Ethiopia: Independent papers say gov't banned them

KIRUBEL TADESSE, Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Two weekly newspapers that have been critical of Ethiopia's ruling party have stopped publication because of government obstruction, the papers' publishers said Monday.

The publishers are appealing to the country's newly appointed Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to intervene. A government spokesman said the Ethiopian government is not telling printers not to print the papers.

Both Feteh, the country's largest weekly at 27,500 copies, and Finote Netsanet, which is published by the largest opposition group, Unity for Democracy and Justice, have been unable to reach their readers for several weeks after the state-owned Berhanena Selam printing company refused to continue printing them.

"We tried other printers, private ones as well. Some say they don't have the capacity while others first agree to print our paper only later to refuse us without any reasons," said Negasso Gidada, a former president of Ethiopia who now leads an opposition political party with the lone opposition member in the 547-seat parliament.

"They simply tell us `Please don't come back ... we only want sports and medical issue papers ... not politics."

The group says its paper was forced off market after featuring critical articles on the legacy of Ethiopia's late leader Meles Zenawi, who died Aug. 20.

The opposition group said it sent Hailemariam two letters demanding he stop "authorities' attack of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech."

Temesgen Desalegn, editor in chief of Feteh, said that his paper's July 20 issue was blocked from distribution because a prosecutor said that the news report it hoped to publish _ that Meles had died _ was false. The printer has since refused to publish the paper, citing an order by the Ministry of Justice, he said.

"They told me if I can bring a written letter from the Justice Ministry saying otherwise we can continue to publish the paper," said Temesgen. "What we are hoping is the spirit of dictatorship that was taken off by the natural death of the late PM is gone. ... Maybe the new prime minister and his government, once settled in, may ease attacks on the free press."

Shimeles Kemal, communications state minister, denied that the government is telling the printer not to publish the papers.

"It is an absolute lie," he said. "The government does not have the province and jurisdiction to dictate a contract between a public company and its clients."

Shimeles said that the printer has the right to refuse to publish a publication that contains "rebellious material and materials that are in violation any written law."

A media rights official blamed the government.

"Barhanena Selam printing company is controlled by the state and its refusal to print Feteh and Finote Netsanet, two publications critical of the government, is a result of official pressure and political censorship," said Mohamed Keita of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile, CPJ last week said Ethiopia should stop harassing journalists covering Ethiopia's Muslim community after a reporter for the U.S.-government-funded Voice of America was briefly detained last week. The reporter was forced to erase interviews she had recorded at a protest by Ethiopia's Muslim community, CPJ said.