Nairobi, July 20, 2022 – Authorities in the Ethiopian region of Tigray should immediately release five Tigrai TV journalists who were recently taken into custody for their work, as well as all other members of the press behind bars, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
Regional authorities in the state of Tigray, who are at war with the federal Ethiopian government, in recent months detained Tigrai TV employees Teshome Temalew, Misgena Seyoum, Haben Halefom, Hailemichael Gesesse, and Dawit Meknonnen, according to multiple media reports, Issac Welday, a former senior manager with the broadcaster who spoke with CPJ by phone from Addis Ababa, and a person familiar with their detention, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Regional authorities accuse the journalists, who are held in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, of “collaboration with the enemy” for their alleged work with the Ethiopian federal government and its ruling Prosperity Party, according to those sources. Under a state of emergency decree issued by Tigrayan regional authorities, which CPJ reviewed, convictions for collaboration with any group designated as an “enemy” can carry up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.
CPJ was unable to determine exactly when the journalists were detained. Those media reports said they were detained in late May and early June. Isaac said that the five journalists had been presented in court as of early July, but their legal status was unclear.
“Journalists operating in Tigray should be allowed to live and work freely, without fear that they will be targeted in politically motivated cases,” said CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “The five Tigrai TV journalists behind bars for their work should be released, and Tigray authorities should cease harassing and detaining members of the press. Ethiopian authorities should also work to end telecommunications disruptions that have hampered journalists’ abilities to do their jobs.”
Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia have been under a telecommunications blackout amid a 20-month civil war between the federal government and rebel forces led by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front political group, according to media reports.
Tigrai TV is operated by the regional government. From late 2020 to June 2021, the broadcaster was under the control of an interim regional administration appointed by the federal government, according to media reports.
That administration was removed from power by Tigray forces in June 2021 and, after a brief period off-air, Tigrai TV resumed service under the region’s new government that July.
The anonymous person familiar with the case and Isaac, who worked with Tigrai TV when the region was under the interim administration, said they believed the journalists were being held for their work for Tigrai TV during the time when it was controlled by federal authorities.
At that time, Haben worked as a senior journalist and anchor, Hailemichael as an online editor, Misgena as an education program director, Teshome as director of services for international and other Ethiopian languages, and Dawit as a field reporter, according to those sources, who said some of the journalists had been promoted to their positions under the interim administration, and added that they did not know if they were still in those positions at the time of their detentions.
Haben, Dawit, and Hailemichael were suspended from their work a few months before their detention, according to Isaac and the person who spoke to CPJ anonymously, saying the suspensions were sparked by an internal evaluation alleging that they had supported the interim administration when it was in power.
Mekele prosecutor Addis Gebresilassie was quoted in those news reports saying the journalists were not being held for their work but for “another crime.”
The state of emergency decree reviewed by CPJ said that cases of collaboration with the enemy, including through propaganda, media, or other communications, can be pursued regardless of when the alleged offense occurred.
According to a report by the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission, a statutory watchdog based in the capital Addis Ababa, a total of 15 members of the media, including Teshome, Misgena, Haben, and Hailemichael, were in detention in Tigray as of July 8. That report did not identify the other 11 media workers allegedly held in detention.
Haben’s lawyer was cited in media reports in June saying that the journalist was being held in a “filthy” detention center.
CPJ emailed Tigrai TV for comment but did not receive any reply. CPJ also emailed the Tigray External Affairs Office and a representative of that office, Kindeya Gebrehiwot, for comment, but did not receive any response. Tigray spokesperson Getachew Reda did not reply to an email and Twitter message seeking comment.