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Press law terrorises Ethiopian writers

Like other journalists on the technologically under-resourced Ethiopian weekly, Tobiya, Biru Tsegaye has to write his reports with pen on paper. But that is the least of his problems. Far more worrying is the threat of imprisonment. With three members of the staff in jail, the acting editor cannot help but think he might be next.

Ethiopia might enjoy more press freedom than most Afri-can countries - according to a just-published report by the New York-based human rights organisation, Freedom House, it has a "partly free press" - but it has more journalists in prison than any other country on the continent. At the time of writing, there are about 14 journalists in detention in Ethiopia; few of them have been tried.

When Arega Wolde Kirkos was arrested early this year in connection with the publication of a reader's letter, Tobiya decided to close down for a month in protest. Two journalists were imprisoned late last year for re-printing in the Tobiya monthly magazine a contentious article by an Ethiopian professor living abroad (one has since been released on bail). Another was detained for an investigative piece on the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines flight which crashed last year in the Indian Ocean.

Tobiya is due to reappear today. However, journalists believe their troubles are far from over.

"It's clear the government doesn't want a free press," the paper's lawyer, Derbew Temesgen, said. "We're being victimised and the situation seems to be getting worse. The government could close us down very easily. A fine of 80,000 birr (pounds 7,600) would wipe us out immediately."

At the forefront of press grievance is the Press Proclamation which was introduced in 1992, a year after the overthrow of the repressive Dergue regime which had ruled Ethiopia for 17 years. Although it abolished censorship, the new law has made it difficult for journalists to write about such subjects as ethnicity and national security.

Harsh sentences have been given to those journalists deemed to have violated the often arbitrary interpretation of the new press laws.

In the past three years, says a recently published report by the Paris- based press rights group, Reporters Sans Frontieres, around 150 journalists have been subject to legal proceedings in Ethiopia.

"Their crime was revealing news about national security or ethnic rivalry. In Ethiopia, criticising the government, or even showing some signs of independence, can lead to arrest or a police summons," the report says.

With more than 70 ethnic groups living within its borders, the subject of ethnicity is a vexatious one. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and again during the Dergue regime, political power was largely vested in the Amhars who make up about one-third of the population.

The ruling coalition of Meles Zenawi, however, is widely seen as being dominated by the northern Tigrayans.

"There is minority rule in this country and we take a strong editorial line on the subject," Hailu Woldetsadik, acting general manager of Tobiya, said.

"The government is devoting more economic resources to Tigre than to other parts of the country. It should not be punishable to discuss issues like this."