Dawit Begashaw, co-founder of Arat Kilo Media, was arrested in April 2023 in Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region. He was charged with terrorism in June, alongside 50 co-defendants, three of whom were journalists.
Dawit, who could face the death penalty if convicted, joined a hunger strike in May to protest what detainees described as political persecution. As of late 2023, he was in prison awaiting trial. Dawit is one of eight Ethiopian journalists in CPJ’s 2023 prison census who were arrested during the year after reporting on the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second most-populous region.
In December 2022, Dawit co-founded Arat Kilo Media, a YouTube-based news channel, which had over 16,000 subscribers as of late 2023, and was also the outlet’s chief editor and a commentator, according to CPJ’s review. In addition, Dawit is a board member of the Ethiopian Mass Media Professionals Association, a member-based advocacy group, according to on its Facebook page.
On April 12, 2023, Ethiopian National Defense Force soldiers arrested Dawit while he was with friends at a Bahir Dar hotel, according to news reports and his lawyer Henok Aklilu, who spoke to CPJ. The following day, Dawit was taken to the federal police detention center in Addis Ababa, Henok said.
On April 16, Dawit appeared at the Federal First Instance Court on allegations of inciting violence on social media and other platforms and mobilizing young people to overthrow the government, Henok said. He was not charged but police were granted time to hold him in custody pending investigations. On April 28, the court granted Dawit bail but the police did not release him, according to Henok.
Dawit was among at least eight journalists and media workers arrested that month over allegations that included inciting violence. Five were later released.
The arrests followed the government’s April 6 controversial decision to integrate regional militia into the federal army, which triggered protests. In Amhara, the Amhara Regional Special Forces refused to surrender their weapons and the Fano militia took up arms against federal forces—their former allies in a civil war in northern Ethiopia that ended with a peace deal in November 2022. The Amhara conflict was ongoing as of late 2023.
In videos published by Arat Kilo Media before his detention, Dawit criticized Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and spoke out against the federal government’s disbandment of the Amhara Regional Special Force, according CPJ’s review in October 2023. The videos have since been made private.
On April 30, the Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force published a statement accusing Dawit and 46 others of involvement in terrorism in the Amhara state.
On May 16, Dawit and 44 other detainees at the Federal Police Crime Investigation Main Department went on a three-day hunger strike, without food or water, to protest what they described as political persecution in the Amhara region, according to Henok and a demand letter by the detainees, reviewed by CPJ.
On June 7, the federal Ministry of Justice formally filed charges against Dawit and 50 other people, including three other journalists—Meskerem Abera and Genet Asmamaw, who were arrested in April, and Gobeze Sisay, who was arrested in May—according to a charge sheet reviewed by CPJ.
Prosecutors accused the four journalists of violating Article 3(2) of the Proclamation on Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism, which stipulates that those found guilty of “terrorizing or spreading fear among the public” … “with the intention of advancing political, religious or ideological causes” can be given the death penalty, according to the charge sheet.
Prosecutors said that Dawit participated in discussions and meetings of the Amhara Fano Unity Council, which they described as a “clandestine organization, which the defendants used to do their terrorist activities” with the intent of forcibly removing the government from power. They further accused him of being part of this organization’s intellectual wing, receiving propaganda training and creating a WhatsApp group to distribute propaganda, supervising distribution of false reports meant to incite the public, and directing public protests.
After multiple appearances before the Lideta branch of the Federal High Court, Dawit and his co-defendants were denied bail on July 19, 2023, according to Henok. The following day, he was transferred to the capital’s Kaliti Federal Maximum Security Prison.
In court hearings in October and November, the defendants’ application for their case to be dismissed on the grounds that it was politically motivated was rejected, Henok said. According to Henok and a BBC Amharic report, the Federal Supreme Court in early December suspended their trial for an indefinite period, pending a ruling by that court on the status of other co-defendants who were charged in absentia.
In December 2023, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi told CPJ in an emailed statement that he could not comment on the detention of Dawit and other journalists since the August 4 declaration of a state of emergency in response to conflict in Amhara state and referred CPJ to the command post, which was established to oversee the state of emergency.
As of late 2023, CPJ’s queries via email to the Amhara Communication Bureau and via email and messaging app to the federal ministry of justice, and government spokesperson Legesse Tulu, who is a member of the state of emergency command post and has issued statements on behalf of the body, did not receive any responses.