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Independent newspaper closes, its editors flee country fearing persecution

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 7 December 2009 - Three editors of independent Amharic-language weekly Addis Neger have fled Ethiopia, saying that the government intends to prosecute them under Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009, promulgated on 28 August 2009. The last edition of the newspaper, which has been closed down, appeared on Saturday, 28 November.

On Friday, Managing Editor Mesfin Negash, Executive Editor Abiye Teklemariam and Editor-in-chief Tamerat Negera issued a statement with a Washington, D.C. dateline saying that the decision to close the paper and leave the country was made to protect the owners and journalists.

"This is the culmination of months of persecution, harassment and black propaganda by the Ethiopian government on Addis Neger," Teklemariam said in the 4 December statement.

Addis Neger, one of Ethiopia's few independent newspapers, was opened in September 2007 with two editorial goals - "The Idea of Public Reason" and "Integrity and Independence" - the statement said.

"The reason we left the country is basically because we found out that the government is preparing charges to take us to court. According to our reliable sources within the government and the international community in Addis Ababa, the government is cooking a number of charges against us both individually and as a company," Negash told IPI by email. "Actually this is just the culmination of the smear campaign opened before four years on our newspaper and its founders and journalists. The government daily, Addis Zemen. and the party affiliated website - aigaforum.com - has been publishing more than ten articles targeted on Addis Neger."

Negash added that the editors and journalists could face 10 to 20 years in prison if convicted, and that the court could seize the newspaper's assets.

IPI Director David Dadge said: "I am extremely concerned to hear that staff members at Addis Neger have been forced to leave the country and seek asylum. The flight of the journalists at this time reinforces concerns over the government's desire to silence critical journalism ahead of next year's parliamentary elections and it is hard not to see a link between these two events. The newspaper was developing a solid reputation for independent reporting and it is a tragedy for the Ethiopian public that the journalists felt compelled to undertake this ultimate act of self-protection."

In further evidence of the Ethiopian government's apparent desire to tighten control over the media in the run-up to the election, publishers Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega, who were jailed for 17 months after a 2005 media crackdown, continue to be denied publishing licenses. They were released from prison in 2007 after being given a presidential pardon, which is now being challenged by the government.

The pardon allowed not just the journalists' release from prison, but also overturned fines levied against the publishers' four media houses. Earlier this year the government took the media houses to court to try to enforce payment of the fines but failed. The government is now appealing the ruling in the Supreme Court, Nega told IPI in an email.

Thirteen political publications shut during the 2005 media crackdown remain closed.

Following a 16-21 November press freedom mission to Ethiopia, IPI recommended that the Government must refrain from attempts to control the information flow and recognize that a plurality of voices, including those that dissent from the government's view, are helpful to Ethiopian society.
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