Ethiopian media hit by new anti-terrorism law
Ethiopia's tightly-controlled media is not particularly known for sticking its neck out on controversial issues, but a new law recently passed by an overwhelmingly government-controlled parliament has had top executives wringing their hands over its potential ramifications.
The law expressly bans any form of communication with groups designated as terrorist organisations, including reporting even a press release or interviewing their members.
According to the spirit of the law, any such act will be considered as disseminating terror-related information and the publisher of any such article can be jailed.
Addis Ababa journalists and newspaper owners remain confused as to how to treat the new law which was endorsed in 2009 but has only become effective now.
It is an indictment of the environment that exists in the country that some publishers were afraid of being quoted on their views, saying they preferred not to "quarrel with the government", even as the law clearly seems restrictive.
Dawit Kebede, a CPJ award winner and editor-in-chief of one of the country's remaining political newspapers, Awramba Times, says the law provides a pretext for the government to intimidate and even arrest journalists who fall afoul of its wording.
Kebede said the regulations were a government campaign to oppress all forms of dissident activity.
20-year prison sentence
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the law makes it difficult for Ethiopian reporters to cover the activities of opposition figures and rebels without risking prosecution and a 20-year prison sentence.
Legal experts added that the law had very broad definitions of terrorism and reporters could easily fall into a "trap" while reporting on the listed organisations.
But lawyer and government spokesperson Shimeles Kemal denied the accusations, saying that the media have nothing to be afraid of in the new law if they were not involved in criminal acts or harbouring other such agenda.
Shimeles said that the law was meant to protect Ethiopian citizens against increasing acts of terrorism. "Some of them are not innocent, they have an agenda, that is why they are afraid," he said.
"We (government) have a responsibility to protect our population and many countries including western nations have the same law."
Close eye: Meles Zenawi
Close eye: Meles Zenawi
The government has for years accused some private newspapers of being anti-development and running on narrow political interests.
And to further drive home its point, the government is already implementing the law and recently arrested two journalists; Awaramba Times deputy editor Wubshet Taye and Reyoot Alemu, a columnist with the same paper.
An Ethiopian court using the law subsequently charged them along five opposition politicians with an alleged plot to bomb government infrastructure.
One of the most popular newspapers, the Addis Neger, was in 2009 forced to close down and its journalists fled into exile for fear of being charged with terrorism.
Mesfin Negash, the exiled managing editor of the paper, told Africa Review that they had been tipped off on the government's intentions.
"I see the anti-terrorism law as part of the general strategy to silence and terrorise dissenting views be it among opposition parties, journalists or activists," Mesfin said from his base abroad, terming the law an indirect form of censorship.
It is yet another black mark on Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi's chequered media freedom record. The Ethiopian Prime Minister has recently carved out an increasingly impressive regional security role for himself, buttressed by his impressive views about global development and justice.
But dozens of rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the CPJ have extensively criticised Ethiopia's government over its fierce stance on media rights.
Furious Ethiopian authorities in turn always termed the groups as "anti-Ethiopian" elements with their own "neo-liberal" agenda that ignores the principle of sovereignty.
The government has also passed other controversial laws, including the Media Bill and the NGO and Political Parties Bill, that have tightened the reporting environment, in addition to other measures seen as further clamping down on media freedom.
Printing price hike
Recently, the state-owned printing press increased its prices by 45 per cent, forcing publishers to raise cover and advertising prices after their appeal against the increase was turned down.
The Birhanena Selam Printing House blamed an increase in the global price of pulp, but publishers were not convinced.
Amare Aregawi, the publisher of the bi-weekly Reporter Amharic and the weekly Reporter English (weekly), said the increment was deliberate and meant to weaken the media's outreach to the public.
Amare said the government should instead protect freedom of expression by providing a better policy environment to the private media.
However, Shimeles also denied this, saying that the owners of the private press had failed to impress their readers due to their "poor and biased" content.
“Their readers are rejecting them and that is why they have started worrying," he said, accusing some publications of being secretly funded by opposition politicians and dissidents - a charge that media owners have dismissed.
It has not always been like this. The post-election violence of 2005 which left nearly 200 protestors and security agents dead was the main turning point as Meles' administration, previously seen as mellowing in the wake of a bloody socialist past, faced an unprecedented challenge from the opposition.
Among the listed terrorist organisations are opposition groups the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7. The foreign ones are al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda.
The OLF, formed in the 1960s, fought together with the current ruling party to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam's Marxist regime and was even a founder of Ethiopia's transitional coalition government between 1991-94 before bitterly falling out with Meles' unit.
The ONLF, formed in 1974, represents Somali clan groups in eastern Ethiopia and has been fighting for their independence for decades despite taking big hits from the government.
Ginbot 7 is a small and newly-formed group of dissidents based in the United States which sprung up after the 2005 crisis. The group has stated its intention to overthrow Meles Zenawi's government “through any possible means” but there is no evidence yet that is is involved in military operations.
The leaders of the three groups are based in Western cities where they have opened offices including hoisting their flags. They also use the global banking system to deposit and transfer cash.