Ethiopia has denied licenses to three independent newspaper publishers who were jailed for 17 months in connection with media coverage of the country's 2005 post-election unrest. VOA's Peter Heinlein has details from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Journalists and newspaper publishers Eskinder Nega, Serkalim Fasil, and Sisay Agena say they were notified by an Ethiopian information ministry official Monday that their applications for permits to practice journalism were denied. No reasons for the rejections were given.

The three were among 15 journalists jailed for their coverage of the anti-government uprisings that left nearly 200 demonstrators dead following the disputed 2005 elections. They were initially charged with outrage against the constitution, which is tantamount to treason, and carries a maximum sentence of death. They were released last April, after the charges were dropped.

Several of those freed later went into exile, but Eskinder Nega and Serkalim Fasil, who are husband and wife, along with Sisay, applied in September for permission to re-open their papers.

Eskinder says he and Serkalim, who gave birth to their son while in prison, are unfazed by the rejection, and plan to fight on.

"We will remain here and fight for freedom of expression to the very last," he said. "We will not leave. I am sure the Ethiopian government would be happy to see us leave, to see us go into exile like the rest, but that is exactly what we will not do."

Several current and former Ethiopian Information Ministry officials contacted by VOA Tuesday said they were not in a position to comment on the government's action.

Journalist Eskinder Nega expressed surprise that he had been notified of the denial. He says in other similar cases, the ministry leaves applications pending indefinitely. He told VOA the denial appears intended as a message to journalists and others preparing for local elections scheduled throughout Ethiopia later this year.

"There are no legal reasons for denying us the license," he said. "So this is a political decision, so they want the public, and the world to know that we have been denied registration for political reasons. So they are delivering a message. For whom? Our guess is they are delivering a message for the opposition."

International press watchdog groups have sharply criticized Ethiopia's media restrictions. The Committee to Protect Journalists last year named Ethiopia 'the world's worst backslider on press freedom', saying it had banned eight newspapers, expelled two foreign reporters and blocked critical websites.

Ethiopian government spokesman Zemedkun Tekle rejected that criticism at the time, saying press freedom is getting stronger. He told a reporter the government must sometimes take newspapers to court because of their threat to constitutional order.