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Journalists Call for Press Freedom in Ethiopia

On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Ethiopian journalists and others in Kenya are calling for the Ethiopian government to release more than a dozen journalists imprisoned following last year's elections and to respect freedom of the press and expression.

Ethiopian journalist Wemdesen Teklu, now a refugee living in Kenya, described to reporters how difficult it is to be a journalist in Ethiopia. "I left my country in 2001 due to just on-going harassment and persecution - if you remember the Addis Ababa university students getting harassed," he said. "So, due to that reason, I was forced to leave my country with the students. I have been in jail many times and I have been also tortured. This is what I experienced in my country when I was in jail. I am writing just the truth.... I did not do any crime."

Wemdesen said Ethiopian authorities have banned all independent media, and that 63 journalists have been charged with treason and other offenses since October of last year. Of those, five were VOA reporters charged with treason in absentia. Those charges have since been dropped.

He said 16 journalists - including a pregnant newspaper editor - remain in prison and could face the death penalty merely, he says, for being critical of the government.

Wemdesen and other Ethiopian journalists living in Kenya are calling for the Ethiopian government to release the imprisoned journalists and respect the country's constitution, especially regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

More than 100 journalists, opposition politicians and supporters, activists, and others who protested the results of last May's elections in Ethiopia face treason, genocide, and other charges. They accused the ruling party of committing electoral fraud to win last year's elections.

Their imprisonment and trials have been condemned internationally, most recently by U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International released a report urging the Ethiopian government to release at least 40 of the detainees, which the organization calls prisoners of conscience.

The secretary general of the Kenya Union of Journalists Ezekiel Mutua was on hand to lend his support to the Ethiopian journalists. "In reality, there is no free press in Ethiopia," he said. "In reality, journalists are jailed for writing any negative reports about the government. In reality, journalists in Ethiopia are being turned into puppets of the regime, and if you do not tow the line, then you are targeted as an enemy of the state."

The Ethiopian government says the journalists and others in jail are guilty of fomenting violence.

Wednesday is World Press Freedom Day.