New law further applies the squeeze on Ethiopia's Press By ARGAW ASHINE | Tuesday, May 1   2012 at  10:52

Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi's government has been accused of seeking to stifle the populous country's independent press with a new directive that will have publishers take responsibility for any questionable content out of their presses. FILE | AFRICA REVIEW 

The Ethiopian government has activated a highly restrictive directive that authorises printers to censor the content of newspapers and other publications that roll off their presses.

The new legal directive forces printers to take responsibility over the contents of anything that they publish.

The rule directly authorises the printing house to institute pre-publishing censoring and must remove any content which may be defined as "illegal" by the government.

State-owned Birhanena Selam Printing Enterprise (BSPE) is the only printing house in Ethiopia equipped with the technological capacity to publish newspapers and has already circulated the new agreement for its customers to sign.

Its general manager declined to comment on the issue.

Opposed

However a group of newspaper owners have strongly opposed the move and established an ad-hoc committee to co-ordinate the protest.

"It is a clear indication of a government plan to eliminate any critical reporting and the Ethiopian press industry faces another wave of crackdowns," a publisher who sought anonymity for fear of reprisal told this reporter.

According to the new agreement, the printing house has a right to refuse to publish any sensitive content they find that would entail legal or any other responsibilities.

The new rule would appear to further corner Ethiopia's already beleaguered independent and critical press in the nation of 85 million people, Africa's second most-populous after Nigeria.

It is interpreted from the civil code which covers a wide range of legal rights and responsibilities for citizens but some articles related to freedom of expression are also mentioned.

Ethiopia has a separate press freedom and information act, a controversial law ratified in 2008 after five years of public debate.

The Horn of Africa country is listed among China, Iran, North Korea and Eritrea in terms of press freedom restriction and has over the last two years become a leading source of exiled journalists in Africa.

Its government has in recent years waged a massive crack down on its opponents and the media following the controversial 2005 general election that resulted in blood shed after opposition parties won in major cities including the capital Addis Ababa.

Formal complaint

Eleven reporters have over the last 12 months been jailed including two Swedish nationals on an alleged terrorism charge.

Meanwhile, ahead of the May 3 World Press Freedom Day London-based rights group Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) has launched a formal legal compliant to the UN against what is says is the Ethiopian government's continuing violation of the freedom of expression.

The group is now invoking a rarely used procedure and has formally asked United Nations' agency responsible for freedom of expression Unesco to take action against the systematic violation of the rights of journalists in Ethiopia.

According to the group's press statement, it is the first time that this procedure has been used.

While Unesco has a special committee that regularly handles individual complaints on a confidential basis, MLDI is asking it to refer the situation in Ethiopia to its general conference and formally and publicly hold Ethiopia to account.

"Ethiopia is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world,” said Mr Peter Noorlander, the group's chief executive.