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Ethiopian government drops U.S. lawsuits against journalists
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According to court documents, the radio station Tensae and its Web site in June 2005 claimed that Zenawi had US$41 million in a Malaysian bank account. The other figures also had unusually high overseas account balances, Tensae alleged.  If the lawsuits had proceeded, all the parties involved – including the prime minister, his wife and cabinet officials – would have had to come to Virginia to give their depositions in October.

Ethiopian government drops U.S. lawsuits against journalists

By Dawn Wohlfarth, IJNet Staff Writer

October 11, 2005


Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, his wife and several officials have dropped two lawsuits they filed in a U.S. court against four Ethiopian journalists living abroad, IJNet has learned.

The lawsuits accused the journalists of making false and defamatory statements in reports posted online and broadcast by a radio station in Ethiopia. The reports alleged that Zenawi and 14 other public figures had transferred money from the national treasury to their own private accounts. The lawsuits, filed in August in a local court in Alexandria, Virginia, asked for US$4.2 million in damages plus lawyers’ fees.

Donald Irwin, a lawyer for the Ethiopian officials, told IJNet that the case had been dropped for now because of a lack of accurate information about the defendants. The lawyers said they may decide to re-file the case in six months.

According to court documents, the radio station Tensae and its Web site in June 2005 claimed that Zenawi had US$41 million in a Malaysian bank account. The other figures also had unusually high overseas account balances, Tensae alleged. Tensae is connected to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, an opposition political party in Ethiopia.

Irwin said that the plaintiffs dropped the case partly because they did not have enough information about the defendants named in the lawsuits, or their connection to Tensae.

“We decided not to pursue this case in part because the defamatory material was taken off the Web site,” Irwin told IJNet. “The second reason was that … the defendants said they were not responsible for the information, that either they had nothing to do with the Web site at all, or at least with the defamatory material.”

However, Irwin said, the lawyers are poised to re-visit the case as soon as the responsible journalists make themselves known. “We will proceed against anybody who continues with this.”

The lawsuits claim that the statements were made with malice, without any factual basis, and are false.

“There are lots of people writing in opposition to the government,” Irwin said. “Nobody is trying to stop that. That’s fine. There are all kinds of opinions and there should be. These charges went beyond criticism of policy; they were specific, detailed reports that were published as if they were true, that named people, bank accounts and amounts. And those were just flatly false.”

The defendants included three Ethiopians living in the United States: Goshu Habte, Yonas Habte and Dawit Kebede, and one living in Germany, Lishan Gizaw. Kebede is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of the bi-weekly newspaper Fiameta, and currently works for fund-raising and management at Tensae. He fled his home country in 2000 when faced with 12 pending lawsuits alleging defamation.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in Virginia because they knew at least one of the defendants lived in the area. It is fairly common for public officials in many countries to file lawsuits against journalists who publish critical stories. But for officials to sue journalists from their own country in foreign courts is unusual.

If the lawsuits had proceeded, all the parties involved – including the prime minister, his wife and cabinet officials – would have had to come to Virginia to give their depositions in October. Gregg Murphy, a lawyer for the defendants, said dropping the suits “is nothing more than a delay tactic of basically stopping it right now with the right to bring it back again.

“We believe they did this because of our persistence in demanding immediate depositions,” Murphy said. “We fully expect it will be brought to court again in six months.”

Tensae has removed the allegedly defamatory content from its site, but it continues to send radio reports to its station in Ethiopia.

“My clients are hardly intimidated by this lawsuit,” Murphy said. “This appears to be a ploy to intimidate the journalists not to exercise their right to freedom of speech in complaining about the corruption in their country.

“We’re up to the challenge.”

Tensae: http://www.tensae.net.
Original Report:
IJNET.org


 

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