Eighteen journalists arrested in Ethiopia, two facing possible death sentence

Dessu Dulla et Bikila Amenu

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the worsening press freedom situation in Ethiopia, where at least 18 journalists were arrested in the space of ten days and two – Oromia News Network editor-in-chief Dessu Dulla and one of his top presenters, Bikila Amenu – are facing a possible death sentence.

Dessu Dulla and Bikila Amenu were due to appear in court on 3 June on charges of “outrage against the constitution,” which carry a possible death penalty. They are accused in connection with their documentation of crimes committed in the Tigray and Oromia regions.

Meanwhile, as a result of a surge in the pace of arrests, including the arrests of at least 18 journalists between 19 and 28 May, Ethiopia could overtake Eritrea as sub-Saharan Africa's biggest jailer of media personnel.

“The situation is extremely worrying in Ethiopia, with two journalists facing the death penalty simply for doing their job,” said Sadibou Marong, the director of RSF’s West Africa bureau. “In a country suffering an acute humanitarian and political crisis, clashes must not be used by the authorities as a pretext for curbing press freedom. We call on the government to immediately drop all charges against the two journalists and to end the mass arrests.”

Mass arrests

Many of the journalists arrested in mass raids between 19 and 28 May, who included Meaza Mohammed of Roha TV, Sabontu Ahmed of Finfinnee Integrated Broadcasting, Solomun Shuye of Gebeyanu Media and Yayesew Shimelis (formerly with Ethio Forum Media), were just covering Ethiopian news for their independent media outlets or on YouTube channels.

Most are accused by the central government of inciting violence and creating discord, although some, such as Feteh Magazine’s Temesgen Desalegn, have made no appearance on their YouTube channels for several years. In all, around 6,000 individuals were arrested during those ten days in Ethiopia.

The arrests began on 19 May in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara state, which adjoins Tigray and is Ethiopia’s second most populous region. It was there that federal forces arrested four journalists with the Nisir International Broadcasting Corporation and five with the Ashara YouTube channel in what was called a “law enforcement operation.” They were said to be suspected of supporting Fano, a militia active in Amhara that is seen as a threat by the central government.

This massive crackdown is liable to continue. In a statement on 27 May, the federal police said they had “identified 111 illegal Internet-based media outlets [that] work day and night to disseminate false propaganda.” Journalists working “to create inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife, as well as spoil the country's peace and security, have been identified and arrested” and are being investigated while detained, the police said. The police also accused them of hate speech and of being paid to spread false information and stir up conflict.

Arbitrary procedures

While some of the arrested journalists, such as Meskerem Abera of the Ethio Nekat Media YouTube channel, are scheduled to appear in court, others have been held incommunicado for long periods. The journalist Gobeze Sisay, for example, was held for nine days in unclear circumstances. All these practices violate Ethiopia’s media law, which bans the provisional detention of a person accused of committing an offence via the media.

Tarikua Getachew, the director for law and policy at the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), told RSF: “EHRC remains concerned about the unlawful pretrial detentions, denial of visitation rights and some of the detention conditions. We call once again for the Media Law to be respected and for their immediate release.”

Shrinking space for media

These arbitrary arrests and proceedings are worrying, and pose an additional threat to journalism in a country where it was already constrained by the effects of the fighting between government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Some Ethiopian journalists such as Lucy Kasa, a freelancer working for several foreign media including Al Jazeera, have been forced to leave the country to escape the threats they were receiving in connection with their work. She was physically attacked in her Addis Ababa home in February 2021 by three men who accused her of “spreading lies” and supporting “the Tigray junta.”

Foreign journalists have not been spared either. Tom Gardner, The Economist magazine’s correspondent in Addis Ababa, was expelled on 16 May, three days after the authorities withdrew his accreditation. Simon Marks, an Addis Ababa-based reporter for the New York Times, was forced to leave in May 2021 without any prior warning or official explanation by the government.

Despite Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s promises to create “dynamic” media able to help promote peace and coexistence, the space for the media is shrinking in Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian parliament’s lower house appointed nine new members to the Ethiopian Media Authority, the media regulator, in April, it accepted the names provided by the prime minister. This violated the media law, under which the EMA is supposed to be autonomous and include no political party members or employees on its board.

The EMA rescinded the accreditation of the very popular Addis Standard news website in 2021, and it said nothing when 10 journalists were arrested for alleged complicity with the TPLF.

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Updated on 03.06.2022