Wednesday, April 16, 2008



"The Death Sentence Was Used As a Tool of Intimidation"
Interview with Leonard Vincent

Credit:Reporters sans frontières
Leonard Vincent, head of the RSF's Africa desk.

CAPE TOWN, Apr 10 (IPS) -

Journalism in Ethiopia has become an increasingly
hazardous trade over recent years. A clampdown on the media in the wake of
disputed elections in 2005 continues to resonate in the country, while
certain members of the press have even found themselves facing capital

In July 2007, journalists Andualem Ayele Legesse, Mesfin Tesfaye Gobena,
Wonakseged Zeleke Tessema and Dawit Fasil Woldeselassie were sentenced to
death on charges that included treason -- this in connection with the
unrest that followed the 2005 polls.

While the four were later amnestied, their sentences are viewed as having
had a somewhat chilling effect on press freedom in Ethiopia. To find out
more, IPS correspondent Miriam Mannak spoke to Leonard Vincent, head of the
Africa desk at Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders, RSF).
This Paris-based advocacy group helped negotiate the release of the four
condemned writers.

IPS: The decision to issue death sentences against the journalists must
have come as a shock to RSF...

Leonard Vincent (LV): On the one hand it was, as it is a very serious
matter. On the other hand, we never thought that the Ethiopian government
would go ahead with it and shoot the journalists. The death sentence was
used as a tool of intimidation, a way to put journalists in their place and
to make sure they understand the consequences of defying the authorities.

Despite the fact we were aware of this and knew the government was
overreacting, we treated the situation with the greatest urgency...

IPS: What effect has this event had on the media in Ethiopia?

LV: It has had a great impact. Self-censorship is a way of life for
Ethiopian journalists, especially for those living and working in Addis
Ababa (the capital). Any form of criticism and any attack against the
president or the government may lead to telephonic threats, intimidation or
even arrest and (a) jail sentence...

Nevertheless, two of the journalists involved have again started
independent newspapers in Addis Ababa. This was a couple of months ago. Of
course, both editors are under strict surveillance and it has been very
difficult to obtain a license, but they are managing.

IPS: Are journalists in Ethiopia afraid of the death penalty?

LV: No real fear exists among media people when it comes to the death
penalty. These were exceptional circumstances that lead to the events in
2005, and everyone understands that. That includes RSF.

There is...a greater fear of being imprisoned. Prisons in Ethiopia have a
very bad reputation: we are talking about cells with 120 people and only
one latrine, as well as restricted visiting rights.

IPS: Have there been recent cases of journalists elsewhere in Africa
receiving death sentences?

LV: Not that I know of. Maybe some artists have been sentenced to death,
but not journalists -- at least not in the past 10 years.

There have been cases of life imprisonment. Moussa Kaka, a journalist from
Niger, was arrested in September last year on a charge of complicity in an
attack on state authority. He is being accused of being in contact with the
rebels who are fighting in the north of the country. Moussa faces a life
sentence, but has not been tried yet. In the same event, two French
journalists were arrested and threatened with the death penalty. They were
released in January this year.

IPS: In general, is it difficult for journalists in Africa to write about
the death penalty?

LV: Yes, commenting on judicial decisions is tricky in many countries. In
some nations journalists are not even allowed to comment on the justice
system. Last month in Niger, the editor of the independent publication
'L'Eveil Plus', Aboubacar Gourouza, was sentenced to one month in jail for
an article in which he compared the provisional release of the mayor of the
city of Maradi with a decision to keep the mayor of Niamey (the capital) in
prison. Both mayors had been accused of fraud.

IPS: What type of difficulties does your organisation encounter when trying
to highlight these problems?

LV: In some countries, the authorities are quite prejudiced and sceptical
towards us. In Rwanda, for instance, they suspect that RSF is funded by the
French government. Others think we are paid by the American intelligence
services. That is obviously not true...We try to open the debate with the
authorities and talk to them about freedom of the press. Sometimes it
works, sometimes it doesn't. (END/2008)