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Cablegate: Press Freedom: Contempt for Reporting

VZCZCXRO6234
PP RUEHROV
DE RUEHDS #2162/01 2210831
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 080831Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY ADDIS ABABA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 1588
INFO RUCNIAD/IGAD COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHMFISS/CJTF HOA PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHMFIUU/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ADDIS ABABA 002162

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KPAO ET
SUBJECT: PRESS FREEDOM: CONTEMPT FOR REPORTING

REF: ADDIS ABABA 2143

1. (U) SUMMARY: On August 6, the Ethiopian Federal High Court found
Million Assefa (defense attorney for pop singer Teddy Afro) and
Mesfin Negash (editor-in-chief of popular newspaper Addis Neger)
guilty of contempt. The court ruled that a recent Addis Neger
article, which quoted Million criticizing the court and intending to
request a disciplinary review of the court's conduct in the Afro
trial, was prejudicial. The court sentenced Mr. Million to
one-month and twenty days imprisonment and gave Mr. Mesfin a
one-month suspended sentence. According to a prominent attorney with
whom we spoke, the judge appears to have overreached his authority
in citing Mesfin for contempt. However, there are few checks on a
judge's ability to interpret and apply the law. If the matter is
not successfully appealed, the effect will be to chill watch-dog
activities and future press coverage of judges' actions. The
Embassy will continue to follow developments in this case closely
and may seek senior level consultations if the courts continue to
expand aggressively judicial authority. END SUMMARY.

Background: The Afro Trial
--------------------------

2. (U) Defense attorney and Vice President of the Ethiopian Bar
Association, Million Assefa, represents pop singer Teddy Afro in an
ongoing high profile hit-and-run case before Judge Luel Gebremariam
of the Ethiopian Federal High Court. At a recent hearing, Million
accused Judge Gebremariam of judicial misconduct and later informed
an Addis Neger journalist, on the record, of his intention to seek
formal review of Gebremariam's conduct. Addis Neger Editor-in-Chief
Mesfin Negash ran a July 26 article that reported Million's
statements to the Addis Neger journalist accurately, based on a tape
recording of the conversation between Million and the journalist.
Addis Neger, a privately-owned Amharic-language weekly is Ethiopia's
second largest newspaper by circulation (30,000) and is rising
rapidly in popularity. Although the editors of Addis Neger say they
aim to be moderate and balanced, the paper is generally critical of
the ruling EPRDF party and perceived by the public as
pro-opposition.

Guilty of Contempt
-------------------

3. (SBU) On August 4, Mesfin and Million were ordered to appear
briefly before Judge Gebremariam. Following a brief hearing, they
were detained and spent the night in jail. The next morning, after
many delays, both were officially charged with contempt in a 25
minute hearing. In defense, Million's attorney argued that 1) an
attorney appearing before the court has the right to request a
review of the judge's conduct and 2) Million gave the Addis Neger
interview outside of court, so it should not be seen as intimidating
the judge or contempt. Million confirmed Addis Neger reported his
comments accurately. Mesfin barely spoke. The judge conceded that
a disciplinary review filing was legal and that attorneys have some
rights to expression, but said that Million's defamatory comments,
and Mesfin's subsequent printing of them, related to a pending
matter (Afro's trial) and were thus prejudicial. The judge denied
bail and recessed until the following day.

4. (U) On August 5, the judge opened by finding both defendants
guilty of contempt. He listed and then rebuked Million's
accusations of judicial misconduct, noting that Million would likely
lose his appeal. He said Million's accusations were both
substantively wrong and procedurally inappropriate (i.e.
prejudicial). Million's seven defense lawyers argued for sentencing
leniency; Mesfin read a short leniency plea of his own. The judge
sentenced Million to one-month and twenty days imprisonment and gave
Mesfin a one-month suspended sentence effective for two years.
Addis Neger intends to appeal the ruling. The New York-based
Committee for the Protection of Journalists criticized the case as
"criminalizing independent reporting."

5. (SBU) COMMENT: The contempt hearing focused heavily on rebuking
Million's criticisms and conduct, not on Mesfin's acts. This may
indicate the judge wished to defend his conduct while targeting
Million for sullying his conduct publicly (they have purported
tensions), making Mesfin and Addis Neger only collateral damage.
However, according to a prominent attorney with whom we spoke, the
judge appears to have overreached his authority in citing Mesfin,
who was not a party to the proceedings, for contempt. Still, there
are few checks on a judge's ability to interpret and apply the law.
If the matter is not successfully appealed, the effect will be to
chill watch-dog activities and future press coverage of judges'
actions. Moreover, by targeting the press indirectly, the court
positioned itself to defend against accusations that it seeks to
curb freedom of expression, but also has laid a marker against a

ADDIS ABAB 00002162 002 OF 002


fast growing political newspaper that criticism of judges, even if
accurately reported, will not be tolerated. The result may not only
chill the media's coverage of judicial processes, but also impact
Addis Neger's political reporting broadly. The Embassy will
continue to follow developments in this case closely and may seek
senior level consultations if the courts continue to expand
aggressively judicial authority. END COMMENT.

MALAC

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