Posts filed under ‘News’
Addis Ababa – An Ethiopian court on Thursday dismissed the appeal of blogger Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage who were jailed last year for terror-related offences.
“The sentencing is still correct so there is no reduction,” said Supreme Court judge Dagne Melaku, confirming Eskinder’s jail term of 18 years and Andualem’s life sentence.
One of the charges – serving as a leader of a terrorist organisation – was dropped, but had no effect on sentencing.
After the ruling, Eskinder made an emotional appeal to the court which was crowded with family, friends and diplomats.
“The truth will set us free,” he said. “We want the Ethiopian public to know that the truth will reveal itself, it’s only a matter of time.”
Both men are accused of links to the outlawed opposition group Ginbot 7.
“The walls of justice will be demolished,” Andualem told AFP.
Four other men also jailed for terror-related charges had their appeal quashed.
One other defendant, however, Kinfe Michael, had his sentence reduced from 25 years to 16 years.
Rights groups have called Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation vague and accuse the government of using the law to stifle peaceful dissent.
“I am very sad, I am very angry, I cannot talk rationally,” Eskinder’s wife Serkalem Fasil told AFP after the decision.
Defence lawyer Abebe Guta said that justice had not been served, and that if his clients agreed, they would appeal to the court of cassation, Ethiopia’s highest court.
The US was “deeply disappointed” that Ethiopia’s federal supreme court upheld the men’s “conviction and harsh sentencing,” acting deputy State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said.
“Today’s decision further reinforces our serious concern about Ethiopia’s politicised prosecution of those critical of the government and ruling party, including under the anti-terrorism proclamation.”
He did not say if the court’s decision would impact a planned trip to Ethiopia by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of May.
Ethiopia has one of the most restricted media in the world and the highest number of journalists living in exile, according to US-based press watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Last year Eskinder was awarded the prestigious PEN America’s “Freedom to Write” annual prize.
Justice is supposed to be blind. Judges aren’t supposed to be when it comes to justice. When one thinks of court, one thinks of justice. The famous picture of the lady with the blindfold covering one eye – but that blind fold is starting to look more like an eye patch on a pirate, as many Ethiopians and foreigners as well are being robbed of their day in court. There are good judges out there, but sadly there are quite a few bad ones like Judge Dagne Melaku.
His conduct, among others, is the subject of a forthcoming Sonustar film titled “Justice and Truth.” Thanks to this dirty judge, I got to see firsthand, the sweeping corruption present in the Ethiopian judicial system that in my opinion is the most corrupt in the world.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the initial conviction of Eskinder in July 2012.
By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
February 14, 2013 (ADDIS ABABA) – An Ethiopian military source has told Sudan Tribune that the country has built the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone which could be used for multiple purposes.
A US military drone (Source: CIA)
After undergoing testing, the locally made drones, have demonstrated their capability of performing a number of militarily and civilian applications, according to the source.
Speaking on condition of anonymity from the country’s air force base in Debrezeit town, a military official told Sudan Tribune that the drones are equipped with onboard sensors, cameras and GPS to carry out cost-effective monitoring activities even across difficult landscapes like the highlands of Ethiopia.
Besides serving in a number of military missions – such as in monitoring border security – the UAVs will also be deployed to perform geophysical surveys, assist forest protection and monitor forest fires or other natural disasters.
The drones have already made test flights performing a geophysical survey of Ethiopia’s controversial grand renaissance dam, a massive hydro-power plant project the country is constructing on the Blue Nile River near to the Sudanese border.
In recent years, many African countries have shown growing interest in using drones as a cost-effective way to control huge infrastructure facilities, as well as areas rich in natural resources such as oil, mine and gas sites.
In 2011 Ethiopia signed an agreement with Israeli manufacturer BlueBird Aero Systems to purchase drones.
Binyam Tekle, a lecturer and researcher at a government university, says the development of indigenous drones is a great achievement for Ethiopia and will help strengthen the national army.
Due to Ethiopia’s long and fragile borders with Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and more recently South Sudan, he said it is timely for the country to use UAVs to monitor these shared and often tense and porous zones.
“With Eritrea-backed rebels and Somalia’s al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab terrorists repeatedly posing threats to national security, using UAVs will be crucial for Ethiopia to avert planned attacks,” he told Sudan Tribune.
Ethiopia is a key regional security partner to the United States particularly in the war on terror due to its proximity to Yemen and Somalia.
In 2011, the Obama administration launched a drone base in Ethiopia for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, particularly to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. Earlier this month, it was revealed that the US has had a drone base in Saudi Arabia, with its existence kept secret by the US media in collusion with the Obama administration.
In recent years, Ethiopia has made tremendous achievements in the defence sector by managing to manufacture its own military equipment and defence systems.
On Thursday, Ethiopia marked its first ever Defence Force Day under the theme “Our constitutional loyalty and public nature would be preserved”.
A defence exhibition was staged in the heart of the capital, Addis Ababa, demonstrating the level of progress the nation has made.
Light and heavy modern weapons, as well as different vehicles manufactured by the army-run automotive industry were also displayed at the exhibition.
Government officials said that Ethiopia has built a defence force capable of breaking any internal or external enemy.
The Horn of Africa nation has one of the strongest army and air forces on the continent and often contributes troops to United Nations peace keeping missions.
Ethiopia spends around 2.4% of its GDP on the military.
Source Sudan Tribune
According to Reuters, a group of Eritrean soldiers Monday laid siege to the information ministry and forced the state media to declare a call for the release of political prisoners.
So far there is no information if the siege by the army is an attempt to topple the Eritrean government, single-handedly ruled by 66-year-old Isaias Afewerki since two decades after it broke away from its bigger neighbour Ethiopia in 1993.
According to reports, the rebel soldiers forced the director of state television to seek the release all political prisoners. Apparently, the state television and radio had gone off air and dozens of soldiers with two tanks have surrounded the ministry building in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
Human Rights activists consider Eritrea as one of the most repressive and closed countries. According to an estimate by the United Nations, the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party led by Afewerki is holding 5,000-10,000 political prisoners in the secretive nation.
Apparently, the relation between the government and the soldiers has soured with worsening economic crisis and the move is seen as a possible coup. A statement has been read out on the state television and radio seeking for the establishment of the country’s 1997 constitution.
UK Foreign Office has reported that there has been some unusual military movements in and around Asmara and noted that the local radio and TV are off air.
Sources: Al Jazeera / BBC / Arab News
Mr. Lamy met with Ethiopia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Tedros Adhanom to discuss the accession procedures and requirements for membership, which the country has been working to meet for some time in Addis Ababa and made this pronouncement.
Ethiopia made its initial application to become part of the WTO in 2003, and a Working Party to consider and guide the country’s accession was set up in February of the same year.
Key issues pertaining to Ethiopia joining the WTO have surrounded the opening up of currently state-monopolized sectors, such as the telecommunications and finance sectors, while the country has also been called upon to allow investment by foreign entities.
The current announcement by Lamy indicates that Ethiopia may be nearing completion of all the transformations required by the organization, with the Director General’s visit also intended to provide specific advice in order that the final stages of accession may be swift.
If Ethiopia is able to join the World Trade Body, it will be a major achievement for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who took over the country after the death of his predecessor and long term leader Meles Zenawi.
Once Ethiopia meets all of the requirements set out for accession, the final decision regarding membership will fall to the member countries of the WTO, who must all sign and ratify an accession agreement granting full membership.
(New York) – Four Ethiopian journalists have received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for 2012 in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression in Ethiopia, one of the world’s most restricted media environments.
Eskinder Nega Fenta, an independent journalist and blogger; Reeyot Alemu Gobebo of the disbanded weekly newspaper Feteh; Woubshet Taye Abebe of the now-closed weekly newspaper Awramba Times; and Mesfin Negash of Addis Neger Online were among a diverse group of 41 writers and journalists from 19 countries to receive the award in 2012. Eskinder, Reeyot, and Woubshet are imprisoned in Ethiopia; Mesfin fled in 2009. All four journalists were convicted in 2012 under Ethiopia’s draconian anti-terrorism law.
“The four jailed and exiled journalists exemplify the courage and dire situation of independent journalism in Ethiopia today,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Their ordeals illustrate the price of speaking freely in a country where free speech is no longer tolerated.”
The Hellman/Hammett grants, administered by Human Rights Watch, are awarded annually to writers and journalists around the world who have been targets of political persecution and human rights abuses. The prize is named after two American writers who were harassed during the 1950s anti-communism investigations. Lillian Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work while Dashiell Hammett spent time in prison. A distinguished selection committee awards the grants to honor and support journalists whose work, activities, and lives are suppressed by repressive government action.
The journalistic work and liberty of the four Ethiopian award-winners has been suppressed by the Ethiopian government in its efforts to restrict free speech and peaceful dissent, clamp down on independent media, and limit access to and use of the internet. They represent a much larger group of journalists in Ethiopia forced to self-censor, face prosecution, or flee the country, Human Rights Watch said.
Eleven Ethiopian and foreign journalists have been charged and sentenced under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law in 2012. Critical blogs and internet pages are regularly blocked. The Ethiopian parliament passed a new telecommunications law in 2012, further controlling internet usage, just weeks after the biggest state printer, Birhanena Selam,issued a new contract for its publishers stipulating that it could censor the content of any publication it deems to violate the law. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the third-largest number of journalists forced to flee their countries since 1992 has been from Ethiopia, after Somalia and Iran.
Like many other journalists in Ethiopia, the four award-winners have suffered greatly, both personally and professionally, in following their profession and exercising their right to free speech, Human Rights Watch said.
On July 13, after nine months in detention, Eskinder Nega, a veteran Ethiopian journalist and the foremost critic from the media of the ruling Ethiopian government, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, as well as participation in a terrorist organization and treason. His case is under appeal. He has been jailed numerous times. Eskinder and his wife, the fellow journalist and newspaper publisher Serkalem Fasil,were arrested, detained for more than one year, and charged with treason following the contested 2005 elections. They were acquitted of all charges in April 2007. Since his release, Eskinder has faced ongoing harassment, surveillance, and intimidation. The authorities denied him a publishing license. In February 2011 he was once again briefly detained. Despite the ongoing harassment, he refused to leave Ethiopia and continued to write and speak out until he was again imprisoned.
Woubshet Tayewas the deputy editor of the Awramba Times prior to his arrest on June 19, 2011. He was convicted, along with Reeyot Alemu, on three counts of terrorism in January 2012. Woubshet alleged in court that he had been tortured during his pretrial detention, but the complaint was never investigated by the court. His arrest was not the first threat he faced as a result of his work. In 2010, prior to the general elections, an official from the government’s media licensing office accused him of “intentionally inciting and misguiding the public.” Woubshet was also briefly detained following the 2005 elections.
Reeyot Alemu was an English teacher and a columnist with one of the last remaining independent papers, Feteh. Reeyot was arrested on June 21, 2011, and convicted on January 19, 2012, on three counts of terrorism. In August, an appeals court reduced her sentence from 14 to 5 years, maintaining one of the terrorism charges against her.
Mesfin Negash works for Addis Neger Onlinewebsite, which he established along with other colleagues after fleeing the country in 2009. Mesfin was convicted in absentia in the same trial as Eskinderunder the anti-terrorism law’s article on support for terrorism, which contains a vague prohibition on “moral support.”Mesfin was one of the editors of the now-defunct popular analytical Addis Neger newspaper, but was forced to close the paper and go into exile in November 2009, with most of the paper’s senior staff, after the authorities threatened him.
Source: Human Rights Watch
The United States is deeply concerned about the prosecution primarily of journalists and political activists under the anti-terrorism law. A court in Ethiopia has convicted a prominent journalist and seven other citizens there, along with 16 who were tried in absentia, of violations of the country’s anti-terrorism law. It was the third case in six months in which journalists were tried under that statute. The United States is deeply concerned about the prosecution primarily of journalists and political activists under the anti-terrorism law. The practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression.
Journalist and online blogger Eskinder Nega was arrested last September and accused of trying to incite violence with a series of articles that he wrote and posted online. He was also videotaped at a town hall meeting discussing the “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries and whether such demonstrations were possible in Ethiopia.Prosecutors said Nega’s activities and those of the other defendants violated the anti-terrorism law because they could encourage others to attempt terrorist acts – charges that all of the defendants denied.
The government has detained Eskinder seven times in all for his writings, part of a disturbing pattern. Including the verdicts last week, 14 of the 17 people convicted under the anti-terrorism law — not counting those convicted in absentia — are either journalists or opposition political figures.
Media freedom is under fire in other ways too. The Ethiopian government is blocking access to a growing number of websites – including recently the online international news sites of The Washington Post and The Economist – which restricts the free flow and exchange of information over the internet.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society. When they are restricted, all human rights suffer. That is why the United States has joined its international partners in calling for the end to actions anywhere that have a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression.
by David Arnold
The rumors and unconfirmed reports began last week and gained momentum when Meles did not attend a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa as expected. There was even speculation about who might succeed Meles if he could not finish his term in office in 2015.
Then on Monday, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Hailemariam Desalegne, confirmed that Meles was indeed ill, but refused to elaborate or say what the illness might be. The speculation increased again.
Meles has been the dominant political figure in this nation of approximately 93 million people since the rebel forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front entered the capital, Addis Ababa, in 1991 and ended the 14-year dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemarian. Meles has for more than 20 years served as chairman of the TPLF and the larger Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that now holds all but one seat in the national parliament.
Until Monday, the government declined comment on Meles’ health. His hand-picked deputy, Desalagne, yesterday told a Bloomberg News correspondent in Addis, “There is no serious illness at all.” He said Meles would “return soon,” but did not talk about the nature of the illness or where the nation’s leader was receiving treatment.
The ambassador for public diplomacy, Getachew Reda, also gave a VOA reporter in the Amharic language service the same account, and refused to identify the illness and where the prime minister is being treated.
Rumors about Meles’ health abound
In a nation where the government maintains strict control over the local media, unconfirmed reports have surfaced in recent days on Ethiopian dissident web sites around the world that the prime minister suffers from cancer, a brain tumor and even that he might be dead.
One unverified report is that Meles has recently received treatment at Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels. The hospital did not reply to a VOA request for information about whether Meles was or had recently been a patient there.
The Government Communications Affairs Office said July 17 it will hold a press conference Wednesday at 3 p.m. in Addis to disclose Meles’ health condition.
First speculation about Meles’ health began in local and opposition media around the world in 2009, when he was reported receiving treatment for an unnamed illness in Dubai. Rumors about the severity of his health re-appeared in opposition media when Meles failed to attend several major public events in recent weeks.
Out of public eye for two weeks
Although he was scheduled to open a New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Addis on Saturday, Senegal, Macky Sall, took his place and announced that Meles could not attend due “to health conditions.” Meles also failed to appear on Sunday at the opening of an African Union summit of more than three dozen African leaders at the Addis Ababa headquarters, where the prime minister usually plays host.
Earlier, Meles did not attend the July 9 celebration of neighboring South Sudan’s independence day, and failed to appear to address parliament on July 8 to approve Ethiopia’s current fiscal budget. State television did not include footage from a crucial July 16 parliamentary debate on the next budget, leading to speculation that he did not attend that state function either.
The Meles legacy and possible successors
Prior to his 2010 election, Meles publicly considered retirement but later said that the party pushed him to run for another five-year term.
During his current term Meles has risen in stature as an African leader in United Nations agencies and in the international community on issues such as climate change and economic development. He has launched major development programs in Ethiopia such as foreign investment in large commercial farmlands and the construction near the Sudanese border of the massive Grand Millennium Dam on the Abay River, which is a major source of Nile waters. Many of these projects have stirred controversy within Ethiopia and among many in the Ethiopian diaspora. Although Ethiopia has been seen as a close U.S. ally for its support of anti-terrorism efforts in Somalia and the region, the State Department has been critical of his government’s human rights record, the manner in which the government ran recent national elections, and of stifling free speech through swift use of new anti-terrorism laws. Those laws recently resulted in lengthy jail sentences for many Ethiopian journalists.
Meles first served as president of Ethiopia for four years, then chose to become prime minister. The role of president, now held by Girma Woldegiorgis, is considered largely ceremonial.
Possible successors as prime minister include:
- The Minister of Health, Dr. Tewodros Adhanom Gebreyesus, whose leadership on health issues has garnered global attention. He is a close friend of Meles.
- Meles’ wife, Azeb Mesfin, who is a member of parliament and the party’s powerful nine-member executive committee.
- Hailemariam Desalegne, who is a former president of a southern region of Ethiopia who Meles elevated to national office in 2010.
Source: Voice of America
By Richard Dowden
Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging president in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic.
But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside interference.
He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8 meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United States’ policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. “It’s Mubarak syndrome,” a worried US diplomat told me. “We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt’s role in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It’s the same with Ethiopia.”
In the 2005 election when the opposition won the capital, Addis Ababa, and claimed to have won nationally, the government arrested its leaders and tried them for treason. Some were imprisoned, others fled into exile. Now with 99.6% of the vote, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has created a virtual one party state. In an interview last week Meles told me he did not know of a single village in the whole country that voted for the opposition.
This is subtle totalitarianism, dubbed ‘Authoritarian Developmentalism’ by some. If you do what the government says, you get assistance – land, water, services. If you don’t, you get nothing. The basic principles of political freedom enshrined in the constitution are frequently undermined by subtle edicts from government departments. Press freedom is clearly spelt out and recently a minor ruling stated that printers must take responsibility for everything they publish and can refuse to print anything the government might consider illegal. Hardly a devastating blow to press freedom you might think until you discover that the only presses in Ethiopia capable of printing newspapers are government-owned.
Meles’ remarkable achievement since he took power in 1991 has been to attract foreign companies to Ethiopia through a policy of low taxes and a free hand. Growth has been between 8 and 11 percent over the past eight years thanks to the private sector (both western and eastern.) The economy has doubled over the last five years. Meles is rushing to develop the country as fast as he can. Using the Chinese model he has attracted foreign investors to develop agriculture and manufacturing. As he told me: “The criticism we had in the past was that we were crazy Marxists. Now we are accused of selling the family spoons to foreigners. It’s a balance.”
Meles has leased more than 4 million hectares of land to foreign or domestic companies to grow food or flowers. And to provide them with water and power he has built dams which he says are environmentally much better than power stations since they are built in gorges with little water loss through evaporation. But it is not a completely free market solution. There are government monopolies in banking and telecoms. Nor will the government give people title deeds. All land is state owned. Meles has made it clear he will keep it that way.
“Have we created a perfect democratic system? No it’s a work in progress. Are we running as fast as our legs will carry us? Yes. And it’s not just Addis but also the most remote areas. Unlike previous governments we have really created a stable country in a very turbulent neighbourhood. Our writ runs in every village. That never happened in the history of Ethiopia. The state was distant, irrelevant.”
He fiercely defends his policies, in the face of Western NGO criticism, that this development is environmentally unsound and indigenous people have been removed forcibly from their land. He insists that in every case they were consulted, dismissing a report by the Oakland Institute in the US which said people had been forcibly removed as “bullshit”. When I suggest that pastoralists should be allowed to continue their nomadic way of life, he says I am a romantic westerner. But he adds that it is their right to continue their way of life.
It is the same with the politics. Having taken power by force in 1991 and coming from a minority, Meles created a safety valve by writing into the constitution the right of every “nation” in Ethiopia to declare independence. Whenever there are local political problem he re-asserts that right to leave but it is unlikely the clause will ever be put to the test through a referendum.
The current trouble spot is the southern region of Gambela where land has been given to agricultural businesses. Meles is defensive about reports of recent forced removals. “We are making sure that the Gambela people are settled and have land and that young people can go to farms not as guards but as farmers,” he said, assuring me that the people who have been moved were consulted. Only when all those in the region who want to work have jobs will other workers be recruited from other parts of Ethiopia.
Is the Meles plan for rapid, state directed capitalism working? At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa earlier this month, criticism came, not from western NGOs , but from China, Ethiopia’s closest ally. Gao Xiqing of the China Investment Forum, warned Meles: “Do not necessarily do what we did”. Policies of “sheer economic growth” should be avoided, he said. “We now suffer pollution and an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities… You have a clean sheet of paper here. Try to write something beautiful.”
Has any Chinese official ever publically criticised an African leader in such terms before?
And some foreign investors are not happy either. They have driven Ethiopia’s growth but now the government and Ethiopian firms are desperate for a greater slice of the profits. Flower and horticultural companies have been suddenly ordered by the government to only use Ethiopian companies for packing their produce, transporting it to Addis Ababa airport from where only the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines must be hired to fly it to Europe. As the distraught owner of one of the biggest flower farms told me last week: “Ethiopia does not have such companies yet”. But if they refuse, their licences will be withdrawn. It appears that having lured foreign businesses into Ethiopia, the government is now tying them down and taking their profits.
Meles is caught in a bind, under pressure on several fronts with problems that economic growth may not solve. Inflation is coming down but has been running at almost 50 percent. Everyone I spoke with in Ethiopia said that the cost of living was the highest they had ever known. There is real hardship among the poor as the staple grain in Ethiopia, teff, has quadrupled in price recently. The universities are pouring out graduates but there are few jobs. One recent graduate I spoke with said she was one of about 10 out of more than 100 in her class who had a job. The government’s hope is that it can grow the economy even faster. It is promising mining as the next bonanza and Meles hinted last week that oil has been discovered.
But this is the scenario he may soon be facing: a mass of urban poor hurt by the price rise of the staple food and large numbers of educated but unemployed urban youth. Sounds familiar? The Arab Spring was watched closely by Ethiopians. Watch this space.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.
Najum Mushtaq NAIROBI, Jul 8 (IPS)
A new media law – six years in the making – has been passed by Ethiopia’s House of People’s Representatives. Its preamble declares that “the proclamation removes all obstacles that were impediments to the operation of the media in Ethiopia.” But an analysis by Ethiopian journalists finds it actually clears the way for government to continue to harass and persecute the messenger when the message is not in line with the whims of the rulers.
The ‘Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation’, which purports to update and reform the first ever Ethiopian press law of 1992, has been a source of controversy ever since its initiation in 2002.
In countless meetings with the ministry of information – which regulates Ethiopian media – local and international activists have been lobbying in vain for revisions in the draft to make it compatible with international norms and conventions on press freedom. The version adopted by parliament last week seems certain to further restrict freedom of expression and intimidate journalists.
“We have come to understand… that the proclamation is incompatible with the (Ethiopian) constitution and other international human rights laws, conventions and agreements. It is a reversal and desecration of victories achieved by the repealed press law (of 2004),” says a resolution adopted Wednesday at the end of a UN-sponsored workshop of media practitioners in Addis Ababa organised by the Horn of Africa Press Institute (HAPI).
The workshop reviewed the new legislation and called for “a reassessment of all the provisions of the law” as it imposes “substantive restrictions with heavy burden and obligations” on journalists.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the new law is that the government has appropriated the right to prosecute defamation cases against the media even if the ostensibly defamed government officials do not initiate legal proceedings. Article 43 (7) of the proclamation says that defamation and false accusation against “constitutionally mandated legislators, executives and judiciaries will be a matter of the government and prosecutable even if the person against whom they were committed chooses not to press charge.”
This provision overrides the 2004 criminal law which had stated that cases of defamation would go to court only when the victims make complaints. Also, the compensation for moral damage caused by mass media has been raised from 1,000 birr to a crippling 100,000 birr – just over $10,000.
Journalists attending the workshop also pointed out that many restrictive measures had already been incorporated into other laws during the six-year debate on the media bill. For instance, the Criminal Code of the country which came into force in 2005 includes penal provisions for “participation in crimes by the mass media.”
In another example, the role and duties of the Ministry of Information were redefined in 2007 to give the government arbitrary powers to use registration and licensing procedures as a punishment for dissent. It also empowers the government to stop distribution of a newspaper if the attorney general deems a news item to be a criminal act.
And in a country where most of the established newspapers as well as radio and television channels are government-owned, the new law undermines the growth of the independent private sector by placing its fate in the hands of the information ministry.
“We understand that the regulatory authority itself is involved in the media and news making and has no institutional freedom,” the workshop resolution observed.
The new law fits into a pattern of official persecution of journalists seen over the last three years. Soon after controversial 2005 elections, three newspapers and magazines belonging to the country’s largest private publisher, Serkalem Publishing House, were closed down as part of a widespread crackdown on media that dared to criticise the handling of the poll. Serkalem Fasil and her family were imprisoned for over a year.
Ten other independent publications were also forced to shut down, leaving hundreds of journalists unemployed.
Already this year, the government has forced two more magazines out of circulation using laws against disturbance to public order. One of them, Enku, a fashion magazine, was not only confiscated but its deputy editor, Aleymayehu Mahtemwork and three colleagues spent four days in jail for covering the trial of a popular pop star whose songs angered the government. Though he was released, the case against him remains pending and his magazine is yet to be revived.
Fasil recalls the recent history of media persecution by the state and observes and explains the apathy of the international community: “Much to the utter amazement of the of the Ethiopian public, the international community shrugged and moved on, perhaps writing off the democratic cause in Ethiopia as superfluous in light of the perceived danger posed by Islamic extremists in the Horn. Every single one of those papers is still closed, and almost all journalists that worked for them are either in exile or remain unemployed to this day.”
She told IPS that a few months after her acquittal she applied for new press licenses as prescribed by the press law and the constitution. “And though we were assured by the Ministry of Information that we had fulfilled all legal requirements and are entitled to the licenses by law, we were advised to pursue the issue at the prime minister’s office, which had extra-judicially interceded to block the applications. Ten months later, we are still patiently waiting for the application of rule of law.”
“The provisions of better laws are desirable,” she says, “but they will hardly matter if they are not binding and could be abrogated at will by government officials, as has been clearly established in our case.”
Signs are that the government intends to widen the scope of its assault on people’s rights. The current session of parliament is also taking up a bill to regulate non-governmental and civil society organisations. The banned journalists, it seems, will soon have more allies to share their adversity and join their struggle. (END/2008)