Two journalists get one-year jail terms under obsolete law

Published on 4 September 2009

In the same country

4 December 2009 Weekly forced to stop publishing, its journalists flee abroad

3 November 2008 Leading newspaper editor beaten unconscious outside son’s school

7 May 2008 Entertainment monthly’s deputy editor freed on bail

Reporters Without Borders is stunned by the one-year jail sentences imposed on two journalists in separate cases brought by the public prosecutor for the alleged dissemination of false information. Both journalists have been held in Kalita prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa since 24 August. One the prosecutions concerned an article published in 2004 and both were based in part on an obsolete law.

“These prison sentences, and the prosecution of old cases, are all the more surprising as the Ethiopian authorities had been displaying signs of greater tolerance towards the media since 2005,” Reporters Without Borders said, calling for the immediate release of the two journalists.

“Coming after the adoption of an anti-terrorism law that could lead to press freedom violations, these sentences show that it is still very dangerous to work as a journalist in Ethiopia,” the press freedom organisation added. “It is incomprehensible that the courts are enforcing a law that is no longer in effect.”

Federal high court judge Zewdinesh Asres passed a one-year sentence on Asrat Wedajo, the former editor of the weekly Seife Nebelbal, over a 2004 article about human rights violations against individuals in the Oromia regional state. Wedajo, who was not represented by a lawyer at the trial, was convicted under the criminal code and a 1992 press law that was rendered obsolete by the media and access to information law that took effect last December.

Seife Nebelbal, which expressed strong political views and often reported alleged cases of mistreatment of Oromos, was closed during a crackdown on the press in 2005 by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government.

In the other case, Ibrahim Mohamed Ali, the editor of the weekly Salafiyya, was given a one-year sentence under the same provisions for publishing a column last year criticising the education ministry’s plan to ban Muslim students from wearing the veil in state schools. Ali spent 10 days in prison after the article’s publication together with Maria Kadim, the editor of the Muslim daily Al-Quds, and Ezedin Mohamed, its publisher.

Reporters Without Borders wrote to communication minister Bereket Simon on 15 July voicing concern about the newly-adopted anti-terrorism law and the press freedom violations that are liable to result from some of its articles.

During a visit to Ethiopia in October 2008, Reporters Without Borders met Simon, who was then an adviser to the prime minister. He said at the time that the government wanted to open up to the media and defuse tension with journalists. Reporters Without Borders understands that the ethiopian government made encouraging strides to open up access of information to journalists following the pledge. However, the press freedom organisation fears that such indictments of journalists based on obsolete law could derail progress in the relations between the government and the media.

Reporters Without Borders remains hopeful that the ethiopian government will work vigorously to create an environment that enables journalists to work without intimidation and fear.