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We are writing in regard to recent government actions taken against the Ethiopian Free Journalists Association (EFJA), a private association. We believe the government’s interference in the internal governance of the EFJA has been politically motivated and is in violation of the rights to freedom of association and expression guaranteed under international human rights law.

In November 2003, the Ministry of Justice suspended the EFJA allegedly for failing to file financial reports with the ministry for the past three years. We believe that the organization has made serious efforts in recent months to meet the ministry’s requirements. In June 2003, the EFJA submitted a two-year performance report and a financial report to the ministry in response to a request from the ministry in March. At the ministry’s subsequent demand in September, the EFJA also engaged a chartered accountant on November 5, 2003, even though ministry regulations do not appear to require audits by chartered accountants when, as here, an association’s budget does not exceed EB 50,000 (U.S. $5800).

To comply with Ministry of Justice requirements, the EFJA also called a special general meeting for November 15, 2003, to elect its executive committee, to hear the auditor’s report, and to transact other business. On November 10, 2003, the ministry sent a letter to the EFJA prohibiting it from considering certain agenda items at the scheduled November 15 meeting, including the selection of executive officers. The EFJA then canceled the meeting for fear that its members would be arrested if they did not comply with the ministry’s restrictions. On November 10, the ministry by written order banned the EFJA from further activities. By foreclosing the organization from all further activity, the ministry prevented the EFJA from taking further steps to comply with the ministry’s requirements.

On January 4, 2004, the Ministry of Justice convened a meeting of the EFJA’s membership. When the bulk of the EFJA membership boycotted the meeting, it was adjourned and rescheduled for January 18. Though attendance at this subsequent meeting was again sparse, the ministry announced the election of a new executive committee.
Human Rights Watch is very concerned that the government’s actions to replace the leadership of the EFJA were politically motivated. The EFJA has been a vocal opponent of a proposed press law tightening government oversight of the private press. Among other things, the law threatens criminal sanctions for the press’s failure “to investigate the correctness of the news that it publishes” (art. 19), requires publications and distributors to be registered and licensed (art. 7 and 9), and gives the government power to withhold or withdraw registration and licenses, subject only to post-denial or post-revocation judicial review. The law also allows the minister of information to prohibit the local press from reprinting news published outside Ethiopia if the minister unilaterally deems the report to endanger “peace and security,” “spread false accusations and defamations against public bodies and officials,” and “harm and weaken” patriotism.

On several occasions the government publicly criticized the EFJA for its opposition to the proposed law. In October 2003, a few weeks before the organization’s suspension, your minister of information, the bill's principal author, accused the EFJA of undermining "responsible journalism" by opposing the bill. The government’s interference in the internal governance of the EFJA appears to reflect this criticism, rather than any question of financial reporting. Ultimately the government’s actions will be seen as an effort to intimidate the entire press corps and those opposed to the proposed law.

Human Rights Watch urges your government to allow the EFJA to function under its pre-existing executive committee until such time as the membership chooses other leaders without government interference in accordance with its internal regulations. We hope that issues of financial reporting can be resolved without undermining the day-to-day work of the organization. Any government interference in the governance of a private association that is perceived to be politically motivated will raise concerns about the right to freedom of association in Ethiopia. This is especially true when the issue at stake is a free and independent press.

We thank you for your prompt attention to this important issue and would appreciate learning of any steps you have taken in this regard.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director
Africa Division

CC: SRSG UNMEE, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila
DSRSG UNMEE, Cheikh-Tidiane Gaye
DPKO Political Affairs Officer, Africa Division, Andreas Sugar
UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Ambeyi Ligabo

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