On March 30, the government reported that security forces arrested eight men suspected of involvement in the April 2007 ONLF attack on a Chinese-run oil facility in the Degehabur zone of the Somali Region. The attack killed 65 civilians and nine Chinese nationals and resulted in a dramatic escalation in the conflict, which triggered widespread criticism of human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces. The government also reported that the same eight individuals were implicated in a May 2007 Jijiga grenade attack on a crowd during an official holiday celebration. All suspects remained on trial at year’s end.
On September 27, a bomb exploded in a hotel in Jijiga, killing four and wounding 10. Police apprehended three suspects who reportedly acknowledged being ONLF members.
On October 16, Prime Minister Zenawi told parliament that the government had confirmed that all bombings this year in Addis Ababa were the work of the OLF and all bombings in the Somali Region were confirmed to be the work of the ONLF. Apart from the cases noted above, no credible evidence has been presented to verify these claims.
On November 22, police forces attempted to force villagers from Laare and Puldeng villages (Gambella Region) to move to a new area. When villagers refused, violence ensued, killing nine civilians and wounding 23 others. Two policemen were killed and six others were wounded. Police also reportedly set fire to homes and killed numerous livestock.
The ONLF issued a report stating that the ENDF killed 48 civilians and wounded 50 on December 17 in Mooyaha village (23 miles northwest of Dagabur, Ogaden). They also accused the ENDF of killing six civilians in Galashe (near Fik) on the same day. The government had not responded to the allegation by year’s end.
On September 23, an unknown armed group kidnapped two foreign staff members of the French NGO Medecins du Monde (MDM) near Shilabo town in the Somali Region. The kidnappers transported both hostages into Somalia where they were sold to another group that demanded ransoms. At year’s end ransom had not been paid and the two MDM staff members remained hostages.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture
International rights groups and NGOs reported that alleged unlawful killings, torture, rape, abductions, and arbitrary arrests continued in the conflict zone. While there were numerous reports of human rights violations in the conflict-affected areas, there were no successful attempts at substantiating the reports due to lack of access to the region (see section 1.g.).
Other Conflict-Related Abuses
During the year the government loosened restrictions on the delivery of food aid from donor organizations into the five zones of the Somali Region in which military activity was the most intense. Nevertheless, only 12 percent of food aid reached beneficiaries. Improvements in food aid deliveries allowed relief to reach primary destination points, but distribution to secondary towns, rural areas, and final beneficiaries remained limited. Commercial traffic into these zones somewhat increased.
The government restricted access of NGO workers and journalists to affected areas. International journalists who entered the Somali Region without permission of the government were arrested or obliged to leave the country. The government continued to ban the ICRC from the region, alleging it cooperated with the ONLF. Bureaucratic impediments to Medicins Sans Frontieres-Switzerland (MSF-CH) operations in the Somali Region and government accusations it cooperated with the ONLF prompted MSF-CH to terminate operations in the country on August 26.
During the year, some humanitarian groups reported roadblocks manned by insurgent groups who occasionally briefly detained them. These same humanitarian groups reportedly were interrogated by the ENDF on their encounters at the roadblocks with the insurgents.
On January 26, the ENDF placed Medicins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-NL) staff members under house arrest in Warder for allegedly providing medical support to the ONLF and confiscated MSF-CH property and vehicle keys in Kebri Dehar, limiting its staff members’ movement to the town for three weeks. These restrictions originally covered all UN and NGO groups operating in the Somali Region; however, they were lifted on January 31 for all groups except MSF. On June 18, ENDF again detained five MSF-CH Fik-based staff for 19 days. The government previously suspended MSF-NL operations between July and November 2007. There was no judicial process or charges filed in any of the cases.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While the constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, the government did not respect these rights in practice. The government continued to arrest, harass, and prosecute journalists, publishers, and editors. The government continued to control all broadcast media except three private FM radio stations. Private sector and government journalists routinely practiced self‑censorship.
Government-controlled media mostly reflected the views of the government and the ruling EPRDF coalition. However, live radio and television broadcasts at times included televised parliamentary debates and broadcast the views of opposition parliamentarians, as did government newspapers.
Although some new, small-circulation newspapers were published during the year, the number of private newspapers remained low. Approximately 20 private Amharic-language and English-language newspapers with political and business focuses were published, with a combined weekly circulation of more than 150,000.
The government operated the sole television station and tightly controlled news broadcasts. The broadcasting law prohibits political and religious organizations or foreigners from owning broadcast stations.
Foreign journalists and local stringers working for foreign publications at times published articles critical of the government but were subjected to government pressure to self-censor. During the year some reporters for foreign media were subjected to intimidation and harassment or threatened with expulsion from the country for publishing articles critical of the government.
During the year the government convicted and sentenced journalists for articles and reports in their publications. Journalists were intimidated, harassed, arrested, and detained on charges of defamation, threatening public order, and contempt of court.
For example, on February 16, police arrested Al-Quds publisher Maria Kadi Abafita and editor-in-chief Ezeddin Mohammed, along with Sheikh Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Islamic Amharic weekly newspaper Salafia. The arrests followed their publishing of articles critical of an education ministry directive on religious worship in schools, including the reprint of a letter allegedly written by the vice president of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. The vice president denied writing the letter and filed criminal defamation charges. Police searched the newspapers’ offices and confiscated computers and printers. The journalists were detained for 26 days and released on February 29 on a bail of 12,000 birr ($1,200).The case was pending at year’s end.
On March 6, Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of the weekly Awramba Times, was detained and released. The National Electoral Board (NEB) accused him of posting an advertisement for his newspaper on a poster promoting EPRDF candidates for local elections. He appeared in court and was released on 200 birr ($20) bail the same day. No further action was taken before year’s end.
There were multiple incidents of harassment and arrest surrounding journalists’ coverage of the ongoing 2006 hit-and-run trial of pop singer Tewodros Kassahun, commonly known as Teddy Afro.
For example, on May 2, police detained editor/owner Alemayehu Mahtemework and three staff members of the private Amharic monthly entertainment magazine Enku and confiscated 10,000 magazine copies after Enku ran a cover story on Afro’s controversial arrest and trial. The government accused them of publishing “stirring articles that could incite people” and held them for five days before release. Alemayehu was also charged with threatening public order, and his case remained pending at year’s end. The magazine continued operating and police released the confiscated copies on July 31.
Also on July 29, Mesenazeria reported that its editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief were detained for 32 hours and released on July 26 for printing photos without permission of the two police officers escorting Afro to trial. The journalists were not formally charged.
On August 4, the judge presiding over Afro’s trial charged Mesfin Negash, editor-in-chief of the independent Amharic weekly Addis Neger, with contempt of court after he published an interview with the singer’s lawyer, Million Assefa, in the July 26 edition. The newspaper accurately quoted the lawyer as saying he would file a complaint against high court judge Leul Gebremariam over alleged bias in his handling of the singer’s case. On August 6, the judge sentenced Mesfin to a one-month sentence suspended for two years. The lawyer, Million Assefa, was also found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to one month and 20 days at Kaliti prison.
Police summoned and questioned Addis Neger journalists regarding four separate stories involving investigative reports.
Following Awramba Times’ extensive coverage of the Movement for Freedom, Democracy, and Justice (Ginbot 7), an opposition group advocating a change in the government by “any means,” the newspaper reported receiving threats on August 4 and 5 that it would be banned and “held accountable.” In addition there were allegations that an internal MOJ memo advocated the same. On August 7, the Addis Ababa Police Commission charged editor-in-chief Dawit Kebede with “inciting the public through false rumors” but released him on bail the same day. Harambe editor-in-chief Wossenseged Gebrekidan was also charged and released on bail following similar coverage of Ginbot 7. There were no further developments in the cases by year’s end.
On August 22, two police officers, one from Addis Ababa and the other from Gondar, arrested Amare Aregawi, editor-in-chief of the Amharic- and English-language newspaper The Reporter, at his office. Police held him overnight in an Addis Ababa police station and then transferred him in a brewery vehicle to a station in Gondar, approximately 470 miles north of Addis Ababa. On arrival, he was transferred to Gondar police custody. The arrest was in connection with a libel case brought by the Gondar-based, ruling-party-owned Dashen Brewery in response to a July 20 story on a labor dispute at the brewery. Amare appeared in court in Gondar on August 27 and was released after posting bail of 300 birr ($29) and spending six days in detention. He again appeared in court on September 1 but learned there were no charges against him, and the bail money was returned to him. The article’s author, Teshome Niku, was taken to Gondar on July 30 to appear in court but was released on bail of 300 birr ($29) on August 1. The rendering of both journalists to Gondar raised concerns about the legality of the action; the press law adopted on July 1 stipulates that defamation cases are to be tried in the locality where the claimed offense allegedly took place, and The Reporter’s registered headquarters is in Addis Ababa. Following his release, Teshome reportedly received anonymous, threatening phone calls.
On November 4, private newspaper Enbilta editor-in-chief Tsion Girma, deputy editor Habte Tadesse, and reporter Atenafu Alemayehu were arrested in connection with an article published October 3 that mistakenly identified the judge in the Teddy Afro hit-and-run case. Tsion was released on October 22 on 2,000 birr bail ($200). Her two colleagues were released October 24 with no charges. Tsionwas convicted November 4 on criminal charges of inciting the public through false rumors and fined an additional 2000 birr ($200).
OnOctober 31, The Reporter editor-in-chief Amare Aregawi was violently attacked in front of his son’s school. School staff found him unconscious andrushed him to the intensive care unit at the hospital. He later recovered and returned to work. The media reported that police arrested one of the assailants and the driver of a taxi planned as a getaway car. The Addis Ababa Police Commission continued to investigate the case at year’s end.
Several journalists remained in exile, including journalists detained following the 2005 elections but released in 2007.
On July 1, the parliament passed The Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation, published in the official Negarit Gazette on December 4. The law prohibits pretrial detention of journalists and censorship of private media, and it recognizes the right of journalists to form professional associations. However, the law allows only incorporated companies to publish print media; requires all previously licensed press to reregister; bars foreign and crossmedia ownership; grants the government unlimited rights to prosecute the media; criminalizes defamation of public officials and increases defamation fines to 100,000 birr ($9,751); establishes “national security” as grounds for impounding materials prior to publication; provides government information officials exclusive discretion to withhold “sensitive” information without judicial review; and maintains the MOI’s absolute authority to regulate the media.
The Ministry of Information was dissolved on October 30. Media reported that the government planned to replace the ministry with a new communications office that would be directly accountable to the prime minister. Although reports indicated the new entity would not be responsible for press licensing, that responsibility had not been reassigned by year’s end.
Regional governments censored the media during the year by prohibiting NGOs and health centers from providing information to, or allowing photography by, foreigners or journalists about malnutrition caused by the mid-year drought.
The government indirectly censored the media by controlling licensing. In the first week of January, the Ministry of Information denied press licenses to Eskinder Nega, Serkalem Fasil, and Sisay Agena, the former editors of banned private newspapers Menelik, Asqual, Satenaw, Ethop,and Abay, who had been detained for 17 months after the 2005 elections and were pardoned and released in April 2007.
On July 2, the same three publishers were fined a combined amount of 300,000 birr ($29,252) in connection with their papers’ coverage of the 2005 elections. The court ordered them to appear before the First Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court in December if they failed to pay. They appeared in court on December 24 and delivered a written petition citing pardon law 395/2004, article 231/2, which stipulates that pardons granted to persons automatically pertain to monetary penalties against them. The court adjourned and is scheduled to reconvene in January 2009.
During the year the government granted licenses to Dawit Kebede and Wosonseged Gebrekidan, two other journalists detained after the 2005 elections and released in August 2007, for two new Amharic-language weeklies, Awramba Times and Harambe.
The government owned the only newspaper printing press.
In June, Ayele Chamisso, member of parliament (MP) and chairman of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP), filed charges against three private newspapers: Addis Neger, Awramba Times, and now-defunct Soressa. Ayele claimed that the papers used his party’s name for other groups. The editor of Awramba Times appeared in court in November on defamation charges and was released on 2000 birr ($190) bail. He appeared in court again in December. His case and the cases against the other two newspapers were pending at year’s end.
The sustained jamming of Voice of America’s Amharic and Afan Oromo Services, which started in December 2007, largely ended in March. [Continued on next page]