Members of the Amhara Special Forces stand guard in Lalibela in the Amhara region, Ethiopia, January 25, 2022. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

Journalists Yayesew Shimelis and Temesgen Desalegn detained in Ethiopia

Nairobi, May 28, 2022– The Committee to Protect Journalists on Saturday called for the unconditional release of Ethiopian journalists Temesgen Desalegn and Yayesew Shimelis, and condemned authorities’ continued use of arrests to target members of the press. 

At around 11 a.m. on Thursday, May 26, police officers detained Temesgen Desalegn, chief editor of privately owned Feteh magazine, from his office in Addis Ababa, the capital, according to news reports, his lawyer Henok Aklilu, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and a Facebook post by the journalist’s brother, Tariku Desalegn. Also on May 26, at around 1:00 p.m., plainclothes police officers arrested Yayesew Shimelis, administrator of the YouTube news channel Ethio Forum, from his home in Addis Ababa, according to news reports and two people familiar with his case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, for safety concerns. 

Both journalists were brought before the Federal First Instance Court, Arada Branch, on Friday, which granted police an extension of the journalists’ custody pending investigation into allegations that they committed crimes against the state, according to these same sources. Police accused Temesgen of inciting violence and public disturbance through unspecified interviews published on YouTube and accused him of working to create discord between the public and the military, according to Henok. He told CPJ the accusations were unfounded given that Temesgen had not appeared in a YouTube interview in at least four years. Temesgen is due back in court on May 30.

Yayesew is accused of instigating the public to rebel against the government and instigating people of different religious groups against each other, according to one of two people familiar with his case who spoke to CPJ anonymously, citing security concerns. This person said that police alleged that the offenses were committed via interviews that Yayesew published on Ethio Forum and in commentary he gave in interviews with other outlets, but did not provide specific details. The journalist is due back in court June 6.

Authorities did not file formal charges or allege that the journalists violated specific laws, according to Henok and one of the people familiar with Yayesew’s case. Both journalists have been previously imprisoned by Ethiopian authorities, as CPJ has documented. 

“Temesgen Desalegn and Yayesew Shimelis suffered immensely during previous unjust detentions, and it is devastating that they now find themselves behind bars again,” said CPJ sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Ethiopia is cementing its position as one of the region’s worst jailers of journalists. Authorities should immediately release all journalists behind bars for their work.” 

Temesgen and Yayesew, whose media outlets are known for their critical journalism of Ethiopia’s government, are the latest Ethiopian journalists to be arrested since May 19, amid a broader crackdown as authorities carry out what they’ve termed as a “law enforcement operation” in the Amhara regional state and Addis Ababa that has seen at least 11 other journalists taken into custody, as CPJ documented. The operation also included the arrest of an ally-turned-critic of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Brigadier General Tefera Mamo, who was the subject of an exclusive interview with Feteh earlier this year, reports said. 

Following Temesgen and Yayesews’ arrests on Thursday, police searched the journalists’ homes. In Temesgen’s home they confiscated copies of Feteh magazine, five hard drives, a camera, a phone, and a flash disk, according to Tariku’s Facebook post and Henok. Police confiscated a book and a flash drive from Yayesew’s home, according to one of the two people familiar with his case. 

In an interview with BBC Amharic a few days before his arrest, Temesgen said that “security sources” had warned him about his impending arrest, according to a report by the outlet. When asked if there was anything that might lead to his arrest, Temesgen accused the Ethiopian authorities of “turning into a totalitarian dictatorship,” saying that they would “suppress the media that could expose [them].” 

On Wednesday May 25, a day before his most recent arrest, Yayesew was convicted of publishing false news in connection with a 2020 case and sentenced to three months of community service, according to one of the two people familiar with his case. This person said that Yayesew’s May 26 arrest is not related to the 2020 case.  

Separately, CPJ is also investigating the detention of two other Ethiopian journalists — the May 26 arrest of Sabontu Ahmed of Finfinnee Integrated Broadcasting, and the May 27 arrest of Bekalu Alamrew of Ethio Forum. Bekalu’s arrest was disclosed to CPJ by someone with knowledge of the case who requested anonymity for security reasons. 

In a telephone interview with CPJ Jeylan Abdi, the federal police spokesperson, said no journalist had been detained in Ethiopia in connection to their professional work, but rather because police had evidence of criminal offences. He did not provide further comment on the specific cases facing Yayesew and Temesgen, saying the matter was before the courts. CPJ calls to federal government spokespersons Legesse Tulu and Kebede Desisa either rang without answer or did not connect; and queries sent via text message did not receive an immediate response on the evening of May 27.