The government has suspended Ethiopia’s independent journalists' association in a row over its out-of-date operating licence, officials said on Wednesday.
The association said it had been shut down for political reasons. "This is a major blow for free speech and press freedom in the country,” said Kifle Mulat, who has been president of the 155-strong Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association for the last four years.
The suspension came amid increasing tensions between the government and the EFJA over a controversial new draft press law. "We are fighting this draconian press law and the government do not like that," Kifle said. The draft press law, which could come into effect later this year, has been condemned by international freedom of speech watchdogs as being "restrictive".
The EFJA, which was set up in 1993 but only granted its government licence three years ago, claims to fight for the rights of the independent press in Ethiopia. However, it has drawn criticism from journalists in the private press for "weak leadership" and for being "over politicised".
The ministry of justice, which imposed the suspension and is responsible for registering NGOs, insisted the move was "not politically motivated". Getachew Gonfa, head of registration at the ministry, said the sanction had been imposed because the EFJA had been operating illegally by failing to renew its annual operating licence for the last three years. Under Ethiopian law, all organisations working within the country must be licensed by the ministry and provide audit reports detailing financial records.
Getachew said the EFJA was "unwilling" to provide the audit reports and that until it did so, the suspension would remain. "So until the audit reaches a final conclusion the association is banned from any activities," he said.
Kifle, who said an audit report was underway, said the EFJA would remain closed until it received a final decision on the future of the organisation from the ministry.
The EFJA is a member of the International Federation of Journalists and the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists. The government argues that freedom of speech is enshrined in the country’s constitution, and points to the 82 weekly and 32 monthly newspapers in the country, which it says proves that freedom of expression is flourishing.