Nairobi, March 18, 2020 — Authorities in Ethiopia should immediately and unconditionally release journalists Dessu Dulla and Wako Nole and media worker Ismael Abdulrzaq, and let them work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On March 7, police arrested Dessu, deputy director of the privately owned Oromia News Network broadcaster, Ismael, a driver for the station, and Wako, a reporter with the Sagalee Bilisummaa Oromoo radio broadcaster, in Burayu, a town in the Oromia region, according to Muhammed Regassa and Betie Urgessa, two Oromia News Network employees who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and an eyewitness to the arrests who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.
Betie told CPJ that the three appeared in court on March 10, and that police were granted 14 days to hold them in custody, but said they were not charged with any crime.
“Holding journalists for weeks without charge is a violation of their basic rights and a clear effort to intimidate the press; Ethiopia must release Dessu Dulla, Wako Nole, and Ismael Abdulrzaq immediately,” said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo. “Journalists must be allowed to cover regional politics without official interference or fear that they will be arbitrarily arrested.”
Police arrested the journalists and driver shortly after they left the Burayu police station, where they had traveled to speak with Abdi Regassa, a senior member of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front political party, who was detained there, according to Muhammed, Betie, and the eyewitness. Two Oromo Liberation Front party members who were visiting Abdi were also arrested, those sources said.
The eyewitness told CPJ that he heard a police officer shouting that the journalists had taken pictures on their phones before they arrested them and added that officers were likely uncomfortable with the journalists visiting Abdi Regassa. Prior to 2018, Abdi was a commander in the liberation front’s armed wing while it operated from exile and was designated a terror organization; police initially denied having him in custody, according to a report by the privately owned news site Addis Standard.
The Oromia News Network vehicle was involved in a minor road accident at the scene, but those sources told CPJ that it was unrelated to the arrests. Police are still holding the vehicle, Betie told CPJ.
The Oromia News Network, which operated in exile until 2018, primarily covers politics and is targeted at an Afaan Oromo-speaking audience; Sagalee Bilisummaa Oromoo, which broadcasts some of its programming on the news network, hosts programming that is supportive of the Oromo Liberation Front and also covers regional news, according to Muhammed and Betie, as well as CPJ’s review of the broadcasters’ content.
In a phone interview on March 10, Oromia regional government spokesperson Getachew Balcha told CPJ that he did not know anything about the journalists’ arrests. Getachew later acknowledged their detention in an interview with the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America broadcaster, but said that they were arrested due to prior offenses.
Getachew referred CPJ to the head of the Oromia Peace and Security Bureau, identified as “Mr. Jibril,” for comment. Jibril told CPJ in a phone interview yesterday that he did not know about the journalists’ cases.