The crisis which began in November 2005 with the arrest of around 20 newspaper bosses ended honourably, in 2007, thanks to international pressure. But the climate remains bad and self-censorship frequent. Two Eritrea journalists are still being used as hostages, after their capture in Somalia.
The Ethiopia of Meles Zenawi is not the dictatorship of former president Mengistu, who was overthrown in 1991 and who held the country in a Stalinist grip. Privately-owned newspapers do their best to enliven the intellectual life of the capital, Addis Ababa but the climate is hostile. Heavy prison sentences are always inflicted on those who an easily influenced court system considers guilty of “defamation” or “publishing false news”. Self-censorship is constant. Foreign correspondents based in Ethiopia have to take care not to embarrass the government, which is facing a raft of military problems in the provinces and the region, and which reacts with extreme harshness towards journalists it views as dangerous.
The year 2007 experienced a relative relaxation with the acquittal of detainees facing heavy jail sentences. The international community had been watching for two years as the leadership of the main opposition coalition and newspaper bosses who supported them awaited trial in jail on charges which could mean the death penalty. But while they were being held in atrocious conditions and treated with contempt by the government, the federal high court in April acquitted 25 of the accused in a major political trial being held in Addis Ababa for a year. They had been charged with “genocide”, “high treason” and “attempted overthrow of the constitutional order” and had been held in prison since November 2005, after being arrested in the round-ups by Ethiopian police cracking down after protest rallies organised by the chief opposition grouping, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD, Kinijit in Amharic). Eight of the 25 people who were freed were journalists. The court ruled that the prosecutor had not presented sufficiently convincing evidence of their guilt. A first step appeared to have been taken to resolve a crisis that had been poisoning Ethiopian political life.
But there was a spectacular reversal on 16 July when it was learned with astonishment that six journalists were among 43 opposition figures sentenced, in an identical case, to prison terms ranging from 18 months to life imprisonment. Most of them were found guilty of “attempting to overturn the constitutional order”. Four of them were however released on the 20 July after benefiting from an amnesty, the last two, who were in exile abroad, having been tried in their absence. One month later the last three journalists detained since November 2005 were freed as a result of a presidential pardon. The crisis, which had lasted for 22 months, thus came to a final conclusion.
However even for ordinary press cases, the Ethiopian government has a harsh legislative arsenal at its disposal and is prepared to use it to get rid of awkward journalists and it has become commonplace for it to dig up old cases. The Supreme Court in January rejected an appeal from Abraham Reta, journalist on the privately-owned weekly Addis Admas, against his one-year sentence imposed for “defamation” in May 2006 for an article published in 2002, when he was editor of the weekly Ruh, in which he named without proof three top officials allegedly implicated in a corruption case. He was first arrested in April 2006 and served a three-month jail sentence before being released on bail while awaiting the outcome of his appeal. After several hearings at which Abraham Reta pleaded not guilty and was forced to reveal the source of his article, he was sent back to prison to serve the last nine months of his sentence. Between December 2005 and December 2006, Reporters Without Borders recorded four cases of journalists being sent to prison for long periods (between eight and 18 month) for four year old cases. All have since been released, but they do not look like being able to resume their work as journalists.
Hostages taken in Somalia
A cautious relaxation by the Ethiopian government at the end of the year, with the creation of a private independent radio and reform of the press law, cannot mask the fact that Ethiopia is a country in which the free exercise of journalism rapidly comes up against the jumpiness of the part of the authorities.
Any deterioration in the political climate systematically works through to the press. The sending of the Ethiopian army into Somalia in support of transitional government forces at the end of December 2006 was a source of additional tension. And the political and military support by neighbouring Eritrea for Somalia’s Union of the Islamic Courts exacerbated the situation to the extent that two journalists working for public media in Asmara were taken hostage by Ethiopian forces as they tried to flee the combat zone.
Saleh Idris Gama, journalist on Eritrean state-run Eri-TV, and cameraman Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi disappeared in Mogadishu at the end of 2006. Reporters Without Borders, supplied their names to the Somali government at the end of February 2007 in a bid to find out if they were being detained or had been identified as casualties of the fighting. No reply had yet been given to this request when, at the start of April, the Eritrean foreign minister publicly announced the arrest of several of its nationals in Somalia, confirming that the team from Eri-TV were still alive. Several days previously, having obtained similar information, Reporters Without Borders had contacted Somali intelligence seeking news of the Eritrean journalists, providing their identity and asking for the right to make telephone contact with them. This request had been rejected.
A few days later, video footage of Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi were placed on a pro-governmental Ethiopian website, subtitles to the interview called them “shabia soldiers” (shabia meaning “popular”, the nickname for the Eritrean regime). Since then the two men have been held by the intelligence services somewhere in Ethiopia and the Addis Ababa government refuses to provide any information about them.
They are not the only journalists imprisoned in Ethiopia about whom very little information is available. Shiferraw Insermu, a journalist on the Oromo service of state-run ETV suspected of being an informer for the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is still languishing in prison after he and his colleague Dhabassa Wakjira were arrested for the first time at their homes in Addis Ababa, on 22 April 2004. The federal high court ordered their release on bail on the following 9 August, but only Shiferraw Insermu was set free. The journalist was rearrested on 17 August and released on order of the federal high court in mid-October. ETV refused to allow him to resume his job and he was trying to find other work when he was arrested for a third time, on 11 January 2005. He has remained in custody since that date, most likely at the central prison known as “Kerchiele”. Dhabassa Wakjira was held without interruption until 2006, as the prison authorities failed to comply with various court orders to release him on bail. He was finally released and has since fled Ethiopia and sought asylum abroad.