Nairobi, November 2, 2021 — Authorities in Ethiopia must immediately release Ahadu Radio and Television journalists Luwam Atikilti and Kibrom Worku and stop retaliating against members of the press for their coverage of the ongoing war in northern Ethiopia, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On October 22, at approximately 4:00 p.m., police in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa arrested Luwam Atikilti, a reporter working for the privately owned Ahadu Radio and Television, at her workplace, according to news reports and her lawyers, Abebaw Abebe and Tigabu Dessalgn, who spoke to CPJ via phone. Separately, on the afternoon of October 26, police arrested Kibrom Worku, a reporter and news editor with the station, after summoning him to the Ahadu offices in Addis Ababa, according to Abebaw and Tigabu, as well as news reports. The journalists remained in detention as of today, according to those sources.
The detention of the two journalists followed an October 22 Ahadu radio report, in which Luwam interviewed an official who claimed forces led by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), a rebel group that has been engaged in a year-long war against the federal government, took control of Haiyk, a town in the Amhara regional state, according to a report by independent news website Ethiopia Insider and a colleague of the journalists who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity citing safety concerns. Ahadu retracted the report hours later, saying it was inaccurate, and apologized to its audience, according to Abebaw, Luwam’s lawyer, and Ethiopia Insider. The colleague told CPJ that Kibrom was the news editor on duty that day and he believed the arrests were directly related to Luwam’s report.
“The detention of the two Ahadu Radio and Television journalists is a gross overreaction to a retracted report, and it is alarming that the courts would entertain criminal proceedings against them,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative. “Authorities should immediately release Luwam Atikilit and Kibrom Worku, and the police should discontinue any investigations against them.”
Luwam appeared at the Federal First Instance Court on October 23; during that appearance, police were granted five days to hold her so they could investigate allegations of Luwam communicating with a terrorist organization and spreading false information, according to Abebaw. Police said they needed time to collect forensic evidence from her phone and laptop, Abebaw said. On October 28, the court granted police eight more days to hold Luwam, as they said they were still collecting evidence from her as well as from Ethio Telecom, which has a monopoly as the country’s internet and telephone service provider, and from the intelligence service, according to reports by Voice of America and Addis Standard.
During a hearing on October 27, the Federal First Instance Court granted police nine days to detain Kibrom pending investigations into allegations of communicating with a terrorist organization, according to Tigabu and Deutsche Welle. Tigabu added that the alleged terrorist organization is not named in the police’s allegation.
The journalists’ lawyers asserted in court that since the report was corrected promptly, the issue should be dealt with through the media law, not as a criminal act, according to news reports. Ethiopia’s media law, enacted in April 2021, mandates civil liability for cases involving defamation and inaccuracies, Tigabu one of the journalists’ lawyers, told CPJ on the phone.
In May, the Ethiopian parliament designated the TPLF a terrorist group, according to media reports. Since the start of the war in Tigray in November 2020, CPJ has documented the arrests of several journalists accused of having links with the TPLF.
CPJ’s emails to the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice, and Jeylan Abdi, the federal police spokesperson, requesting comment on the detention of the two Ahadu journalists were not answered. Jeylan also did not respond to a text and WhatsApp message requesting comment.