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Following fact-finding mission, RSF reports on press freedom situation in the country

(RSF/IFEX) - 24 January 2012 - Reporters Without Borders has just visited Ethiopia, where two Swedish journalists, Kontinent news agency reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, were sentenced to 11 years in prison on 29 December on charges of entering the country illegally and supporting terrorism.

During the visit, from 9 to 12 January, the two Swedish journalists decided to request a presidential pardon instead of appealing against their conviction. “In Ethiopia, there is a long tradition of pardons and we have chosen to leave it to this tradition,” they said, announcing their decision on 10 January in Addis Ababa's Kality prison.

“Persson and Schibbye were arrested with members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front but they never supported terrorism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They went to the Ogaden as journalists. We are now in a new phase, one of political negotiation, and we hope that the Ethiopian authorities, the National Pardon Board and everyone else involved can reach an agreement under which they are released quickly.”

During the visit, Reporters Without Borders also assessed the current state of media freedom in Ethiopia and the constraints on its journalists, two of whom were convicted on terrorism charges on 19 January in Addis Ababa.

A repressive legislative arsenal and dwindling room for expression

Even if recent years have been marked by tension between the government and privately-owned media and surveillance of the most outspoken journalists, Reporters Without Borders recognizes that there is space for freedom of expression in Ethiopia.

As well as two state-owned dailies, the Amharic-language Addis Zemen and the English-language Ethiopian Herald, there are also privately-owned newspapers such as the Amharic-language Reporter, Addis Admas, Sendek, Mesenazeria and Fitih, along with the English-language The Reporter and The Daily Monitor. The privately-owned newspapers are routinely critical of government policies and at times provocative.

But, in the course of its observations and the interviews it conducted during this visit, Reporters Without Borders confirmed that freedom of expression has been on the wane for some time.

This has been seen, for example, in the fact that two Amharic-language weeklies, Addis Neger and Awramba Times, ceased to publish when their journalists fled the country, in December 2009 in the case of the first, and November 2011 in the case of the second.

Over the course of the past three years, Ethiopia has adopted laws targeting civil society and combating terrorism that have arguably rode roughshod over rights guaranteed by Ethiopia's constitution. It is partly this legislative arsenal that has had the direct effect of reducing the democratic space and freedom of expression.

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