Free Speech - Free Media: Rights under Threat?
Public Hearing
Committee on Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Policy
Subcommittee on Human Rights
Brussels, 25 April 1996

Ethiopia: Media under monopoly of the Government

by Kefale Mammo, Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association

Mme Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

Thursday, 25 April 1996, I feel is the rarest moment of my life, for I am here amongst you to tell the story of horrendous persecutions of three years against independent journalists in Ethiopia. As the journalists most prosecuted, fined and imprisoned in Africa and the world at large, we feel our sad case has not come fully to the attention of the world community. Here we are to brief you on our day to day sufferings under a blind and insensitive, dictatorial rule of the incumbent regime of Ethiopia.

The attacks which were mounted by the state started in August 1993. The attacks were multi-frontal and systematic and aimed at killing the independent press and silencing the journalists.

The attacks are political, economic, juridical, diplomatic, bureaucratic, comprehensive and asphyxiating.

The incumbent Government started its meticulously planned harassments of the independent press by refusing to register EFJA (Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association), when it was established on 11 March 1993. EFJA exists and functions without being recognised by the incumbent Government of Ethiopia. It is affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists.

Pressure on the free press

The State frequently uses the media under its complete monopoly-hold to incriminate independent journalists, the free press and the fledging association of journalists. The aim of the vituperative propaganda campaign is of course to discredit the free press and to alienate it. The campaign among others, targets usually the individual reporters, editors and publishers. The State plants, in the community of free press, newspapers which masquerade under the guise of "free press", and which disseminate utter lies and mendacious stories in order to discredit the free press, and destroy its reliability. These unofficial and libelous stories are usually translated by the State into foreign languages and are presented to Western diplomats as evidence to prove the oft alleged irresponsibility of the free press. Such vicious diplomatic moves have to some extent provided excuses to certain foreign powers determined to prop up the incumbent regime in spite of its un democratic nature. The State denies the right to operate a private and independent broadcast media that could afford the audience in Ethiopia an alternative channel of communication. Thus, Ethiopians are subjected to a one-day propaganda of a ruling party and are a helpless, "captive audience".

Economic discrimination

In a corresponding move, the State is pressurising the freedom of expression and the independent journalists through several economic levers. The State is using the printing presses of the Government to push up printing costs frequently, that today it stands at more than 300% of the cost of 3 years ago. On the other hand, the State heavily subsidizes Government and ruling party print media. In the last 3 years the subsidy has grown to 600%, thus having a dumping effect on the competitive, relatively expensive private press. The State discourages the establishment of an independent printing press capable of printing/producing standard newspapers. At this juncture of our history, only three or four printing presses, all owned, controlled and managed by the State are able to produce regular newspapers. The State takes stealthy measures to obstruct the distribution of the independent press in the regions in Ethiopia. It uses the despotic power of the local and regional officials to intimidate newspaper dealers in the regional urban centres never to try to bring in products of the independent press. In Addis Ababa itself, the police carry out intermittent interference with the distribution of the private press by the small boys who are selling on the streets. The police seize, detain and beat the street vendors, and usually confiscate their commodities.

Judicial interference

The judicial measures which are by themselves illegal, are effectively used by the State to silence the journalists. The most frequent judicial interference with the independent press is the arbitrary arrest of journalists and the subjection of the individual journalist to unwarranted, tedious and depersonalizing interrogation. The security police take the jounalists off the street, from their home or workplace and detain them without Court warrant; they can keep the detainee in prison for days, months, or over a year, without court conviction. It is customary for the security police to take the detainee any time they feel to court and get court permission to hold them in remand for 14 days, and repeat the request over and over again till they feel they are satisfied with the cruelty.

Other journalists are taken to court for what they have openly published; they are incriminated or, usually, charged with "incitement" of the public; discrediting the State; or disseminating false information. They are either fined, sentenced to imprisonment, or both. The minimum prison term is ONE year, and the maximum is THREE years; while the fine rages from a minimum of 10,000 Birr to a maximum of 50,000 Birr (2,000 to 10,000 $US, in a country of 120 $US per capita income!).

Another curious judiciary measure is the unlimited age of prosecutable press issues. The State can wait for years and suddenly come up with charges on published material that was read 5 years ago in a now defunct publication.

Bureaucratic means are also used to stifle the freedom of expression requirements such as registration, different government permissions, printing shop procedures, etc. are used to stop publications and for mass arresting of independent journalists.

All these and other numerous means of repression have caused serious casualties among the private press and the independent journalists.

Looking at the outright violations of journalists' human rights from the publicly stated threats of the Head of Government of Ethiopia, we have reason to be very worried for the future.

Kefale Mammo is the President of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association founded in 1993 and a member of the International Federation of Journalists which was represented here by Aidan White.

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European Parliament: Brussels, 25 April 1996
URL : http://../dg7/hearings/en/speech/ethio.htm