not exist, he is in a position to create them. Instead, he has launched a manhunt, filled his prisons with prisoners of conscience and plunged his country into a terrible political crisis.”
Reporters Without Borders continued: “As long as it does not advocate murder or hatred, Ethiopia’s privately-owned press has an absolute right to express its views without having to face extravagant charges. We appeal to the judicial authorities to release the detained journalists at once, announce any charges they may still face and, if necessary, let them defend themselves in a climate of fairness and independence.”
The organisation added: “Mediation by the office of the UN secretary-general could help to halt Ethiopia’s continuing disintegration in which the press is one of the victims.”
The Ethiopian government has issued a list of 58 persons wanted for their part in the street violence that has shaken the country since 1 November. They include opposition members, civil society leaders and the publishers and editors of Amharic-language weekly newspapers based in Addis Ababa.
The state-owned media followed up with appeals for witnesses and photos of some of those on the list, which was published in the 6 November issue of the Amharic-language biweekly Iftin.
Leaders of the main opposition alliance, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), human rights activists and NGO representatives are among those named.
The following journalists appear on the list: Addis Zena publisher Fassil Yenealem, Addis Zena editor Wosonseged Gebrekidan, Ethiop editor Andualem Ayele, Eskindir Nega, owner of the Serkalem Publishing Enterprise, which publishes the newspaper Asqual, Menelik and Satenaw, Asqual editor Wonakseged Zeleke, Menelik editor Zelalem Gebre, Satenaw editor Nardos Meaza, Netsanet publisher Zekarias Tesfaye, Netsanet editor Abiy Gizaw and his deputy Dereje Habtewold, Abay editor Mesfin Tesfaye and Ethiopian Free Journalists Association president Kifle Mulat.
Fassil Yenealem, Wosonseged Gebrekidan, Zekarias Tesfaye and Dereje Habtewold went to the police on 9 November and were immediately arrested. Hadar editor Dawit Kedebe and his deputy, Feleke Tibebu, were previously arrested on 2 November and detained in Addis Ababa’s main prison. They appeared in court on 7 November with a group of opposition leaders and activists. The court ruled that they should remain in custody but did not formally charge them. The other wanted journalists have gone into hiding.
Prime Minister Meles said on 9 November that the imprisoned opposition members and journalists were charged with treason, which carries the death penalty. “They are accused of launching an uprising,” he said, stressing that, while he did not know what the prosecutor would ask for, the death penalty was “still legal” in Ethiopia. He went on to say that he personally opposed the death penalty in these cases, preferring prison sentences. The journalists had been arrested for their “role in the uprising,” he added.
Since 1 November, the police have cracked down hard on demonstrations organised by the CUD in Addis Ababa and several provincial cities in protest against the results of the 15 May legislative elections, which gave the ruling party two thirds of the seats in parliament. The CUD accuses Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of rigging the vote count. A total of 48 people have been killed by the police and 200 have been injured since the start of the protests. At least 11,000 have been arrested, of whom 4,000 were later released on the grounds that they had no “active” role in the violence.
A number of Amharic-language publications have acted as mouthpieces for the opposition and have published unverified or openly partisan reports, much to the regret and embarrassment of several journalists contacted by Reporters Without Borders. Many newspapers stopped appearing after the outbreak of the violence. But local sources said newspaper vendors resumed work on 11 November and several Amharic-language newspapers whose editors are not in prison were back on sale.