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EFJA shocked by deteriorating press freedom situation following conviction of editors and publishers

(EFJA/IFEX) - The following is a 12 June 2007 press release of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net), of which EFJA is a member:

Human rights groups shocked by convictions of journalists, call for observance of media freedom

EHAHRD-Net / Kampala, 12 June 2007 - The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net) is deeply concerned about the continued infringement on media freedom by the Ethiopian Government, evidenced by the 11 June 2007 conviction of four editors and three publishers of now defunct weeklies.

This latest move spoils the image the Ethiopian government tried to create when it acquitted eight journalists two months ago, and can only be an indication that the country's media is still at stake.

According to information received from EFJA and from EHAHRD-Net members in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora, those convicted include: editors Andualem Ayle of "Ethiop" and Mesfin Tesfaye of "Abay", who were convicted of "outrages against the constitutional order," and face possible execution or life in prison; editor Wenakseged Zeleke of "Asqual", who could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on similar charges; and deputy editor Dawit Fassil of "Satanaw", who had been released on bail in April after 16 months in prison. He has since been returned to Kality prison, and faces up to three years in prison on charges of "inciting the public through false rumors".

In the meantime, the publishing houses Serkalem, which owns "Asqual", "Menelik" and "Satanaw" newspapers, Sisay, which puts out "Ethiop", and Fasil, responsible for "Addis Zena" newspaper, were also convicted on similar charges.

"This continued ill treatment of the media by the Ethiopian federal government is very unfortunate and must stop. Journalists have an inalienable role of gathering and disseminating information, bestowed upon them by the Ethiopian Constitution, and regional, and international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi must therefore observe media freedom, and desist from
harassing media personnel," says Hassan Shire Sheikh, Chairperson of EHAHRDP-Net.

Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution provides for the "Right to Hold Opinions, Thoughts and Free Expressions" without interference. "This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice. . . "

BACKGROUND:
A wave of outrage was felt across Ethiopia in November 2005, when the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi launched a scathing attack on the independent media, forcing many into oblivion. Accused of being part of an opposition conspiracy to overthrow the "constitutional order", at least 14 editors and journalists were arrested, and a number of media houses were closed. The charges against the editors and journalists were based on, among other things, the assertion that their work had endangered some members of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, and the Tigrayans who form its dominant ethnic group. Other charges included "impairment of the defensive power of the state" and "attempted genocide". These charges followed the publication of editorials critical of the government's conduct around the May 2005 general elections.

Independent sources indicate that at least 193 people lost their lives during and after the violent protests that swept across the country, challenging the Government's attempt to manipulate the results of the elections.

In April 2007, following pressure from human rights organisations, press freedom observers and the international community, the Ethiopian government dropped charges against eight of the arrested journalists, after some had spent 17 months in prison. This action also included exiled President of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association, Kifle Mulat.

RECOMMENDED ACTION:

Send appeals to authorities:
- calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the jailed journalists
- urging the government to introduce legal reforms in line with international standards, by removing all criminal sanctions for press offences such as defamation, insulting the government and publishing false information

APPEALS TO:

His Excellency Meles Zenawi
Prime Minister
Office of the Prime Minister
P.O. Box 1031
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251 11 1552020
E-mail: [email protected], [email protected]

Mr. Seyoum Mesfin
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
P.O. Box 393
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251 11 5514300
E-mail: [email protected]

Mr. Assefa Kesito
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
P.O. Box 1370
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Fax: +251 11 5517775 / 5520874
E-mail: [email protected]

Please also send a copy of your letter to the Ethiopian representative in your country.
Please copy appeals to the source if possible.

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