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In Ethiopia, an independent voice is silenced

Tamerat Negera was the editor-in-chief of Addis Neger, a weekly newspaper in Addis Ababa that has ceased publication after intimidation and harassment by the Ethiopian government. Mr. Negera, pictured here at Addis Neger's former offices, has since fled Ethiopia.

Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith

It was one of the few remaining independent voices in Ethiopia. But one by one, the editors of Addis Neger have quietly slipped out of the country, fleeing from the imprisonment that they expected at any moment.

The warnings were increasingly ominous. Criminal charges were being prepared. Staff were threatened. When editor-in-chief Tamerat Negera was publicly denounced as a "nihilist" and "anti-establishment," he knew exactly what it meant. "It's time to pack," he said grimly.

In a final act of subterfuge, he hired a new accountant and three new writers, hoping to give the impression that his weekly newspaper was staying open. But he was already planning his escape to the United States.

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Late last week, when all six of its founding editors were safely outside of the country, they announced that their newspaper had ceased to exist. It was the culmination of "months of persecution and harassment," they said in a final statement.

The shutdown is just the latest example of the "climate of fear" in Ethiopia, according to Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group based in Paris.

With an election due within the next five months, there are mounting concerns that the government is planning a repeat of the crackdown that imprisoned thousands of people after the disputed 2005 election. Military and police officers killed about 200 opposition protesters after that election, and many journalists and politicians were jailed for the next two years. Websites that criticized the government were blocked, and even text messaging on cellphones was restricted.

Mr. Negera had been an opposition candidate in the 2005 election, but the other co-founders of his weekly newspaper were independent journalists who had been victims of the crackdown in the last election. They named their newspaper Addis Neger (which means "New Thing"), then built it to a circulation of 30,000 - a relatively large number for an independent weekly in Ethiopia. But as the election approaches, they say the Ethiopian media are censoring themselves more heavily.

"The situation for journalists is very dark," Mr. Negera said. "This election is going to be more controlled."

Some Ethiopian journalists say that the government is planning to prosecute the independent media under a new anti-terrorism law, which authorizes a 20-year jail sentence on anyone who is deemed to be "supporting" terrorism.

At the same time, a growing number of Ethiopian journalists and artists are being imprisoned on trivial or trumped-up charges, human rights groups say.

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One newspaper editor was convicted of criminal charges after she made a factual error in reporting the name of a judge in a court case. She was held in prison, then fined and released.

Last week, two journalists at Addis Neger were charged with "defaming" the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after they reported on internal politics in the church.

Another journalist was imprisoned this year in connection with a five-year-old article that documented human-rights violations against the Oromo people, one of Ethiopia's ethnic groups. Another was imprisoned for years-old tax charges, although he was later acquitted.

In one of the most famous cases, Ethiopian pop singer Teddy Afro - sometimes known as the Bob Marley of Ethiopia - was imprisoned for 16 months for a traffic accident that killed a man, although the singer denied being in the car. His songs had become a rallying cry for many political dissidents.

"Ethiopia is one of the world's worst backsliders on press freedom, a steady decline made worse by recent draconian anti-terror legislation," said a statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent group based in New York.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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