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FAMINE & CENSORSHIP REPORT RELEASED AMID CONFLICTING PRESS FREEDOM DEVELOPMENTS

A new ARTICLE 19 report evaluates progress on issues related to censorship and famine in Ethiopia over the past decade. The publication, entitled "Ethiopia: Still Starving in Silence?," revisits concerns first raised by the organisation in a 1991 report. The release occurs at a time when both advances and setbacks for freedom of expression have been taking place in Ethiopia.

"The apparent return of famine to Ethiopia in 1999-2000 suggests that, despite the progress that has been made since 1991 by the ruling EPRDF [Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front] in strengthening freedom of expression, including access to information, much more remains to be done," says ARTICLE 19. Drawing on the ideas of Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, who has noted that there is no record of famine in a democratic society with access to information and a free media, ARTICLE 19 argues that it is "literally a matter of life and death" for the Ethiopian government to push forward with "the process of deepening and consolidating respect for fundamental human rights and democratic principles."

The report states that the EPRDF's performance during the 1999-2000 famine was much better than that of the previous regime during the famine of 1982-5. However, the legacy of the past, including a centuries-old culture of secrecy, remains difficult to overcome. ARTICLE 19 adds that the government's media liberalisation programme remains limited, particularly in the broadcasting sphere, and that "the crucial 'early warning' role which the local media could play in safeguarding Ethiopia against a future of persistent famine is still far from entrenched."

As for the international media, ARTICLE 19 says its focus during the recent famine was once again mainly "humanitarian," helping to promote action to address an emergency, but downplaying the structural causes of famine that must also be addressed if sustainable rural livelihoods are to be constructed over time. The report adds that the obstacles to sustained high-quality coverage by the mainstream foreign media of complex issues in countries such as Ethiopia have, if anything, intensified since the 1982-5 famine. It points to increased pressure for immediate soundbites and headlines, further privileging of images over words, lower priority given to resident expertise and increased financial constraints on visits to inaccessible parts of the world. The report is available at www.article19.org. ">http://www.article19.org/docimages/1034.htm">www.article19.org.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian authorities have given mixed signals in recent weeks on freedom of expression issues. On 10 May, a court ordered the release of Garoma Bekele, Tesfaye Deressa and Solomon Nemera from the now-defunct newspaper "Urji" after nearly three years in prison, reports the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA). The journalists were arrested in October 1997, after "Urji" covered the killing of three alleged members of an armed separatist organisation by government forces, notes the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Bekele and Deressa have since been released, but Nemera remains one of three journalists currently in jail in Ethiopia, says Reporters sans frontières (RSF). Both RSF and CPJ note that Ethiopia has been Africa's foremost jailer of journalists in recent years. CPJ adds that, "Since January 2001, however, authorities have released a total of six jailed journalists and appear to have eased off on the country's small, beleaguered private media."

In contrast, ARTICLE 19 is concerned over an apparent "new crackdown" and says that "official tolerance for free expression and association seems to have declined dramatically in recent months." It points, for example, to the 8 May arrest of Mesfin Wolde-Mariam and Berhanu Nega. The two human rights activists were arrested for incitement to riot after taking part in an 18 April forum on human rights and academic freedom at Addis Ababa University, according to the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC). The forum, which had been planned well in advance, coincidentally took place the day after security forces crushed a demonstration by students demanding greater academic freedom, says WiPC. The organisation reports that in the ensuing riots, 41 students were killed, hundreds were injured and around 2,000 were arrested. ARTICLE 19 adds that charges have been filed against several journalists following the recent student activism. Police also rounded up newspaper and magazine vendors on 20 April and released them the next day, on the condition that they stop their vending activities. Circulation of newspapers outside Addis Ababa has been severely affected by this action, says ARTICLE 19.

For more details, see www.cpj.org, www.rsf.fr and www.article19.org.


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