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Ethiopia Named Biggest Backslider on Press Freedom

Ethiopia tops a list of countries where press freedom has deteriorated over the last five years, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. The U.S.-based media advocacy group says the Ethiopian government has jailed 18 journalists and shut down eight newspapers in its recent crackdown on the press. Katy Migiro in Nairobi has more on the report for VOA.

Ethiopia is the world's worst "backslider" on press freedom, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists' latest analysis. It says that journalists in Ethiopia operate in a repressive climate where they face intimidation and expulsion.

Two other African countries, Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are among the top "backsliders" on press freedoms. Other nations in that category are Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Thailand.

In Ethiopia, the Committee reports, 18 journalists have been jailed for their work and at least 15 are facing the death penalty for alleged anti-state crimes. Eight newspapers have been banned.

The Committee links the Ethiopian government's campaign against the independent press to the disputed 2005 elections in which the ruling party won a third consecutive term. Riots over the election results ended with the jailing of more than 100 opposition leaders and journalists on charges of conspiring against the government.

Ethiopian government spokesman Zemedkun Tekle dismisses the CPJ's criticisms as inaccurate. He says it was necessary to take some journalists to court because they were behaving as though they were above the law.

"We are not going to accept [that] kind of statement [by the CPJ], because it hasn't really happened," he said. "This statement doesn't show the reality in our country. In order to respect the rule of law, some steps have been taken, some newspapers have been taken to court because of their threat on the constitutional order. The press freedom in Ethiopia is getting stronger and stronger."

The CPJ says the remaining private media outlets now practice self-censorship to avoid being shut down. This has led to a surge in Internet reporting. The CPJ says Websites critical of the government, such as Ethiopian Review, are now being blocked.

Tekle denied this is the government's doing.

"It's not true," he added. "No need of blocking Web sites from the government's side, because this is a democratic country. The constitution guarantees freedom of expressing one's opinion so it is purely baseless allegation."

The CPJ says its list of 10 countries where press freedom has deteriorated over the past five years reflects a mixture of relatively open countries that have turned increasingly repressive and traditionally restrictive nations where press conditions have worsened.