Reporters Without Borders wrote to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi yesterday asking him to reconsider the information ministry’s refusal to approve applications made by three journalists to register two new weekly newspapers, Lualawi and Habesha.
The requests for licences were submitted in September by Serkalem Fasil, the former editor of three weeklies that are now closed (Menelik, Asqual and Satenaw), her husband Eskinder Nega, the former owner of the now dissolved Serkalem Publishing Enterprise, and Sisay Agena, the former publisher of Ethiop, another weekly that was forced to close.
“The release of journalists and government opponents in 2007 was a significant step towards national reconciliation and the healing of the wounds caused by the violent protests against the election results in November 2005,” the letter said. “With the prospect of another election in 2008, we would like to point out that, just as political pluralism is essential for democracy, so media pluralism offers everyone a platform to express themselves legally and thereby helps to safeguard public order and social peace.”
When the three journalists filed their applications, all the legal requirements had been met and the licences should have been issued within a few hours. However, a ministry employee told them their case required detailed examination and that they would get a reply by 25 October.
This deadline was not met. Instead, they were given an appointment for 1 November with the promise that the head of the licensing department, Zemedkun Tekle, would receive them in person. On 1 November, they were told the meeting had been cancelled and that they would be notified of the ministry’s decision by phone. They finally learned on 1 January that the ministry had refused their applications without any explanation.
“The government is worried about the coming elections,” Eskinder said. “The decision to throw opposition leaders and journalists in jail in 2005 set off such a wave of unpopularity that now it fears the consequences. By refusing to issue us licences, the government is trying to intimidate the opposition and voters. The aim is for the elections to take place without any strong and independent press around to comment and monitor respect for democratic procedures.”
Eskinder, Serkalem and Sisay were arrested at the end of November 2005 at the same time as many human rights and civil society activists and members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the main opposition alliance, in a government crackdown on the deadly rioting that followed the disputed results of legislative elections held in May of that year.
Accused by Prime Minister Meles of “launching an insurrection,” the three journalists were charged with genocide, high treason and tyring to overthrow constitutional rule. After a year of legal proceedings, the federal high court in Addis Ababa acquitted the journalists of all charges on 9 April 2007. Serkalem had meanwhile given birth in prison in 2006.