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Media Watchdog Criticizes Ethiopia's Press Freedom

International media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has criticized the Ethiopian government for its inconsistent approach to press freedom. On Saturday, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi conditionally pardoned four journalists who had previously been given long prison sentences. As Malcolm Webb reports from Nairobi, the media watchdog say that the journalists' release does not suggest a move toward more press freedom in Ethiopia.

The Paris-based group says it welcomes the release of the four Ethiopian journalists. The journalists had been convicted in July of crimes relating to their coverage of the post-election unrest in 2005. They were given prison sentences ranging from four to 15 years after waiving their defense and pleading guilty, in anticipation of being granted a pardon.

But the group says it is regrettable that they were freed because of what the group believes was the prime minister's wish, not because of the outcome of a fair trial.

A senior researcher at Reporters Without Borders, Vincent Brossel, said the Ethiopian government's inconsistent actions are destroying the credibility of the country's justice system, and that their release does not signify any move toward press freedom.

"It does not make any difference because it is just a release, and they had to sign papers saying they are guilty. The government has all the means to arrest them again and to put them in trouble. I think that the real positive step will be to give licenses without restriction to pro-opposition people and independent editors, and to be able to say that any dissident voices can be heard in the country. And I think that is not the case for now," he said.

Nine other journalists were acquitted in April after 17 months in prison, charged with genocide and other anti-state crimes in connection with their reporting, but another media watchdog say the Ethiopian government has since attempted to have their charges reinstated.

Several thousand people, including journalists, publishers and opposition members, were arrested in November 2005 in a government crackdown that followed protests over alleged vote rigging in the election. There were 190 people were killed in the unrest, the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy blamed the deaths on security forces.

Prime Minister Meles denied the allegations of election fraud, and blamed the opposition for starting violent protests. The opposition made large gains in the election but say they were cheated out of victory.

The violence and the allegations of election fraud damaged Mr. Meles' image as one of a new generation of progressive African leaders, and as a favorite of Western donors.