Freedom of the press has deteriorated considerably in Ethiopia this year, with a dozen journalists arrested in the past few weeks and the fate of two Swedish journalists on trial in Addis Ababa on terrorism charges expected to be known tomorrow.
Reporters Without Borders has written to Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, asking him to visit Ethiopia to meet the government and persuade it to stop using the war on terrorism to penalise free speech.
Here is the letter:
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Paris, 20 December 2011
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that campaigns for freedom of the press, wishes to draw your attention to the worsening climate for journalists in Ethiopia since the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi began using anti-terrorism legislation against them.
Since the law was passed in July 2009, Reporters Without Borders has written to the Ethiopian authorities to point out its shortcomings and how it can be misused against the press. The organization feared the law might be used to curb freedom of the press and crack down on journalists. In 2011, our fears were confirmed.
In June, Woubeshet Taye, the deputy editor of the Amharic-language weekly Awramba Times, and Reyot Alemu, a columnist for the Amharic-language weekly Fitih, were arrested. Both were accused of complicity with a group regarded as a terrorist organization.
On 1 July, two Swedish journalists of the Kontinent news agency, reporter Martin Schibbye and photojournalist Johan Persson, were arrested for entering Ogaden illegally to report on human rights abuses in the region, which is closed to the press. They are accused of entering Ethiopia illegally – which they have already admitted in court – and also of supporting a terrorist group.
Finally, in November the authorities charged six Ethiopian journalists, some of whom are in exile, with terrorism offences.
Serious though this is for those who have been arrested and prosecuted, Sir, it is also damaging for Ethiopia’s privately-owned media as a whole. It fosters self-censorship and nurtures fear.
This climate has forced at least three journalists who feared arrest to flee the country in November. These were Abebe Tola, known as "Abe Tokichaw", a well-known columnist for the weeklies Fitih and Awramba Times, Tesfaye Degu of the newspaper Netsanet, and Dawit Kebede, managing editor of the Awramba Times.
The 2009 law has become a real threat for the news industry. In the name of the fight against terrorism, the government muzzles dissident and critical voices, thus abusing human rights and fundamental freedoms.
For this reason, we urge you to visit Ethiopia. In your capacity as Special Rapporteur in this field, it is incumbent on you to meet the Ethiopian government and persuade it to stop using the fight against terrorism to penalise freedom of expression.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you require further details of the journalists who have been arrested and penalised.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
CC: Frank La Rue, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Reporters Without Borders has also joined three other organizations and the "Free Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye" campaign in asking the European Union to take more decisive action to protect press freedom in Ethiopia.
Finally, as the Swedish journalists’ court hearing nears, the Swedish chapter of Reporters Without Borders has published the following press release:
Countdown for Swedish journalists facing terrorism charges in Ethiopia
On 21 December, a court in Addis Ababa will pronounce its verdict in the trial of Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson on charges of terrorism and entering Ethiopia illegally.
The trial has turned into a fight for press freedom. International war correspondents Adrian Blomfield and Phillip Ittner travelled to Ethiopia to appear as defence witnesses. Swedish photographer Magnus Laupa and Mattias Göransson, editor of the Swedish magazine Filter, also testified on behalf of the detained journalists.
Court documents contain inconsistencies, false information and mistakes. Schibbye and Persson have responded to these documents indirectly through family members. Their comments and the latest developments in the case can be seen at martinandjohan.org, with their court statements, contact details, stories and reports from the Ogaden region.
Photo : Mr. Ben Emmerson