Nairobi, April 14, 2023–Ethiopian authorities should cease arbitrarily detaining journalists during times of political tension and investigate allegations that security officers attacked members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
Between April 3 and April 13, security personnel in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, arrested at least six journalists and allegedly assaulted two while in custody, according to multiple news reports and statements from local rights groups. Two other journalists were arrested in separate incidents in the Amhara and Oromia states.
Six of the journalists–Amara Media Center chief editor Abay Zewdu; Arat Kilo Media editor Dawit Begashaw; Ethio Selam editor Tewodros Asfaw; Yegna Media reporter Genet Asmamaw; Negere Wolkait Media editor Assefa Adane; and Ethio Nikat Media founder and editor Meskerem Abera–remain behind bars as of Friday, April 14, facing allegations which include inciting violence. All six publish reporting and commentary for privately owned YouTube-based outlets.
Abay, Genet, Assefa, and Meskerem mainly report and commentate on political and social issues affecting the Amhara ethnic group, the second-largest in Ethiopia. Their arrests come amid political unrest in Amhara state, as protesters oppose government plans to dissolve regional forces.
“The latest spate of arrests in Ethiopia, in which at least eight journalists have been arrested since April 3, paints a deeply depressing picture of the state of press freedom in the country,” said Muthoki Mumo, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative. “Authorities should release all detained journalists, investigate allegations that some members of the press have been mistreated or assaulted while in state custody, and ensure that journalists do not operate in an environment of fear.”
The first arrest came on April 3, when two men who identified themselves as National Intelligence and Security Service members approached Yeayeneabeba Gizaw, managing editor of the privately owned magazine Yehabesha Wog, while she was running errands in Addis Ababa and forced her into a waiting vehicle, according to the journalist’s phone interviews with CPJ and privately owned satellite broadcaster Ethiopia Media Service (EMS) and a statement by independent watchdog Ethiopia Human Rights Council.
The men drove Yeayeneabeba to an unmarked detention facility in Lebu, an outskirt neighborhood of Addis Ababa, where she was held in a room with nine other women. On April 4, a man and woman questioned her about her work in Oromia state, slapped her face, kicked one of her legs, and accused her of using Yehabesha Wog to defame Oromia state officials and the Addis Ababa mayor.
She was released unconditionally on April 5. Yeayeneabeba did not suffer significant injury, she said, adding that her abduction was particularly unexpected because the magazine suspended printing in September 2022 due to the prohibitive cost. They plan to resume on a bi-monthly basis when they can, she said.
On April 4, Oromia state police arrested Samuel Assefa, an EMS reporter, while he covered demolitions in the town of Legetafo-Legedadi, on the outskirts of the capital, according to EMS editor Wosenseged Gebrekidan, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app, and an Ethiopia Human Rights Council statement.
Samuel appeared at the Legetafo-Legedadi town First Instance Court on April 5 and was accused of incitement and attempting to report without authorities’ permission, according to Wosenseged. The court granted the police an additional five days to hold Samuel, and on April 11, the court closed the case. Samuel was released on April 13 after paying bail of 10,000 Ethiopian birr (US$185).
In separate incidents on April 6, federal police officers arrested Abay and Assefa, who is also a professor at Kotebe Metropolitan University, according to a report by Abay’s outlet and Abay’s sister, Zoma Zewdu, who communicated with CPJ via messaging app.
Later that day, Abay and Assefa appeared at the Arada branch of the Federal First Instance Court in Addis Ababa alongside seven other people, and were accused of using social media platforms to organize youth violence, according to Zoma and court documents reviewed by CPJ. They were remanded to police custody for 10 more days, pending police investigations.
Around 5 p.m. on April 6, five federal police officers arrested Genet, according to her lawyer, Henok Aklilu, and her brother, Andualem Demissie, who spoke to CPJ by phone. In an audio published by several media outlets and authenticated by Henok, an officer says, “Beat her; kick her,” and Genet says, “Do not beat me. Why are you hitting me? Why are you kidnapping me without a court order?”
In an appearance at the Federal First Instance Court on April 7, Genet was accused of inciting violence on social media and other platforms and mobilizing young people to overthrow the government, according to Henok. The court granted police 10 days to hold her in custody pending further investigation. Genet complained to the court about abusive treatment by police, and the court ordered the federal police to investigate, according to Henok.
Around 6 p.m. on April 9, 10 federal police officers arrested Meskerem, according to Henok, who represents her, and the journalist’s husband, Fitsum Gebremichael, who spoke to CPJ by phone.
The Federal First Instance Court extended her detention by 13 days on April 11, giving police time to investigate allegations that she incited violence and riots through social media platforms and provided shooting training to unspecified informal groups, according to CPJ’s review of court documents.
Meskerem was previously detained in May 2022 for 23 days and in December 2022 for three weeks. Ethio Nikat announced a hiatus after her December detention, and Meskerem had announced their return to air a week before her arrest.
On the evening of Wednesday, April 12, Ethiopian National Defense Force soldiers arrested Dawit, while he was with friends at a hotel in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara state. Dawit was transported to the Federal Police detention center in Addis Ababa.
On the morning of April 13, two federal police officers and two plain-clothes security officers arrested Tewodros at his home on unspecified allegations, according to news reports, and his wife, Enat Tamirat, who spoke to CPJ by phone. Enat said officers searched their home, confiscated his passport and cell phone, and took Tewodros to the federal police detention center.
In February, Tewodros was detained for eight days and released on bail.
CPJ’s text and email to federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi and CPJ’s email, Facebook messages, and queries sent through the website of the Addis Ababa mayor’s office did not receive a response.
Emails to the Federal Ministry of Justice, National Intelligence and Security Service, Oromia Communication Bureau, and Amhara Communication Bureau were unanswered or returned error messages.
Editor’s note: This text has been updated in the third paragraph to reflect the outlet’s decision to change its name to Amara Media Center.