Alpha TV founder and editor Bekalu Alamrew was arrested May 27 in Addis Ababa. (YouTube/Alpha TV)

Ethiopia detains journalists Bekalu Alamrew and Meaza Mohammed in ongoing media crackdown

Nairobi, June 3, 2022– The Committee to Protect Journalists on Friday called on Ethiopian authorities to unconditionally release Bekalu Alamrew and Meaza Mohammed, the latest journalists to be swept up in the country’s recent crackdown on the press. 

At around 4 p.m. on Friday, May 27, security officers detained Bekalu, the founder and chief editor of YouTube-based news channel Alpha TV, from his office in the capital of Addis Ababa, according to news reports, his wife Helen Abate, who spoke to CPJ via phone, and a person familiar with his case who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns. The following day, around 9:00 a.m. on May 28, police officers arrested Meaza, founder and chief editor of YouTube-based news channel Roha TV, from a colleague’s house, according to news reports, her husband Robel Gebeyehu, and Roha TV reporter Misrak Tefera, both of whom spoke to CPJ by phone. 

Police brought Bekalu before the Federal First Instance Court, Arada Branch, on May 28 and accused him of incitement to violence through media appearances, according to Helen. She said the court granted police 12 more days to keep Bekalu in custody pending an investigation into the allegations. The person familiar with the case said police did not specify which media appearances and that authorities have not yet filed formal charges against Bekalu.

According to Henok Aklilu, one of Meaza’s lawyers who spoke to CPJ by phone, Meaza was brought before the same court on May 30 and accused of public incitement to violence via Roha TV and other unspecified media platforms. She has not been formally charged. The court granted police seven additional days to further investigate the allegations. Robel told CPJ that police searched Meaza’s house and confiscated financial and legal documents unrelated to the arrest. 

Meaza and Bekalu are the latest journalists to be detained in Ethiopia. According to CPJ documentation, at least 13 others have been arrested since May 19 amid what the Amhara state government calls a “law enforcement operation.” 

“These arrests will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on the broader media community, spreading fear and engendering self-censorship among journalists who’ve seen far too many of their colleagues thrown behind bars in recent weeks,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “The government’s allegations in court, lacking in specificity and without evidence, ring hollow. Meaza Mohamed, Bekalu Alamrew, and other journalists detained in Ethiopia for their work should be released without further delay, and allowed to continue their work without interference.”

Roha TV founder and editor Meaza Mohammed was arrested May 28. (YouTube/Roha TV)

Both Meaza and Bekalu made critical comments on their respective news channels about the Ethiopian government’s “law enforcement operation” in Amhara state, in which at least 4,500 people have been arrested over the last two weeks. Both are detained at Addis Ababa police commission commonly known as Sostegna, according to Henok and Helen. Bekalu is due back in court on June 9 while Meaza is due back on June 6, according to these same sources. 

Both journalists have been detained before. Meaza was arrested in December 2021 and held for 39 days without formal charges, according to CPJ documentation and news reports. Bekalu was arrested in November 2020. when he was accused of disseminating false information, and in June 2021, when he was held for weeks without access to family or lawyers, according to CPJ’s documentation and news reports

Separately, on Wednesday, June 1, the Ethiopian Federal police announced in a Facebook post that it had identified 111 online media outlets that are “in operation without getting a license” from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, an industry regulator, in breach of the country’s media law. The federal police said that the sites had “engaged in the instigation of religious and ethnic violence.” The statement said 10 people from the 111 outlets who are “extreme and divisive” are in police custody without naming the 10. 

In comments sent to CPJ via messaging application on May 28, Ethiopia’s federal police spokesperson said that no journalists were detained due to their profession, but because they had committed criminal acts. The ministry of justice did not immediately respond to a June 3 email from CPJ requesting comment on the cases of Bekalu, Meaza, and other detained journalists. CPJ’s calls to Government Communication Service Minister Legesse Tulu and his deputy Kebede Desisa were unanswered and there was no immediate response to requests for comment sent via messaged application and text message.