One of Ethiopia's leading weekly newspapers has shut down and its senior staff left the country in the face of what they say is a government campaign of intimidation and black propaganda. Press-freedom groups are expressing concern about the state of Ethiopia's independent media as the country prepares for national elections.
As campaigning begins to heat up for next May's parliamentary vote, Ethiopia is without one of its few independent political voices. Addis Neger, a weekly Amharic-language newspaper known for its lively discussion of political issues, printed its final edition Saturday.
In a news release, the paper's editors blamed their decision to close on what they called 'another crackdown on free speech and freedom of the press in Ethiopia'. Managing Editor Mesfin Negash was quoted as saying, 'the government ... habit of aggressively stepping into the [area of controlling] public opinion ... had made [their] task impossible'.
The news release carried a Washington dateline, and noted three of the paper's top editors had left the country after learning the government was preparing criminal charges against them based on a new anti-terrorism law.
Attempts by VOA to reach Ethiopian government spokesmen Saturday and Sunday were unsuccessful. A news release issued by the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders quoted government communications minister Bereket Simon as saying the government had no intention of targeting the newspaper.
But a government paper recently carried a number of opinion columns containing scathing criticisms of Addis Neger.
In a telephone interview from the United States, Addis Neger's Editor-in-Chief Tamerat Negera told VOA his staff became frightened when the government paper publicly accused them of violating Ethiopia's tough anti-terrorism law.
"The government official daily newspaper, Addis Zemen was publishing repeated articles incriminating us with and associating us as terrorists with an intention to destroy Ethiopia, the entire nation, and as a threat to the stability and democracy of the country," said Tamerat Negera.
Tamerat says he and his colleagues had been warned they were facing long jail terms.
"We had reliable information from government sources that the government was intending to prosecute the founders and the editors of our newspaper with utmost possible highest charge which could go as far as 20 years in jail, and we discussed this and decided this is unbearable," he said.
Several human-rights and press freedom groups have expressed concern about the anti-terrorism law and other recently approved statutes they say could restrict freedom of expression.
Reporters Without Borders Saturday condemned what it calls 'a climate of fear' prevailing in Ethiopia. The group's statement says the specter of the media and opposition crackdown that followed the disputed 2005 election is resurfacing before next May's vote.
Hundreds of demonstrators, political leaders, journalists and human-rights activists were arrested in connection with the violent protests that erupted following the 2005 election, in which the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front retained power.
Thirteen newspapers were closed down in the aftermath of the 2005 protests. None reopened.
Addis Neger began publishing in September, 2007. Its circulation of 30,000 made it one of Ethiopia's most widely read non-government newspapers.