Police arrested two Ethio Selam journalists and an administrative worker on February 14 and 18, 2023, and accused them of inciting violence and sowing distrust of the government during a dispute within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. (Screenshot: Ethio Selam/YouTube)

Ethiopian authorities detain 2 Ethio Selam journalists, media worker for coverage of church rift

Nairobi, February 23, 2023 — Ethiopian authorities should unconditionally release two staffers from the internet broadcaster Ethio Selam and drop criminal proceedings into a third, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.

Police and security agents in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa arrested Ethio Selam founder Tewodros Asfaw from his home on February 14, his brother Biniam Asfaw told CPJ via phone. Amanuel Asfaw, a third brother and Ethio Selam camera operator, and Meseret Tamiru, an administrative employee, were detained at the broadcaster’s rented studio on February 18; computers and other equipment was also confiscated, Biniam said. Tewodros was released on bail on Wednesday, February 22, but Amanuel and Meseret remain in custody.

Police accused the three men of inciting violence and sowing distrust of the government during a dispute within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ, but did not file formal charges. Tewodros had covered the controversy extensively on Ethio Selam, which broadcasts to over 34,000 subscribers on YouTube.

“The detention of Ethio Selam staff without charge is unfortunately part of a pattern of Ethiopian police abusing the judicial system to retaliate against critical journalists,” said CPJ Sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo. “The press should be able to cover religious affairs of critical public interest without fear of imprisonment. Authorities should unconditionally release Amanuel Asfaw and Meseret Tamiru without delay and drop pending criminal proceedings against Tewodros Asfaw.”

The High Court in Addis Ababa granted Tewodros bail of 30,000 birr (US$557) on February 16, but he remained in detention while police appealed. On February 22, a higher court upheld the bail order and Tewodros was released that evening. Amanuel and Meseret will be held until February 28 pending investigation, Biniam said.

After clerics in the Oromia region briefly splintered from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in January, church leaders accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of interference. Amid protests from church supporters, the government interrupted access to some social media services. Tewodros criticized the government and the prime minister in videos for Ethio Selam, and said the demonstrations would determine the future of the church.

CPJ emailed the federal ministry of justice requesting comment but did not receive a response. Via messaging application, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi declined to respond to CPJ’s queries, saying he could not comment on matters in court.