The Committee to Protect Journalists says Ethiopia is the country where press freedom has most deteriorated in the past five years. The international press watchdog group says that Ethiopian journalists routinely face censorship, harassment and imprisonment if they publish reports critical of the government. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited Ethiopia and sends this report to VOA.
For Ethiopian journalist Kassahun Addis, writing his column in a weekly newspaper and assisting foreign journalists can be a dangerous task.
He tells VOA that any reporting that challenges the existence or legitimacy of the government, or that criticizes the government on sensitive policies such as Ethiopian troops in the Ogaden region or Somalia can have frightening consequences, as he discovered after filing a critical report.
"I was called, I was asked to write a letter of apology to the Ministry of Information,” he said. “I was apparently intimidated, harassed. I was warned that I would go to jail."
In its May 2007 report, The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, blasted the Ethiopian government for jailing more than 10 journalists, mostly during and after the country's 2005 elections. Some are still in prison.
CPJ says that eight newspapers were banned, two foreign journalists were expelled, and a number of websites were blocked last year. Websites critical of the government are still being blocked.
Observers say Ethiopians now have little choice on the quantity and quality of information they are able to get from the media.
Yoseph Mulugeta is secretary-general of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. "We are not in a position now to see those media, free press, expressing views and people interacting about issues that have even remotely touched upon politics. The free press now we have is focusing on sports, medical issues, romance, things of that sort," he explains.
Mulugeta says there are very few private newspapers being published now as compared to before the elections two years ago.
There is only one television broadcaster in the country, Ethiopian Television, or ETV, which is owned and operated by the government. Four radio stations also are state run, but the government granted licenses to two private radio stations in 2006.
For its part, the government says it is committed to press freedom, but officials say journalists go too far in their reporting and end up supporting the opposition in trying to overthrow the government, or incite violence.
The most common charges against journalists are treason, publishing false news, and genocide, in cases where journalists are accused of targeting specific ethnic groups.
Netsannet Asfaw is deputy director of the government's millennium committee. She says there are many private newspapers in Ethiopia, and that media can operate freely as long as they report responsibly. "There was a newspaper that had in it printed, a material that said that a certain population should be quarantined because they are poison to Ethiopia,” she told us. “That should not be allowed, in my view. What would this create? Violence against each other among society."
Meanwhile, journalists rights groups are calling for greater press freedoms so that, they say, Ethiopians can better participate in their society.