Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Captivity in the Name of ‘Defamation’!

(The origional version of this story is published in Amharic on Ethiopian Human Rights Project website.)

The past year ended with two notable controversies between the press and Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). The first one was concluded with a rare rule from an Ethiopian court that served justice to the press. The second one, undeservedly awarded the EOC a victory against a journalist who reported what happened, as it happened.

The first was 100% critical comment against the patriarch of EOC who, according to the writer Daniel Kibret, is negligent when corruption is spread in the church. The latter is a news report (pictured below) that referred to a letter written by community and priests of St. Mary’s Church, which is also a seat for the EOC patriarch.

The critical opinion written by the renown Daniel Kibret was published on Sendek newspaper; while, the news report was published on Ethio-mihidar newspaper, known for giving space to dissent voices of Ethiopia. Editor-in-chief of Sendek, Frew Abebe, acquitted on January 25, 2017 from the ‘defamation’ charge by the patriarch of EOC. However, editor-in-chief of Ethio-midihdar, Getache Worku, found ‘guilty’ of another but related ‘defamation’ charges against EOC’s St. Mary church administration and sentenced to 1 year of imprisonment and fine of ETB 1,500 on 15 November 2016; furthermore, his newspaper is also subjected to ETB 10,000 fine for running the news. In the case of Sendek newspaper, it was only the editor-in-chief against whom the charge was pressed; in the case of Ethio-mihidar newspaper, on the other hand, the publishing firm itself is accused of ‘running the defamation story’ in addition to the editor-in-chief.

Frew Abebe, in his defense of the charges, have presented important letters from public offices and state affiliated journalist’s association. Getachew Reda, the then minister of FDRE Communication Affairs, and Dr. Negere Lencho, who was the head for School of Journalism and Communication at Addis Ababa University by the time, wrote letters to Qirqos sub-city Federal First Instance Court in defense of Frew Abebe. Both of the letters reassured “the story published on Sendek newspaper is a critical opinion but not a defamation”. Similar letter was written in defense of him by the president of state-affiliated Ethiopian Journalists National Union (EJNU), Anteneh Abraham. These letters helped Frew free himself of the ‘defamation’ charges.

However, Getachew, who had no official to defend him in a letter because his newspaper hosted strongly critical voices on government, is convicted ‘guilty’ of ‘defamation’ charges for a mere news report. This doesn’t mean Getachew has nothing to present in defense of himself. All the defense witnesses who testified the rampant corruption in the church, and official audit documents of the church that showed imbalance couldn’t help Getachew win justice. (audit report pictured)

Getachew appealed the decision of Arada sub-city Federal First Instance Court to Federal High Court which reaffirmed the decision of the lower court. Now, his lawyer filed appeal against the decision of Federal High Court to the Federal Cassation Court and the case is pending while Getachew is serving the one-year prison term since November 15, 2016. It has been 5 months down the way. He is jailed in Shoarobit Federal Prison, 200KM away from the capital Addis Ababa where his family lives.

Getachew is husband and a father of a one-year-old daughter. His family used to be financially dependent on him before his arrest.

It is important to compare the two charges and how they ended up for many reasons: the similarity of the cases, and the different privileges of the two newspapers are the main ones.  These two give us a good picture on how the sphere of the press works. Furthermore, through this, we will be able to see the dangerous faces of ‘defamation’ as a ‘crime’.

Sendek is a newspaper that served for almost a decade without having a serious trouble. It is allegedly supported by Shek Al-Amoudi, an Ethiopian born Saudi billionaire who is a friend to the leaders of the ruling party in Ethiopia. Ethio-mihidar, on the other hand, has been independently working for the past 5 years without ever being able to have accumulated a capacity to survive the imprisonment of its editor-in-chief. On 15th of November 2016, the day he was convicted, Getachew said, “I’m convicted ‘guilty’ because they [officials] want to bring an end to the newspaper”. Given the fact that Ethiopian government jailed more than dozens of journalists and bloggers, and that it banned multiple news outlets, Getachew’s claim is not hard to believe. Now, Ethio-mihidar is out of circulation since his arrest and non-governmental institution takes the blame.

Getachew repeatedly told the court that ‘had he not resist to give names of his sources, he wouldn’t have been charged in the first place’. He said, “group of people came into my office and asked me to tell them who my sources were to the news. I told them I can’t say who but I can publish whatever their response could be to the story. They threaded worm against me; they said ‘I will pay for this’ and left”.

This is not, however, the first time Getachew Worku went into trouble due to what his newspaper has published. Four years ago in 2013, he and his colleague journalist Ephrem Beyene, were charged of ‘defamation’ by Hawassa University after a corruption report published on the newspaper. This charge ended without having the journalists jailed; however, his colleague Ephrem was crushed in a sever car accident in the town of Hawassa where they had gone to hear court proceedings. Ephrem is partly paralyzed after the accident. Getachew and his colleague argued the accident was orchestrated by the perpetrators of the corruption they had reported.

The other difficult issue about this case is the independence of the witnesses of the plaintiff, i.e. the church, against Getachew. All ‘witnesses’ except one are members of the administration of the church that is reported to be corrupted. These ‘witnesses’ included the Cashier and Treasurer of the Church which the letter referred in the news report have blamed to lead alleged corruption.

Dangers of ‘Defamation’ Charges

Defamation laws are very problematic and are means to impose indirect censorship on writers. As we have tried to show it in the above two cases, ‘defamation’ charges are dangerous because they can easily be manipulated. Officials can use ‘defamation’ charges to attack report and reporters they don’t like such as Ethio-mihidar newspaper and help survive with warning the ones they don’t hate as we have witnessed on charges against Sendek newspaper. It is due to this sensitivity to manipulation that democratic countries are revoking ‘defamation’ from their lists of crimes.

In a symposium facilitated by Addis Ababa University School of Journalism and held in Intercontinental Hotel of Addis Ababa on 25th of January 2014, Shimeles Kemal – the then deputy minister of federal communication affairs – said his government reached to a conclusion that the inclusion of ‘defamation’ in the criminal code of Ethiopia is a mistake. He also noted that ‘the article concerning defamation in the criminal code will be revoked very soon’. Three years have passed since he promised the cancellation of ‘defamation’ from the criminal code, but journalists such as Getachew are being jailed for it.

Article 612/b of the criminal code, implies non-applicability of ‘defamation’ charges explaining “averments, statements, or comments uttered or repeated by […] journalist […] acting in good faith in the discharge of his duties… are not punishable as injury to honor’. Nevertheless, this provision didn’t serve Getachew Worku justice. This is another evidence the charge might have been politically abused.