In this Thursday, July 2, 2020 image taken from OBN video, the coffin carrying Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa is lowered into the ground in Ambo, Ethiopia. Four journalists and a media worker are among at least 4,700 people arrested following the June 29 killing of Hachalu. (OBN via AP)

Authorities in Ethiopia detain four journalists, one media worker amid unrest

Between July 2 and July 18, 2020, security personnel in Ethiopia detained Kenyan freelance journalist Collins Juma Osemo, who goes by the name Yassin Juma, and four employees of the satellite outlet the Oromia Media Network: news director Melese Direbssa; journalist and TV show host Guyo Wariyo; news anchor Mohammed Siraj; and a driver with the station, Chibsa Abdulkerim, according to Tuli Bayyisa and Kedir Bullo, two lawyers who are part of their defense team, who spoke to CPJ via telephone and messaging app.

The four journalists and media worker appeared at the Federal First Instance court,Arada branch, in Addis Ababa, the capital, several times through August 12, 2020, but authorities had not formally charged them; authorities said they are investigating them on allegations that include incitement to violence and operation of illegal communication equipment, according to Tuli and Kedir, as well as two statements emailed to CPJ by Yibekal Gizaw, the head of the National Human Rights Action Plan Office, a department within Ethiopia’s office of the Federal Attorney General. On August 5, the Federal First Instance court ordered Juma, Melesse, and Chibsa released on bail but as of August 12, they had yet to be released, according to Tuli.

Article 59 of the Ethiopian Criminal Procedure Code, which CPJ reviewed, gives the courts the discretion to remand arrested persons for up to 14 days, but this can be renewed an indefinite number of times at a judge’s discretion.

The four journalists and a media worker are among at least 4,700 people arrested in Ethiopia following the June 29 killing Hachalu Hundessa, a popular artist known for his political music, which sparked violence that led to the deaths of at least 181 people, according to media reports. Officials shut down the internet and launched investigations into several media outlets, including the Oromia Media Network, on allegations of inciting violence, as CPJ documented at the time and according to media reports and the statement from the office of the attorney general. In one of its statements to CPJ, the office of the attorney general said that journalists from the Oromia Media Network are under investigation for their role in “broadcasts involving repeated calls for ethnically targeted attacks” which led to “the widespread damage of property, looting and killing of ethnic minorities.”

In his statement Yibekal referred CPJ to a Twitter thread containing three videos in which people speaking at what seem to be public forums make comments that include calling for homes to be burnt and for people to be exterminated. One video carries an OMN logo; one video does not have an OMN logo nor any other identifying marker, and in the third, there is no logo but a woman speaks at a public forum into an OMN-branded microphone. CPJ did not find these videos on any platform associated with the network. The Network did not respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment on these videos.

On July 18 security personnel in Addis Ababa detained OMN anchor Mohammed Siraj at his in-laws’ house, according to his wife Sada Haji and Kedir, who both spoke to CPJ via messaging application. Mohammed appeared in court on July 20 and police said they were investigating him on allegations of incitement to violence; outrage against a dead body; killing of a police officer; and attempt to kill a ruling party official, according to Kedir and Tokumma Daba, another lawyer in the defense team. He was due back in court on August 14, according to Kedir.

Security personnel arrested OMN reporter and TV host Guyo Wariyo on July 17 from an Addis Ababa residence where he was staying with his family and said on July 18 in court that they were investigating him for broadcasting false news and inciting ethnic and religious violence, according to Tuli and two relatives who spoke to CPJ via messaging application but requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Guyo had interviewed Hachalu a week before his killing and authorities had linked Hachalu’s killing to the Oromia Media Network interview, alleging that the program’s format was deliberately changed and claimed that the interview was edited to remove sections in which the musician spoke about threats he was facing, according to media reports

In its July 31 statement to CPJ, the office of the attorney general said prosecutors were reviewing Guyo’s case to determine whether to charge him. Guyo was also due back in court on August 14, according to Kedir, as police have been given more time to investigate him.

Mohammed and Guyo are being held at a primary school in Addis Ababa, around a neighborhood commonly known as Enkulal Fabrica, that has been converted to a detention center, according to the Tuli, Kedir, and the relatives who spoke to CPJ.

Kenyan journalist Juma, who also edits news website Horn24News, was arrested on July 2 in Addis Ababa at the home of Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian opposition politician and former head of the Oromia Media Network who had been arrested on June 30, according to Tuli and an Oromia Media Network employee who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. Juma’s Nairobi-based wife, Asha Mohamed, told CPJ that the journalist had moved to Ethiopia last year to work on documentaries. The office of the attorney general told CPJ that Juma was arrested by police who were executing a search warrant at Jawar’s house and claimed that he did not identify himself as a journalist. 

OMN News Director Melese and Chibsa, the driver, were arrested separately on July 2 after they tried to go to the Oromia Media Network offices that had been shut down by authorities on June 30, according to Tuli and the Network employee who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity.

Tuli told CPJ that Juma, Melese, and Chibsa are co-accused in one case and police have claimed in court that they are investigating them on the same allegations as Mohamed Siraj. These are also the allegations leveled against Jawar, according to a statement by the rights organization Amnesty International.

However, the attorney general’s office told CPJ that the allegations on outrage against a dead body and murder allegations only apply to Melese whom they claim was arrested at the scene of a June 30 incident in which Jawar and others are accused of having attempted to forcefully turn back the body of Hachalu, which was being transported to its burial place.

The attorney general’s office also told CPJ that Juma and Chibsa are under investigation on allegations of having operated illegal communication equipment found in Jawar’s home, a satellite which the government says is authorized for use only by diplomatic missions. According to the defense team, authorities have not raised these allegations in court proceedings.

After visiting Juma on August 3, Tuli told CPJ that the journalist had recently, and for the first time, been interrogated on allegations of intercepting government information. The journalist told his lawyer that he had trouble communicating with police, because he does not speak Amharic.

Tuli also told CPJ that as of August 3, Juma was ill and had reported suffering from a fever for at least five days. Tuli told CPJ at the time that Juma had not received any medical tests but had been given medicine by a clinic at the Addis Ababa Police Commission, commonly known as Sostegna, where he is detained alongside Chibsa and Melese.

In ordering the release of Juma, Chibsa, and Melesse from Federal Police custody, the Arada branch of the Federal First Instance court said authorities had not provided evidence linking the co-accused to the allegations for which they are being investigated. Authorities appealed the order but the Lideta branch of the Federal High Court quashed their application on August 7. However, as of August 12 the three had yet to be released and Kedir told CPJ that they had been transferred to the custody of Addis Ababa Police, who brought them to court on August 11 and claimed to be investigating them for the same allegations as the federal police. They were due back in court on August 13.