March 14, 2006

Ethiopia has jailed 16 journalists – rights group

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Ethiopia jails more journalists than
almost any other African country with 16 behind bars and most
facing treason and genocide charges that could lead to the
death penalty, a rights body said on Tuesday.

Julia Crawford, Africa program coordinator for the New
York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), also said
she feared the detained journalists might not get a fair trial.

Most were arrested in the aftermath of disputed elections
in May 2005 when thousands of people were arrested and security
forces killed around 80 people in two bouts of violence last
June and November in Addis Ababa.

The violence was sparked by opposition protests and its
claims that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government
manipulated the poll. Authorities deny that.

"There are at least 16 journalists in jail for their work.
That makes Ethiopia one of the worst jailers of journalists in
Africa in terms of numbers," Crawford told reporters in the
Kenyan capital Nairobi after arriving from Addis Ababa.

She said 15 journalists were jailed in Eritrea.

Crawford, who met with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles
Zenawi and four of the detained journalists, said Addis Ababa
accuses the 16 -- who include a young pregnant girl -- of
plotting with the opposition to overthrow the administration.

"We are deeply concerned that they might not get a fair
trial," she said. "The so-called evidence in the charge sheet
is so thin."

The CPJ quoted Meles as linking the detentions to bad
government-opposition relations.

"We are aware that the poison is not merely between the
press and the ruling party. It's a reflection of the overall
tension between some in the opposition and the ruling party,"
the CPJ said he told them.

Due to government oppression, the number of newspapers in
the capital has been reduced by half and journalists cannot
freely work anymore in the city, Crawford said.

"Most of the editors have at least two or three charges
hanging over them," she said.

"Fewer than 10 private newspapers can be found on the
streets compared with more than 20 during the election period."

Once hailed by the West as part of a new generation of
progressive African leaders, Meles' reputation has dimmed since
the violence last year. He says he has been forced to take
measures to prevent plots to overthrow him.