A federal high court verdict finding four journalists and three press groups guilty yesterday of trying to “overthrow constitutional rule” was condemned today by Reporters Without Borders as a serious retrograde development. Two of the four journalists face a possible death sentence or life imprisonment. They are part of a group of 38 opposition members who were convicted yesterday. Most had been in prison ever since a wave of arrests in November 2005.
The press freedom organisation also condemns the re-arrest of one of the four, Dawit Fassil, the deputy editor of the now-defunct weekly Satenaw, who had been released on bail in April after being held for 17 months.
“Isn’t the Ethiopian government tired of harassing the opposition and press?” Reporters Without Borders asked. “More than 18 months after the November 2005 round-ups, it continues to claim to be dispensing justice, when in fact it has become a caricature of revanchism and dysfunctional democracy. This is disappointing, and very disturbing for those who saw the acquittals in April as a sign that the government was ready to compromise.”
The organisation added: “The United States, which has a privileged relationship with Ethiopia, must make Prime Minister Meles Zenawi understand that these interminable proceedings have gone on long enough. This affair is becoming more and more dangerous for the country’s stability. It is time to find an honourable solution.”
The refusal of the four journalists and 34 other defendants - all members of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) - to present a defence was interpreted by the high court as a confession of guilt.
Among the various verdicts handed down yesterday, the court found Abay editor Mesfin Tesfaye, Ethiop editor Andualem Ayele and Asqual editor Wonakseged Zeleke guilty of “conspiring to overthrow constitutional rule” and “inciting revolt.” Mesfin and Andualem face the possibility of the death penalty or life imprisonment. Wonakseged could get 10 years.
The newly rearrested Dawit faces a possible three-year sentence for publishing inaccurate information. Sentences are due to be announced on 8 July. The three press groups that were convicted - Serkalem, Sisay and Fassil - face large fines or court-ordered dissolution.
Two other journalists - Addis Zena editor Wosonseged Gebrekidan and Hadar editor Dawit Kebede - did agree to present a defence. Hearings for this purpose are due to begin on 18 June.