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Crackdowns on journalists raise concerns in East Africa

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—Crudely designed, sprinkled with typos and unabashedly critical of the government, Ethiopia's independent newspapers sold briskly during last year's election season.

Today, however, most are closed after a wide-ranging crackdown on political opposition by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's administration. Since November, at least 16 Ethiopian journalists have been imprisoned, dozens more have gone into hiding and two foreign correspondents have been kicked out of the country.

Ethiopia's crackdown is just one of a series of actions against journalists in East Africa, where governments are demonstrating a short fuse when it comes to critical media coverage.

Although the countries' cases are unrelated, press-freedom advocates say they show the limits of free expression in societies that are making bumpy transitions to democracy after decades of strongman rule:

_ Earlier this month in Kenya, heavily armed, masked security men raided the offices of the daily Standard newspaper and its sister television station. The paper had reported on a covert meeting between President Mwai Kibaki—whose administration has been buffeted by corruption allegations—and an estranged former Cabinet official. Authorities set fire to 20,000 copies of that morning's paper and forced the TV station off the air temporarily.

_ A few days later, Uganda expelled a Canadian freelancer, Blake Lambert, for his critical reporting on President Yoweri Museveni for the British magazine The Economist and other Western media outlets.

_ An independent radio station in northern Uganda also was closed this month after guests on a talk show criticized local authorities for corruption and mistreating residents.

In Ethiopia and Uganda, the clampdowns coincided with the countries' first multiparty elections, in which opposition parties made strong showings, said Julia Crawford of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group.

"The rhetoric is that criticism in the press is fine, and part of the democratic process," Crawford said. "But it seems that in young democracies, some governments have a problem when they perceive that the newspapers are in cahoots with the opposition, and the opposition poses a furious challenge."

Though still in its infancy—and usually not as well funded as government-owned media—the independent press in East Africa is increasingly vibrant. Stroll through almost any capital today and you'll read newspaper headlines more openly critical of public officials than anything in the mainstream American press.

A glaring exception is Eritrea, where there are virtually no independent media. Worldwide, only China and Cuba have more journalists in prison than Ethiopia and Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Ethiopia, Meles has acknowledged tension between independent news outlets and his government. In the months leading up to last May's elections, dozens of weekly newspapers in the local Amharic language sprouted up, many of them highly critical of Meles.

In November, protests flared after final results were announced and opponents claimed that the election was rigged. Government security forces killed at least 46 people and imprisoned dozens of opponents, activists and journalists.

Meles has promised the journalists a fair trial. Last week, charges were dropped against five Washington-based journalists for Voice of America—a U.S. government-funded radio service that broadcasts in Ethiopia—who were being tried in absentia.

But 14 imprisoned journalists still face charges of treason, which carries a life sentence.

Now only a handful of independent newspapers are still publishing in Ethiopia. Interviewed over the weekend, some Ethiopians said the remaining papers were covering fewer domestic political stories and publishing less controversial business and feature stories.

Journalists "are more afraid to write about politics now," said Issayas Mekuria, the deputy editor of Fortune, a prominent weekly newspaper that covers business and that's published without interruption despite the crackdown.

"When other journalists are in jail, you worry that could happen to you."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFRICA-PRESSFREEDOM

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