Ethiopia: Detention of editor signals continuation of Meles-era crackdown

The detention yesterday of the editor of one of Ethiopia’s last independent publications is a worrying signal that the government intends to carry on targeting dissent, Amnesty International said today.

Temesgen Desalegn, editor of Feteh newspaper, faces a number of criminal charges based on articles he has written or published criticizing the government and calling on Ethiopia’s youth to peacefully protest against government repression.

He is the first journalist to be detained since the announcement on Monday of the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, under whose leadership the government regularly targeted critical journalists.

“It’s business as usual in Ethiopia. Temesgen Desalegn has been charged for exercising his right to freedom of expression in advocating for peaceful protests to take place, among other criticisms of the government,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher. 

“Meles’ leadership was characterized by cracking down heavily on any dissent and dismantling the independent media, and yesterday’s events show that nothing has changed.” 

Four charges were filed against Temesgen and his publishing house, Mastewal Printing and Advertising, including ‘Provocation and Preparation’ to incite the youth to overthrow the constitutional order, ‘Inciting the public through false rumours’ and ‘Attacks against the state’ through defaming the government.

The charges relate to various articles published in Feteh between July 2011 and March 2012.

Articles cited in the charge sheet as evidence discuss subjects including how Ethiopians should be angry about the repressive practices of the government, the role of the youth as agents of change and their role in popular uprisings in Ethiopia and abroad and that lessons should be learnt from the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Temesgen first learnt that there were charges against him on state radio Fana FM.

He was later summoned by federal police in early August, who informed him of the charges. At a court appearance on 23 August, the judge denied bail and Temesgen was sent to Kaliti prison on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa. 

Feteh and Temesgen have fallen foul of the authorities on multiple occasions, and the editor has had numerous complaints and some criminal charges filed against him in the past. These have resulted in several incidents of temporary detention, police questioning, bail costs, fines or the dropping of charges. 

In June 2011 Feteh columnist Reyot Alemu was arrested after writing articles critical of the government and reporting on calls for peaceful protests to take place. She was subsequently charged with terrorism offences and, in January 2012, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. Her sentence was reduced to five years on appeal. 

In late April 2012 Temesgen was fined 2,000 Ethiopian Birr (about US$115) after the Addis Ababa High Court ruled that he was guilty of contempt of court for “biased coverage” of the trial of journalist Eskinder Nega, opposition members and other government critics. The finding of “biased coverage” was based on Feteh’s publication of statements from some of the defendants in the trial.On 20 July, Ethiopian authorities blocked Feteh’s distribution and impounded 30,000 copies of the paper stating that its front cover – featuring stories about Muslim protests and the Prime Minister’s health – posed a threat to national security.“The nature of the latest charges against Temesgen Desalegn, and the content of the articles cited as evidence, exposes not only the continuing intolerance of dissent but also the government’s fear of peaceful protests,” said Beston.

“It is clear that the authorities are very concerned about the possibility of popular uprisings in the wake of last year’s events in the Middle East and North Africa.” The Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly taken measures to silence any suggestion that protests should or could take place. Concern about popular uprising has been behind the recent arrests and prosecutions of journalists, opposition members and protestors including those from the Muslim community recently arrested.“The government of Ethiopia should see the succession of Meles as an opportunity to break with the past and end the practice of arresting anyone and everyone who criticizes the government,” said Beston.

“Temesgen Desalegn should be released immediately and charges against him should be dropped. The post-Meles government must begin a new era of respect for freedom of expression.”