By Nicholas Benequista, Inter Press Service
ADDIS ABABA — A legal battle in Ethiopia over what constitutes contempt of court is likely to test the boundaries of free speech in a country where the liberty of press has deteriorated over the last three years.
Abiy Teklemariam, managing editor of privately-owned weekly Addis Neger, said in an emailed statement that the paper would appeal the conviction of its editor in chief, Mesfin Negash, for contempt of court at the country’s supreme tribunal.
“The court has in its reasoning set the bar so high that it makes it virtually impossible for a journalist to report about court cases…” the newspaper said in the statement. “We hope that the process and outcome of our appeal will make the scope of liberty of speech and its limitations in the country clearer.”
If accepted by the country’s Supreme Court, the case may determine whether journalists, as the messenger, can be held liable for the message, even when comments are attributed to an identified source. Journalists here are eager for a precedent that might offer legal protection after parliament approved a penal code and press law that media watchdogs say are designed to shackle the press.
“Ethiopian journalists have hostile institutions around them — judges, the government and businessmen,” said Vincent Leonard, Africa director for Paris-based Reporters without Borders. “The law doesn’t protect press freedom but gives weapons to those who want to attack press.”
In a novel use of the contempt of court charge, Federal Judge Leul Gebremariam found Mesfin guilty and sentenced him to a suspended one-month sentence for publishing comments made by the lawyer of an imprisoned pop star. The lawyer, Million Assefa, was also found guilty of contempt of court and sent to Kaliti prison to serve a sentence of one month and 20 days.
Mesfin’s newspaper last month quoted the lawyer as saying he would appeal a decision by the judge, and perhaps file a complaint against him, on behalf of his client Tewodros Kassahun, the singer more commonly known as Teddy Afro, who stands accused of killing a man in a hit-and-run accident.
The judge found both the lawyer and the newspaper guilty, arguing that the article “displays contempt to the constitutional independence of the judiciary” and intends to influence Tewodros’s on-going trial.
The government has been particularly wary of freer media since some private newspapers rallied behind opposition protests against alleged fraud in federal elections in 2005. Thousands were arrested for treason, including 15 journalists all of whom were pardoned or acquitted last year. Thirteen newspapers and magazines were shut down during the crackdown, including three belonging to the country’s largest private publisher, Serkalem Publishing House.
This year, the government has forced two more magazines out of circulation using laws against disturbance to public order. The fashion magazine Enku was one of the two. The magazine’s deputy editor, Aleymayehu Mahtemwork, and three colleagues also spent four days in jail for covering the trial of Teddy Afro. Though Aleymayehu was released, the case against him remains pending and his magazine is yet to be revived.
Thousands of Teddy Afro’s fans have protested the trial, alleging that the charges are politically motivated. Government-controlled radio stations in Ethiopia have banned songs from Teddy Afro’s third album Yasteseryal, which criticizes the failure of governments since the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
Currently, Ethiopia’s government controls the only no-cost TV broadcaster, Internet sites are routinely blocked by the state telecommunications monopoly, and only a few private newspapers exist. Indeed, Ethiopia has one of the most tightly-controlled presses in the world.
Government officials, however, say they are committed to a progressive opening of the private media and point to the licensing of the country’s first private radio stations last year as evidence of progress.