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Four media houses crushed with lethal fines

The Ethiopian government is settling political scores against journalists by slamming four newspaper publishing companies with crippling fines in reprisal for their coverage of the disputed 2005 elections, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The state is threatening to freeze their assets if the fines are not paid.

This ruling on 8 March comes less than two months before general elections, further intimidating the few independent newspapers in the country, reports IFJ. In the aftermath of post-election riots in 2005, 13 newspapers were shut down. The owners of the four media houses were imprisoned along with many other journalists on anti-state charges. None of these newspapers have been revived.

After being shut down in 2005, the four publishing houses and their newspapers were later banned by the state. In July 2007 amnesty was given to journalists and dissidents facing anti-state charges but the four media houses were still hit with fines. Last year, the court ruled that the amnesty also extended to fines. But the Ethiopian Supreme Court is now reinstating the fines of between US$1,100 and US$8,800, which IPI says amount to more money than the average Ethiopian would earn in a century. Those facing fines are the owners of Serkalem publishing house, which owned "Asqual", "Menelik" and "Satanaw" newspapers; Sisay Publishing and Advertising Enterprise, which produced "Ethiop" and "Abay"; Zekarias, publisher of "Netsanet"; and officials of Fasil, publisher of "Addis Zena".

At the time of the presidential pardon in 2007, the editors from the publications owned by the four media outlets were sentenced to life in prison, and then freed later the same year. Since then, all of the jailed editors have left the country. The current ruling is an attempt to push more journalists into exile. "They want to drive us out, but they will not succeed. We will continue to apply for publishing licenses and push for our rights, including press freedom," media owner, Eskinder Nega, told IPI.

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