Press Freedom Still Under Attack

newspaper in ethiopiaBy Najum Mushtaq NAIROBI, May 27 (IPS) – The May edition of popular Ethiopian entertainment magazine Enku did not appear on newsstands as scheduled this month. Ethiopian police impounded all 10,000 copies before they could be distributed; Alemayehu Mahtemework, the magazine’s publisher and deputy editor, was charged with threatening public order and spent five days in detention, along with three of his staff.

Serkalem Fasil, a journalist who was herself imprisoned by the Meles Zenawi government for writing articles critical of the conduct of the 2005 parliamentary elections, believes that the police action against the magazine was intended to send out a message to the media in general.

“The suppression of Ethiopia’s free press is probably the most overlooked story in Africa,” says Fasil whose exposés on election-rigging were followed by her arrest in November 2005 along with her brother, husband and a dozen others on charges of genocide and treason. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, she gave birth to her baby in jail — she would not be released for 18 months.

The charges against Alemayehu stem from Enku’s cover story for May, a feature on the arrest and trial of one of the country’s most popular singers, Tewodros Kassahun. Better known to Ethiopians as Teddy Afro, the singer appeared in court on April 23, where he pleaded not guilty to involvement in a hit-and-run accident in November 2006.

Razak Adam, an Ethiopian development worker based in Nairobi, says that anywhere else in the world, Kassahun’s trial might simply be a story of celebrity misdeeds, but in Ethiopia, it is widely viewed as politically motivated. His music and public statements are critical of government policies and his April court appearance sparked impromptu protests in Addis Ababa, involving thousands of his fans, mostly teenagers. Such protests are a rare sight in the tightly-controlled Ethiopian capital. A similar spontaneous protest took place at the Adidas Ababa Stadium on May 4, when many of the 35,000 fans at the 16th African Athletics Championships began chanting “Free Teddy” slogans after Ethiopian runner Kenenisa Bekele won the 5,000 meter race.

“In Ethiopia, the story is deeply political and complex as it reflects not only the precarious state of press freedom; it also raises some other critical but unaddressed issues which are pulling Ethiopian society apart,” Adam told IPS.

These simmering issues encompass Ethiopia’s past as well as its present. Kassahun sings tunes and lyrics that challenge ethnic and religious divisions in society. His 2005 hit, Yasteseryal (“redemption” in Amharic) was used by opposition parties as their anthem to rally the public against the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The video for the song includes images of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the Derg — the repressive military government that succeeded the emperor — and the present leadership under Zenawi; the lyrics suggest that the regimes have changed, but the people still suffer. Since then, Kassahun’s music has been banned from all state-controlled media.

To most of his listeners, though, Kassahun is a hero. By giving coverage to his trial, Mahtemework and his avowedly non-political magazine attracted the hostile attention of the government. Mahtemework says Enku has been routinely censored by its government-owned printer since it began covering Teddy Afro’s music in December, but he did not anticipate his arrest or the confiscation of his magazine. “Ever since the third issue of our magazine, we have been subjected to censorship by the printer. We expected to be told that the coverage of the Tewodros Kassahun’s trial would not pass the censors, but the impounding was a surprise to us.”

The Enku episode is a continuation of the crackdown on independent media. Serkalem Fasil — arrested in 2005 — was not released until April 2007, when she was acquitted on all charges. But heavy fines had already been imposed on the three newspapers published by her company, Serkalem Publishing House, and they were eventually closed down. Though there is no legal justification, the government is refusing to grant her licences to start new newspapers.

The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association, along with Fasil, led the campaign for the release of Enku’s editor. International press freedom watchdogs also swiftly condemned the government’s actions against Enku and its staff.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Mahtemework’s arrest and Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation that fights censorship and defends journalists, issued a statement saying, “The Ethiopian authorities have sent a very negative signal by choosing the eve… of World Press Freedom Day to arrest a journalist and seize an issue of an independent magazine.” The organisation threatened to put Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi back on a list of what it calls “press freedom predators”; Zenawi was taken off the list in 2007, in recognition of an improvement in the media freedom in Ethiopia.

Despite his arrest and the charges pending against him, Mahtemework remained positive. “My morale is good. We want to continue publishing, but all our working capital is invested in the monthly issue which has been impounded… our hands are tied.”

The onslaught against Enku cannot be seen in isolation from the wider political and cultural problems in Ethiopia. The Teddy Afro affair and the Enku episode are symptoms of the government’s aversion to even a hint of dissent. (END/2008)

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