Editors held on defamation charges

Four editors of private newspapers in Ethiopia were on Tuesday held by police for hours on charges of defaming the air force, a global media watchdog reported.

The arrests occurred following reports that eight pilots had sought political asylum in Belarus after recent election violence.

Befekadu Moreda, editor-in-chief of Tomar; Zelalem Gebre, editor-in-chief of Menilik; Dawit Fassil, editor-in-chief of Asqual; and Tamrat Serbesa, editor-in-chief of Satenaw, all Amharic weekly newspapers, were detained for seven hours and later released on bail of 2,000 birr each (about US $228), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

"We are deeply concerned by signs of a crackdown on independent media in Ethiopia," Ann Cooper, CPJ executive director, said in a statement.

The reports that the pilots had sought asylum were published after 36 people were reportedly shot dead by security forces during civil unrest in the country following disputed results in the 15 May general elections.

The violence erupted in the country on 6 June as students took to the streets and taxi drivers went on strike to protest alleged ballot rigging during the polls.

The government imposed a ban on demonstrations in a bid to curb the violence. Six policemen were also arrested for allegedly killing a newly elected opposition leader in southern Ethiopia.

The CPJ said the arrests of the editors were the latest attempt by Ethiopian authorities to stifle information in the wake of violent post-election upheaval.

"The matter now lies with the ministry of defence and the federal police," government spokesman, Zemedkun Teckle, said on Wednesday. Officials with the defence ministry and the police were unavailable to comment on the arrests.

On Tuesday, Ethiopian authorities announced that 400 detainees were seized after clashing with police over alleged election fraud were released. The government said it had freed about 3,765 people so far, but federal police did not state how many had been arrested.

Earlier in June, officials briefly questioned at least six editors from the Amharic-language press, including Zelalem Gebre of Menilik. The information ministry also revoked the accreditation of five Ethiopian journalists working for Voice of America and Deutsche Welle radio stations.

Their permits had not been restored, and several of the journalists had reported further harassment by Ethiopian authorities, the CPJ added. It also said Fikre Gudu, a prominent newspaper distributor in Addis Ababa, remained in detention without charge since his arrest on 8 June.

"We call on Ethiopian authorities to stop harassing journalists, to release Fikre Gudu and to restore accreditation to all local correspondents of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle so they can return to their important work of reporting the news," Cooper said.

The CPJ also joined five local and international press freedom and human rights groups on Tuesday in writing to Somali leaders to demand the immediate release of Abdi Farah Nur, editor of the leading independent newspaper, Shacab (Voice of the People), in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

Farah was arrested on 19 June and later transferred to a high-security prison, where his colleagues said he was being held incommunicado, the CPJ said.