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-  Surface area: 1,097,900 sq. km.
-  Population: 62,908,000
-  Languages: Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, etc.
-  Type of State: federal republic

Ethiopia - Annual report 2002

After being criticised for being the largest jail for journalists on the African continent, Ethiopia opened up to some degree in 2001. Pressure and threats have nevertheless continued, forcing about ten journalists to flee the country.

The bail system has enabled many journalists to stay out of jail and continue their work after being charged. However, the sluggishness of the judicial system and the huge numbers of complaints filed mean that many editors-in-chief or managing editors can be arrested at any time. While most of them say that this does not prevent them from carrying on writing in the same tone, others admit that this pressure has affected their work. Some have even joined the government press for fear of reprisals.

The broadcasting sector is still under state control. Radio Fana, the only privately-owned station in the country, serves as a propaganda tool for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). During the April 2001 student riots the radio station accused human rights activists of "fomenting the unrest". The state-owned Radio Ethiopia claimed that two human rights activists "incited students to violence during a meeting". Several international organisations accused the Ethiopian government of excessive repression in dealing with the riots, and using this unrest as a pretext to silence the opposition.

Despite his mistrust of the private-sector press, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced to parliament in early October that independent newspapers which proved to be "responsible and constructive" would have access to official information, like the state-owned media.

The war with Eritrea ended officially in August and the United Nations special envoy to the two countries invited journalists from the two states to a press conference held on the border. He asked them to stop the "war of words".

Journalists jailed

At least one journalist was still in jail in Ethiopia on 1 January 2002.

The managing editor of the weekly Atkurot, Tamrat Zuma, was arrested on 15 January 2001 and taken to the Addis Ababa Criminal Investigation Department (CID). He was released three days later after paying bail of 10,000 birrs (1,350 euros). The journalist was accused of citing statements by militants of the opposition, broadcast by a foreign-based radio station, in an article published two years earlier. He was again arrested on 20 May and accused of "libel" and "incitement to violence" because of an article on the poor management of a government tannery and an interview with a former general announcing the "imminent overthrow of the government". Tamrat Zuma is detained in Kerchiele jail in Addis Ababa.

Seven journalists arrested before 2001 were released during the year.

Melese Shine, editor-in-chief of Ethiop, was released after paying bail of 10,000 birrs (1,350 euros). The journalist had been arrested in November 2000 for publishing an article on the authorities’ supposed support for an Eritrean opposition group.

The editor-in-chief of the magazine Zegabi, Bizunesh Kebede, was released on bail on 23 January. She had been arrested in September 2000 for no known reason.

On 6 February Tamrat Gemeda, editor-in-chief of the weekly Seife Nebelbal, was released after being in detention since October 1997. He was accused of publishing several articles including one in which he claimed that a pro-government militia had gone to Chomo-Dabos in western Ethiopia where it had suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of an unidentified armed group. Tamrat Gemeda had been sentenced to one year in jail for spreading "false news" but the court had refused his release, on the pretext that the journalist had refused to appear after being summoned to court in 1997. In fact the journalist was already in jail at the time.

In March Tewodros Kassa, former editor-in-chief of Ethiop, was released. He had been sentenced in June 2000 to one year in jail for "spreading fabricated news".

Garuma Bekele, managing editor, and Tesfaye Deressa, editor-in-chief of the weekly Urji, were released on 10 May after spending four years behind bars. The two journalists had been arrested in October 1997 and accused of "participating in terrorist activities" and "fabricating false information". The authorities claimed that in Urji they had contradicted an official statement that three men killed by the security forces in October 1997 belonged to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and were involved in attacks at this movement. The weekly claimed that the three men were indeed Oromos (one of the main ethnic groups in the country) but did not belong to the OLF. The two journalists were held in Addis Ababa central prison. They were released by order of the high court for "lack of evidence". In late May Solomon Nemera, editor-in-chief of Urji, was also released. He had been arrested in November 1997, three weeks after his two colleagues, in connection with the same affair.

Eight other journalists were jailed and released during the year.

Police in the south-western province of Benshangi arrested Befikadu Moreda, managing editor of the Amharic-language weekly Tomar, on 13 February in Addis Ababa. On 31 January the weekly had reported demands by the Bert tribe for better representation of the different communities in the regional government. The day after his arrest the journalist was taken to Assossa prison in Benshangi and officially accused of publishing articles that "could cause inter-ethnic conflict". He was eventually released on bail on 27 February after appearing before a local court. A few days later, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) from the independent press, called for an amendment of the press law and noted that "only the high court is competent to deal with cases of journalists".

A journalist with the Amharic-language weekly Mebrek, Seifu Mekonnen, disappeared on 20 April after leaving his home in the afternoon. Shortly before that he had attended a conference by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), during which leaders of the association had denied all responsibility in the riots that shook the capital on 17 and 18 April. Seifu Mekonnen reappeared on 25 April. He had been arrested by the police and held in secret in a police station. Since he had been blindfolded during the journey there, he had no idea where he had been taken.

Asheber Bekele, journalist with the Amharic-language weekly Genanaw, was arrested by police at his home on 24 April, along with young people suspected of participating in the riots. He was released two weeks later, without any explanation.

On 11 May Eyobe Demeke, managing editor of the weekly Tarik, was arrested and charged for publication of an article five years earlier, in 1996, when he had been released on bail. The journalist was eventually released again on 29 May.

Daniel Gezzahegne, deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Moged, was arrested on 4 May and accused of publishing an article in 2000 in the now defunct magazine Gemena, criticising the activities of the orthodox church in northern Ethiopia. He was released on bail on 25 May.

In early July Merid Zelleke and Mengistu Wolde Selassie, editors-in-chief of the weeklies Satanaw and Moged, respectively, were detained for several days in Addis Ababa after being questioned by police on articles published a few days earlier.

After publishing an article on the defection of certain members of the presidential guard, Lubaba Said, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tarik, was arrested on 11 July and detained in Addis Ababa jail. The prosecutor said that "the accused spread false reports throughout the country, which could have a negative psychological effect on the armed forces". The journalist was released on bail on 20 July.

Three journalists arrested Zegeye Haile from the magazine Genanaw, was arrested on 29 May 2001 and charged in connection with several press affairs. He did not attend the court hearing and was released the following day.

Tsegay Ayalew, former editor-in-chief of Genanaw, was arrested on 1 June but released later in the day after paying bail of 500 birrs (about 67 euros).

The managing editor of the Tigrinya weekly Wogahta, Berhan Hailu, was arrested by the CID on 6 July. Wogahta is reportedly close to dissidents of the Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main party in the ruling coalition. The journalist was released a few hours later.

Pressure and obstruction

Journalists from the Ethiopian News Agency, Walta Information Centre and Mahtot, were kidnapped and hit on 11 March 2001 in Dessé, north of Addis Ababa, by about 20 policemen who accused them of denouncing blunders by the local police.

In April Meles Zenawi dismissed several journalists with the government media. On the occasion of the assembly of the Tigre regional council, in northern Ethiopia, the prime minister dismissed Gebremeskel Hailu, manager of the Tigre radio station Voice of Woyane, Alto Atakiltie, editor-in-chief of the TPLF newspaper Woyine, and Mulugeta Gesesse, manager of the Mega printing press. The three men were accused of being "dissidents".

About 100 newspaper vendors were arrested and held for a few hours on 20 April in Addis Ababa. They were released after swearing not to sell certain titles on the streets.

Prime minister Meles Zenawi has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders

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see also
Annual report 2002

Hard times for press freedom
Asia annual report 2002
Americas annual report 2002
Europe annual report 2002
Maghreb / Middle-East annual report 2002