Gobeze Sisay of The Voice of Amhara was arrested in May 2023 in Djibouti and transferred under unclear circumstances to Ethiopia. He was charged with terrorism in June, alongside 50 co-defendants, three of whom were journalists. Gobeze, 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.
Gobeze, who has been detained at least three times in two years, 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 August 2021, Gobeze launched The Voice of Amhara; the YouTube-based broadcaster, which Gobeze also reported for, had over 110,000 subscribers as of late 2023, according to CPJ’s review.
On April 30, 2023, the Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force published a statement accusing Gobeze and 46 others of involvement in terrorism in the Amhara state.
The statement 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.
The April 30 statement said that authorities were responding to "extremist groups attempting to forcibly subvert the constitutional system in the Amhara region" in the wake of the April 27 murder of Girma Yeshitila, a high-ranking official with the ruling Prosperity Party in the state. It also accused the media of spreading false news and propaganda.
Gobeze fled to neighboring Djibouti, where he was arrested on May 6 and subsequently transferred under unclear circumstances to Ethiopia, his lawyer Addisu Almaw told CPJ.
In a May 6 statement about Gobeze’s arrest, the Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force said it received assistance from Djiboutian authorities and the intergovernmental global police coordination body Interpol.
In an emailed statement to CPJ, Interpol said that it was not involved in Gobeze’s transfer and it was not empowered to arrest or extradite individuals.
On May 9 and May 10, Gobeze appeared before the Lideta branch of the Federal High Court on allegations of terrorism and leading the media propaganda wing of an unnamed extremist group. He was not charged but police were granted time to hold him in custody pending investigations.
On May 16, Gobeze and 44 other detainees at the federal police detention center 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 Addisu and a demand letter by the detainees, reviewed by CPJ.
On June 7, the federal Ministry of Justice formally filed charges against Gobeze and 50 other people, including journalists Meskerem Abera, Genet Asmamaw, and Dawit Begashaw, 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 Gobeze participated in discussions and meetings with people intent on forcibly overthrowing the government. They accused the journalist of preparing propaganda materials and planning the dissemination of “provocative texts and images through various social media channels.”
Prosecutors said that Gobeze appeared in a video where he accused the Prosperity Party of trying to divide the Amhara region and called for its removal from power, as well as for the abolition of an ethnic Oromo sub-regional administration in Oromia region, where Oromo and Amhara militias have been fighting amid allegations of human rights abuses.
The charge sheet did not detail when and where the video was published so CPJ was unable to verify the allegations.
After multiple appearances before the Lideta branch of the Federal High Court, Gobeze and his co-defendants were denied bail on July 19, according to Addisu. 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, Addisu 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 May 2023, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi told CPJ that Gobeze was not detained because of his journalism but in connection with the death of an official in Amhara region. He declined to comment on the circumstances of Gobeze’s arrest in Djibouti.
In December 2023, Jeylan told CPJ in an emailed statement that he could not comment on the detention of Gobeze and other journalists since the August 4 declaration of a state of emergency in response to conflict in the 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 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.
As of late 2023, CPJ’s text messages to Djibouti’s Deputy Director of Public Security Omar Hassan and Interior Minister Said Nuh Hassan and emails to the foreign ministry, ministry of interior, ministry of justice, and prime minister’s office did not receive any replies. A person at the Djibouti police headquarters, who declined to give their name, told CPJ by phone that they were not familiar with Gobeze’s case.