he International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today condemned the ruling of Monday, 8 March by the Ethiopian Supreme Court which reinstated the hefty fines which had been imposed by the country’s High Court against four publishing houses which had successfully appealed a judgment of the High Court following the infamous treason trial of 2005. The High Court had ordered Serkalem Publishing House to pay 120,000 birr (about 12,000 US dollars), Sisay Publishing House 100,000 birr (about 10,000 US dollars), Zekarias Publishing House 60,000 birr (about 6,000 US dollars), and Fasil Publishing House 15,000 birr (about 1,500 US dollars).
“The ruling of the Supreme Court flies in the face of the Government’s claim to support press freedom in Ethiopia,” said Gabriel Baglo, Director of the IFJ Africa Office . “Prime Minister Zenawi must now make good on his commitment to free and independent press by waiving the damages awarded to the Government by the Supreme Court.”
According to media reports, the government appealed against a Federal court ruling which had held that that four publishing houses, Serkalem Publishing House, Sisay Publishing House, Zekarias Publishing House, Fasil Publishing House,had been pardoned by the President in accordance with the law and the public statements by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2007. The Court ruled that they did not, therefore, need to pay the fines.
The Supreme Court admitted the appeal and summoned the four publishing houses to appear before its criminal bench on 4 December 2009. In its decision, the Supreme Court accepted the Government’s argument that the pardon did not apply to the said publishing houses and reinstated the High Court judgment. The Court also granted the Government’s request to “freeze all liquid and fixed assets” of the defendants.
The IFJ is concerned that this ruling which comes two and half months before the general elections in Ethiopia is likely to adversely affect the country’s few independent newspapers which are already working in a tightly controlled environment. Thirteen newspapers, representing the entire free press in Ethiopia at the time, were closed down in the immediate aftermath of the post-election riots in 2005. To this date, none has reappeared despite the release of all journalists by presidential pardon in 2007.
“These facts speak for themselves,” added Baglo. “The Government needs to create conditions for independent media to prosper. The Supreme Court’s decision just proves authorities are still paying lip service to pluralism in media.”
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The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 125 countries worldwide