Reporters Without Borders wrote yesterday to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi voicing concern about a deterioration in the climate for journalists in recent weeks and calling on him to consult with his country’s journalists in order to find ways to amend the code of conduct governing election reporting that was adopted in March.
The letter also urged the authorities to stop jamming Voice of America’s Amharic-language broadcasts and raised the case of two journalists employed by the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) who have been detained for more than a week.
“The climate of fear that we condemned in December 2009, when the weekly Addis Neger decided to stop publishing, seems as palpable as ever in Ethiopia as the country approaches the 23 May general election,” the letter said. “We bring to your attention that we are deeply worried about what we consider an apparent and intimidating effect of the measures taken by your government in the past months on journalists, restricting news coverage, and limiting pluralistic views and open criticism."
“The forthcoming polling should be seized as a rare opportunity to show the Ethiopian people and international community that you are willing and prepared to organise elections that are free and transparent and are covered by both Ethiopian and foreign journalists without difficulty.”
Referring to the two ERTA journalists, the letter said: “We strongly urge the Ethiopian justice to give Haileyesus Worku and Abdulsemed Mohammed a fair trial, one that establishes whether or not the charges brought against them are well-founded. In the meantime, we call for their provisional release.”
Arrested by members of the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission on 26 April, producer Haileyesus Worku and reporter Abdulsemed Mohammed are alleged to have stolen and sold national television programmes to the international TV station Al Jazeera.
They were brought before a federal court on 30 April but were not formally indicted. The judge adjourned the proceedings until 10 May, thereby allowing another week for further investigation and extending their provisional detention. As a result, the two journalists will remain in prison until 10 May at least. Communications minister Bereket Simon has said the case is a purely criminal matter that is unrelated to media freedom.
Recognising in March that his government would possibly jam the Voice of America’s broadcasts in Amharic in the coming weeks, Prime Minister Meles accused the station of “destabilising propaganda.”
The new code of conduct governing election reporting, adopted at the start of March in anticipation of the upcoming general election, imposed many restrictions on the freedom of journalists. They will not, for example, be allowed to interview voters, candidates or observers on election day. One of the code’s articles says that journalists must refrain from reporting anything that might incite rebellion or terrorism.
“This vague wording could be interpreted broadly and expose journalists to the possibility of arbitrary arrest,” the letter added. “We are also extremely concerned by the fact that journalists could be sentenced to imprisonment for violating this code of conduct.”
Picture : Meles Zenawi (AFP / Olivier Morin)