On January 19, 2021, Ethiopian national army soldiers shot and killed Dawit Kebede Araya, a reporter with the regional broadcaster Tigray TV, in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray state, according to media reports; Bemnet Woldegiorgis, a friend of Dawit’s who witnessed the attack and who spoke to CPJ via messaging app; and a joint report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a local watchdog group, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Dawit, his friend Bereket Berhe, Bemnet, and a fourth person were driving from a party in Mekelle’s Haya Hulet neighborhood at around 8 p.m. when soldiers fired at their car, according to Bemnet and the joint report. Bereket, who was driving, and Dawit, who was in the back seat, died at the scene, according to those sources.
The soldiers drove Bemnet, who did not suffer any injuries, and the friend, who was shot, to a local hospital; they stayed there overnight and then were transferred to a military camp where they were detained until January 24, 2021, according to Bemnet.
A person who visited the scene of the attack on January 20, and spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity for safety concerns, said the car had bullet holes in the windshield and rear window, and the vehicle seemed to have crashed into a tree.
Dawit was killed two months after the outbreak of a civil war between forces allied with the Ethiopian federal government and forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); at the time of his death, federal forces had taken control of Mekelle from the TPLF, according to media reports.
In the days before his killing, on January 16, security officers arrested Dawit while he was with friends at a bar, and detained him for several hours at the Mekelle Police Commission, according to Bemnet, who witnessed the arrest, and news reports.
The officers questioned Dawit about Tigray TV’s coverage of the war, and asked why he had recently traveled to parts of Tigray where there was active fighting, according to those sources. Dawit told the officers that he covered the war for Tigray TV and was released on condition that he appear again at the police station on January 18, Bemnet said.
A former colleague of the journalist, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that Dawit and other Tigray TV journalists had gone to cover the war from the frontlines in December but returned to Mekelle due to safety concerns. Tigray TV was controlled by the region’s TPLF-led government until it closed after federal troops took Mekelle; when Dawit returned from the frontlines, he joined the reopened Tigray TV run by a federally appointed interim government, according to Bemnet and news reports.
Tigray TV published clips on social media in which Dawit could be seen reporting on the alleged shooting down of an Ethiopian army plane in November 2020. The Ethiopian government later disputed that report as “false,” according to reports.
At the time of Dawit’s killing, Mekelle was under a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Bemnet said that it was possible that the soldiers had targeted the car for breaching curfew, a theory echoed in a January 2021 statement by the independent Ethiopia Human Rights Council.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and U.N. joint report found that the Ethiopian army and soldiers in its allied Eritrean army had committed “unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions.”
That report cited a January 19 shooting of four civilians in Mekelle for suspected curfew violations; the report did not include the names of those shot, but its details match the circumstances of Dawit’s death.
During their January 20 to 24 detention at a military camp, soldiers questioned Bemnet and the other surviving friend about their relationship with Dawit, why they were driving in violation of the curfew, and whether they distributed anti-government pamphlets.
Bemnet and the colleague who spoke to CPJ said they believed it was possible that the soldiers targeted Dawit for his journalistic work instead of a curfew violation; they noted that soldiers did not shoot at other cars on the road that evening, and that Dawit’s previous arrest indicated that authorities had already deemed him to be a person of concern.
Separately, the New York Times documented “an influx of bodies bearing gunshot and knife wounds” at a Mekelle hospital, following attacks for “breaching the nightly curfew.”
In March 2021, Agence France-Presse reported that a soldier threatened to kill a translator with the agency saying, “I can kill you and make up a story about how you weren’t respecting [the curfew].” The translator was one of at least four journalists and media workers assisting foreign journalists who were arrested in Mekelle at the time, as CPJ documented at the time.
In a January 2021 interview with the privately owned Ethiopian Satellite Television broadcaster, the then head of Tigray’s interim administration, Mulu Nega, said that officials were carrying out an investigation into Dawit’s killing, and encouraged people to follow the region’s curfew. No updates on that specific investigation had been made public by late 2021.
Mulu, Atakliti Haile Selassie, then mayor of Mekele, and Redwan Hussein, then spokesperson of the federal government’s emergency task force, did not respond to multiple calls and text messages from CPJ in January and March 2021.
In a statement published on Twitter on November 29, 2021, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice announced the establishment of an inter-ministerial taskforce to “oversee redress and accountability measures” for human rights violations committed during the war. The taskforce, the statement said, would “cover all serious violations” and adopt an action plan to implement the recommendations of the joint Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and U.N. report.
Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos Hassebon did not respond to CPJ’s email in late 2021 asking if Dawit’s killing would fall within the mandate of the taskforce.
CPJ called Ethiopian army spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane, but he did not answer or respond to a message sent via WhatsApp asking what steps the military had taken to hold accountable officers responsible for Dawit’s killing.
CPJ sent a message to Getachew Reda, the spokesperson of the Tigray rebel forces, via Twitter on December 5, 2021, but did not receive any response.