On the eve of first anniversary of the May 2005 legislative elections that plunged Ethiopia into a crisis and swept away part of the independent press, Reporters Without Borders today wrote to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi asking him to amnesty all of the prisoners of conscience, including the 21 journalists currently detained in Ethiopia, some of whom are facing the death penalty.
The letter called for a “national reconciliation conference” with the aim of “reestablishing a dialogue between the government and journalists, listing problems in accessing and treating information, devising mechanisms to regulate the media and drawing up a common code of conduct for both state- and privately-owned press and the authorities.” Reporters Without Borders said it stood ready to “actively participate” in such a conference.
“Whatever option you choose, a solution to the crisis must be found so that Ethiopia can return to normality,” the letter said. “In expressing their distress and their desire for peace, the journalists detained in Kaliti prison have extended a hand to your government. In our view, a solution to the crisis requires a general amnesty for prisoners of conscience together with a frank and pragmatic national dialogue to prevent such mayhem ever being repeated.”
The letter added: “The big political trial currently being held in Addis Ababa, based on vague and often extravagant charges, is just aggravating the crisis. It is undermining the stability of your country, which is located in an extremely volatile part of the African continent. For this reason, although we are aware of your government’s determined position, we ask you to heed our proposal.”
The parliamentary elections held on 15 May 2005 were the third since the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship in 1991. The previous ones had been boycotted by the opposition but these were regarded as the first multi-party elections and raised hopes in both the Ethiopian political class and international community. However, they turned out to be a disaster. The leading opposition alliance, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), condemned them as fraudulent and organised protests with the support of some of the independent media based in the capital. A total of 10 representatives of the independent press were arrested in June.
A letup in the protests followed until the final results were announced. The CUD (known as Kinijit in Amharic) accused the prime minister’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of rigging the vote count and “stealing” the elections. Beginning on 1 November, a new wave of demonstrations in Addis Ababa were dispersed violently by the police. Clashes with the army ensured in which 48 people were killed and 200 were injured. At least 11,000 people were detained for periods of varying length.
Fourteen newspaper publishers and editors were rounded up in the course of November and December. They were: Eskinder Nega Fanta, 37, a CUD member and journalist with the weeklies Asqual, Menelik and Satenaw, together with his pregnant wife, Serkalem Fassil Woldeselassie, 30, owner and editor in chief of these three newspapers; Fassil Yenealem Agenehu, 31, owner and editor in chief of the weekly Addis Zena; Wosonseged Gebrekidan Tegene, 36, the editor of Addis Zena; Sisay Agena Gole, 35, owner and editor in chief of the weekly Ethiop; Andualem Ayele Legesse, 31, editor of Ethiop; Wonakseged Zeleke Tessema, 23, editor of Asqual; Dereje Abtewold Yimanu, 31, deputy editor of the weeklies Menelik and Netsanet; Nardos Measa Gebrehanna, 41, editor of the weekly Satenaw; Dawit Fassil Woldeselassie, 24, deputy editor of Satenaw; Zakarias Tesfaye Hargu, 29, owner and editor in chief of Netsanet; Mesfin Tesfaye Gobena, 31, editor in chief of the weekly Abay; Dawit Kebede Bahata, 25, editor of the weekly Hadar; and Feleke Tibebu Abraham, 40, deputy editor of Hadar.
Four other journalists have been arrested since December, tried on libel charges dating back to 1998 or 1999, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and 18 months. They are Getachew Simie of the weekly Addis Admas (who is also a former editor of the now-defunct weekly Agere); Leykun Engeda, the former editor of the now-defunct weekly Dagim Wonchif; Abraham Gebrekidan, editor of the now-defunct weekly Politika; and Abraham Reta Alemu, editor of the weekly Ruh. All except Getachew Simie are still in prison.
Two more journalists have been added to the list of “November prisoners” since the start of this year. One is Solomon Aregawi of the weekly Hadar, who was arrested in November and was charged on 21 March with “affront to the constitution” and “genocide” together with 32 other detainees, all CUD members or supposed members. The other is Goshu Moges of the weekly Lisane Hezeb, who was arrested on 19 February and charged with treason on 19 April.
Charges have also been brought against a number of other journalists and members of opposition parties or groups who are abroad, and who are being tried in absentia.
In its letter, Reporters Without Borders also reiterated its call for the release of Shiferraw Insermu and Dhabassa Wakjira, two journalists with the Oromo-language service of the public television station ETV who have been held since 2004 on suspicion of collaborating with the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). According to a former colleague now living in exile, they were arrested in Addis Ababa on 22 April 2004 along with other Oromo employees of ETV who have since been released.
These arrests are said to be linked to an Oromo student demonstration on the Addis Ababa university campus on 4 January 2004. The police used violence to disperse the protest and arrested many participants, especially members of the Macha Tulema social assistance group who were protesting against the government’s decision to move Oromo regional bodies from Addis Ababa (called Finfinne by the Oromos) to Adama (also known as Nazret), 100 km east of the capital.