Two Ethiopian state TV journalists under arrest

New York, April 30, 2010In light of the Ethiopian government’s longstanding practice of jailing journalists on trumped-up criminal charges, the Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about the detentions last week of two government TV journalists on allegations of misusing state property. CPJ is monitoring the legal proceedings closely.

Editor Haileyesus Worku and reporter Abdulsemed Mohammed of Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) have not been formally charged since their arrests, according to local journalists. Today, a magistrate extended their detentions at Makelawi Prison in the capital, Addis Ababa, for another week, pending further investigations by the Ethiopian Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission, according to local journalists. The commission, which ordered their arrests, had requested an extension of 40 days.

Speaking to CPJ on Thursday, Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon said the journalists had been “caught ‘red-handed’ smuggling property belonging to the institution, and tried to sell them to bodies of interest.” Simon declined to detail the accusations, saying the case was ongoing. “It is not a press freedom issue, but a criminal issue,” he said.

At least one of the two detainees, Abdulsemed Mohammed, has said he is innocent of the allegation, a local journalist told CPJ. Mohammed had been recently demoted under civil service policies designed to put government loyalists in senior editorial positions, sources told CPJ.

Ethiopian authorities have imprisoned a number of journalists in recent years under politically motivated criminal charges, according to CPJ research. Last month, a court sentenced Lelise Wodajo, an ERTA staffer imprisoned since October 2008 to ten years in prison without parole for alleged links with the rebel Oromo Liberation Front. Her husband, Dhabessa Wakjira, a former state TV news director, and reporter Shiferaw Insermu were arrested in May 2004 and imprisoned for nearly three years on similar charges.

In May 2009, Meleskachew Amaha, a correspondent with U.S. international broadcaster Voice of America spent three weeks in prison in connection with old tax charges that were later dismissed. Three months earlier, ERTA presenter Dawit Alemu was detained at Addis Ababa police commission for two weeks on false accusations of authoring a controversial religious book under a pseudonym, according to news reports and local journalists.

“Ethiopian authorities have a long history of imprisoning journalists on spurious criminal charges,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “For this reason, we are skeptical of the charges against Haileyesus Worku and Abdulsemed Mohammed. We call for due process and transparency.”

Local journalists told CPJ police picked up Mohammed at his office and Worku at his home on April 22. Mohammed is a 10-year veteran of the station and was once a senior radio news editor. Worku produced several educational programs.