The managing editor of one of Ethiopia’s few remaining independent Amharic-language newspapers publishing critical analysis of local politics said he left the country last week for fear of arrest, a U.S.-based press freedom group said.
Dawit Kebede, managing editor of Awramba Times, spent two years behind bars until 2007 over treason charges, alongside dozens of opposition officials who were rounded up following disputed polls in 2005.
He said he had been warned he would be arrested and that his paper was unlikely to continue publishing, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), citing what it said Kebede had told the group.
“The Ethiopian government’s persecution of those seeking to report the news and raise critical questions about issues of public interest has driven the largest number of journalists in the world into exile,” Mohamed Keita, Africa Advocacy Coordinator for the CPJ said in a statement.
A 2009 anti-terrorism law introduced after a series of blasts says anyone caught publishing information that could induce readers into acts of terrorism could be jailed for between 10 to 20 years.
More than 10 journalists have been charged under the law in the past few months, according to CPJ, which says Ethiopia is close to taking the mantle of worst jailer in the continent from Eritrea, a secretive neighbouring country.
The Ethiopian government says the incarceration of journalists has nothing to do with their reporting or political affiliation.
But journalists are worried.
“Ever since the anti-terror law came to effect, I have become too careful to write on issues that might upset the government,” a correspondent based in the capital Addis Ababa who declined to be named told Reuters.
“In effect, it has made me avoid writing on certain issues.”
The government has banned five groups as terrorist organisations: the secessionist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the exiled Ginbot 7 group, al Qaeda and Somalia’s al Shabaab militants.
“It is fair that we have a law like any other country, but it is our job to write on any group and no journalist should be suspected of criminal acts by reporting on them,” a local radio reporter who declined to be named said.
“It always sticks in your mind whether your publication or broadcasting of rebel statements might get you in trouble. I have come to believe that I have compromised my profession.”
Terror charges have not been limited to journalists — more than 150 opposition politicians and supporters have been detained this year, according to watchdogs.
Some analysts say Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party, which was re-elected with a huge parliamentary majority in 2010, is cracking down on opponents.
“The Ethiopian government is exploiting its vaguely worded anti-terror law to crush peaceful dissent,” said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Government officials insist Ethiopia’s laws do not stray from international standards.
“Our law is no different to that of other developed countries. I think many of the comments are politically motivated, they are not realistic,” Justice Minister Berhan Hailu told Reuters.
Berhan said the law proved Ethiopia’s commitment to fighting terrorism and that all suspects were getting fair trials.
Some journalists are not convinced, and want clearer guidelines on offences that could land them in trouble.
“The law needs to clarify offences. Who would want to spend a year or two in detention before being found innocent?” a radio correspondent based in the capital said.