Federal officers stand guard in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on September 6, 2021, during a ceremony held to support the Ethiopian military. CPJ's annual prison census found the country to be second-worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa (AFP/Amanuel Sileshi)

Ethiopia uses emergency law to ramp up arrests of journalists

Nairobi, December 16, 2021 – Ethiopian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all journalists held in custody for their work and should refrain from using the country’s state of emergency law to imprison members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Ethiopian authorities have arrested at least 14 journalists since declaring a state of emergency on November 2 as part of the government’s response to a year-long civil war against rebel forces allied with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Those detained include two former reporters at the Tigrigna-language radio service of the state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), the editor-in-chief of the YouTube channel Ubuntu TV, an editor at the Terara Network, the co-founder of Roha TV, a freelance video journalist accredited with The Associated Press, a cameraperson, and a journalist with the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation. CPJ previously documented the arrests of six other journalists under the state of emergency.

“Ethiopia’s state of emergency law gives security personnel extremely broad powers of arrest and suspends due process, effectively bans critical journalism, and sends an intimidating message to the press,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “The Ethiopian government should release all journalists detained for their work and stop using the state of emergency as a pretext to infringe on freedom of expression.”

Screenshots of Eyasped Tesfaye, co-founder and editor of YouTube channel Ubuntu TV (left), Temerat Negara, founder, editor, and presenter of the Terara Network (center), and Meaza Mohammed, Roha TV reporter and founder (right), who were arrested between December 7 and 11. (YouTube/Ubuntu TV, Terara Network, Roha TV)

On November 4, police in Addis Ababa raided the homes of Teklehaimanot Girmai and Mekonnen Yibrah, who had both worked as reporters for the Tigrinya-language radio service of the state-owned Ethiopia Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) until their dismissal in August, according to a Mekonnen’s friend and Teklehaimanot’s relative, as well as two journalists familiar with their case, all of whom spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

These sources said that police arrested Teklehaimanot on November 4 and Mekonnen on November 16. 

Mekonen and Teklehaimanot were dismissed from the EBC following allegations of breaching the broadcaster’s code of conduct, according to the relative. Documents reviewed by CPJ show that the station’s management accused Mekonnen of issuing reports from February to May that lacked editorial approval and were supportive of the TPLF.

Teklehaimanot was suspended in connection to an August 10 report that allegedly suggested the government was shutting down businesses owned by people of Tigrayan ethnicity, which management said “implicitly” aided the TPLF, according to the documents. CPJ was not able to find a copy of that reporting to review.

When CPJ called the EBC on December 8 for comment, a representative requested questions be sent via email; when CPJ sent those questions, the emails returned with an error message. Follow-up messages sent to EBC via Twitter, Facebook, and a publicly available email address were also unanswered. On Wednesday evening, a representative of EBC asked CPJ to send queries to another email address, acknowledged receipt, and said that they would ask their boss to respond to the request for comment.

In a statement sent via messaging app, Mohamed Idris, the director-general of the Ethiopian Media Authority, a statutory industry regulator, said that as far as he was aware the EBC journalists were not detained for their professional work and that their detentions could be due to “prudent safety measures” by authorities as part of the state of emergency.

Mekonnen and Teklehaimanot were unemployed following their dismissals from the EBC and had appealed their suspensions to the Federal Civil Service Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body that adjudicates disputes between government employees; their cases were pending at the time of their arrests, according to those documents and Teklehaimanot’s relative.

Teklehaimanot’s relative and a friend who spoke to CPJ, also on condition of anonymity, said that they believed the journalists were arrested both because of their work at EBC, particularly the programming that led to their suspension and because they are ethnic Tigrayans.

Three other journalists were detained on November 28,  according to The Associated Press (AP) and local state media reports, but their arrests were not made public until yesterday. The three were named as Amir Aman Kirayo, a freelance video journalist accredited with the AP, cameraperson Thomas Engida and Addisu Muluneh, a reporter with the state affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation. The AP said that Amir was arrested after a reporting trip; while CPJ continues to investigate the specific circumstances surrounding the arrests of Thomas and Addisu.

AP did not elaborate on the nature of Amir’s trip, but said that all three are accused of breaching the country’s state of emergency and anti-terrorism laws. State media reports alleged that the three were arrested after interviewing members of the Shene, a term used by officials to refer to the rebel Oromo Liberation Army group which was designated a terrorist organisation earlier this year and is allied with the TPLF.

AP executive editor Julie Pace said that allegations against Amir, who has covered Ethiopia’s civil war extensively, were “baseless.” In an emailed statement to CPJ, a spokesperson for the AP said that Amir’s family had been allowed to visit him twice a week since his arrest.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday evening, Jeylan Abdi, a spokesperson for Ethiopia’s federal police told CPJ that contacting the OLA is a “crime” under the country’s anti-terror law and not an act of journalism. He said that the journalists intended on promoting the OLA within the international press and that police would produce the journalists in court, but did not specify when this would happen.

Separately, on December 7, police in Addis Ababa arrested Eyasped Tesfaye, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the YouTube channel Ubuntu TV, at his home in Addis Ababa, according to media reports, a family member who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns, and Ubuntu TV general manager and co-founder Moonira Abdulemanan, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

The officers did not provide any reason for Eyasped’s arrest and searched his home the same day, according to the family member. The following day, police raided Ubuntu TV office in Addis Ababa confiscating studio equipment and cameras, according to Moonira. Eyasped was then taken to Sostegna, according to multiple reports by the BBC.

Eyasped hosted “The DE²S³K’,” a weekly discussion program on Ubuntu TV about East African politics, and he participated in daily roundtable discussions on current affairs, according to Moonira and CPJ’s review of the YouTube channel.

Eyasped’s recent programming included an interview with an analyst regarding the ongoing war in Ethiopia, a discussion of the influence of global superpowers on the East and Horn of Africa region, and a discussion about politics in Sidama regional state.

Previously, Eyasped worked with the Oromia Media Network until the station’s closure in Addis Ababa June 2020, according to the colleague who spoke to CPJ. The OMN is often critical of the federal government and its journalists have previously been targeted for arrest

Eyasped is also a former member of the opposition Blue Party, according to those BBC reports. He was previously arrested under the country’s 2016 state of emergency. 

Three days after Eyasped’s arrest, on December 10, police also arrested Temerat Negara, a co-founder, editor, and presenter with the Terara Network, from his Addis Ababa home, saying that he was detained in connection to the state of emergency, according to his wife, Selam Belay, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, media reports, and a statement posted on Facebook by his outlet.

Selam said that police searched their home and the Terara Network office in Addis Ababa’s Bethel neighborhood, and confiscated electronics including hard disks and audio recorders.

Temerat participated in daily political news discussions on the Terara Network, which publishes content on YouTube and Facebook; on a December 2 program Temerat criticized Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s handling of the war and in a December 6 program he and a co-host discussed the future of Ethiopia after the defeat of the TPLF.

Temerat previously worked as the editor-in-chief of Addis Neger newspaper, an Amharic-language weekly that closed in 2009 amid government pressure forcing its editors, including Temerat, to exile, according to media reports. Selam told CPJ that Temerat returned to Ethiopia in late 2018 and co-founded Terara in December 2020.

On December 11, security personnel in civilian clothes arrested Roha TV founder and reporter Meaza Mohammed from her parents’ home in Addis Ababa, according to her husband Robel Gebeyehu and her sister, Agegehuwork Abebe, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Later that day, police accompanied Meaza to her home and office in the Kazanchis area of Addis Ababa, Robel said; they searched both premises and confiscated computer hard drives.

Robel told CPJ that police initially refused to say why they had detained Meaza, but then said that they were holding the journalist at Sostegna for doing media work without a license from the Ethiopia Media Authority.

Roha TV’s YouTube channel features coverage of an opposition party press statement and reporting on the ongoing war. A December 9 documentary includes Meaza’s interviews with victims of sexual violence in Amhara regional state, allegedly committed by rebel soldiers. Prior to founding Roha TV, Meaza worked as a reporter and editor with the privately owned online news channel Abbay Media, Robel said.

In his statement to CPJ, Mohamed, the media authority’s director-general, said he could not comment on the detentions of Eyasped, Temerat, or Meaza because the authority did not “know [the journalists], legally, as professional journalists,” and they were not licensed.

However, in a May 28 Facebook post, the media authority listed Terara as among recently licensed online media outlets. Moonira told CPJ that Ubuntu TV had applied for a license in September, but had not heard back from authorities since then, which would have resulted in the station automatically having legal recognition, as stipulated by Article 27 (2) of  Ethiopia’s media proclamation.

In a December 15 phone interview with CPJ, federal police spokesperson Jeylan said that the journalists were detained for violating the laws of the country, not for their professional work. Jeylan declined to provide specifics about which laws the journalists allegedly breached, and referred CPJ to the Ministry of Justice for comment.

CPJ emailed and sent Facebook messages to the Ministry of Justice, but did not receive any immediate replies. CPJ repeatedly called the ministry, but the calls rang unanswered or were busy.

These eight journalists were not listed in CPJ’s 2021 prison census — which ranked Ethiopia as sub-Saharan Africa’s second-worst jailer after documenting at least nine journalists in custody there as of December 1 — either because CPJ did not have details of their arrests or because they were arrested after that date. Sources told CPJ that none of the eight has appeared in court.

Editor’s note: The spelling of Gebeyehu has been corrected in the 27th paragraph.