Ethiopian journalist Melese Diribsa was arrested in Addis Ababa on July 2, 2020, amid unrest in the wake of a popular musician’s killing. In September 2020 he was charged, alongside 23 other defendants, including the broadcaster as a corporate entity, with inciting civil war.
Melese is the news director of the Oromia Media Network (OMN), an outlet that focuses on the interests of the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, according to one of his lawyers Tuli Bayyisa, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Security personnel arrested Melese and Chibsa Abdulkerim, a driver with OMN, after they tried to access the network’s closed offices in Addis Ababa, according to Tuli. Security personnel shut down that office on June 30 in the wake of the killing of popular musician Hachalu Hundessa, which sparked unrest, according an to Oromia Media Network news report and Osman Ukumme, an editor for the network, who spoke to CPJ in July 2020.
Melese and Chibsa were among at least nine journalists and media workers arrested in July and August 2020, all associated with the Oromia Media Network and another outlet, the Amhara Satellite Radio and Television (ASRAT), as CPJ documented at the time. The others had been released by September 2020, according to Tuli and ASRAT lawyer Henok Aklilu, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Accused of incitement to violence, the media workers and journalists were among the more than 9,000 people arrested in Ethiopia in connection to the unrest followed Hachalu’s death, during which over 200 people were killed, according to media reports.
Two days after their arrest, Melese and Chibsa appeared in court alongside Kenyan freelance journalist Yassin Juma, and police accused the three of mishandling Hachalu’s corpse, attempted murder of officials of Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party, inciting violence, and killing a police officer, according to Tuli, who said that police were granted time to hold the accused in custody pending investigation, without filing formal charges.
The three were granted bail in August but police re-arrested them moments after they were freed on August 11, according to reports.
On September 21, 2020, the federal attorney general formally filed charges against Melese and 23 other people and entities, including the Oromia Media Network itself and Dejene Gutema, an editor at the network who is being tried in absentia, according to the charge sheet reviewed by CPJ. According to the charge sheet, police accuse Melese, the network, and Dejene of contravening Article 240 of Ethiopia’s criminal code, which stipulates a maximum life sentence for those found guilty of organizing an armed rebellion or raising civil war by arming people or inciting them to take arms. The other defendants are facing charges that include terrorism and telecommunications fraud, according to the charge sheet and media reports.
Prosecutors allege that Melese, Dejene, and the Oromia Media Network committed the criminal offenses on June 29 and June 30, 2020, following Hachalu’s killing, when members of the public and journalists appeared live on air. The charge sheet says that the network aired statements such as “we all should be ready to fight to death;” calls for revenge through the killing of another prominent figure; a call for Oromos in Ethiopia and exile to rise up; allegations that people from northern Ethiopia and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed were responsible for the killing of the musician and calls to expel them; and calls to block roads and topple statues of 19th century emperor Menelik, seen by some as a subjugator of people in southern Ethiopia, including the Oromo.
The charge sheet does not state which specific broadcasts allegedly constituted these offenses. In a July email, the office of the federal attorney general referred CPJ to a Twitter thread, which it said contained some of the inciting materials aired by the news network in the wake of Hachalu’s killing.
The thread contained three videos in which people made comments that included calling for homes to be burnt and for people to be exterminated; one video carried an OMN logo; one video did not have an OMN logo nor any other identifying marker, and in the third, there is no logo but a woman speaks at a public forum into an OMN-branded microphone. The Oromia Media Network did not respond to emails and Facebook messages from CPJ seeking comment in late 2020.
Defense lawyers filed preliminary objections to the charges against the editor and OMN, arguing that they were not specific and that Melese, as news director, did not have oversight of the content cited, according to Tuli. The court was expected to rule on these objections in mid-December, Tuli told CPJ.
In July, while detained at the Addis Ababa police commission, Melese complained that he and others were held in cramped conditions and were concerned about contracting COVID-19, according to the lawyers who spoke to CPJ and media reports. Juma, who was freed on August 19 following public outcry in Kenya, contracted COVID-19 at that facility, according to news reports.
In September, Melese was moved to the Addis Ababa Remand Center, commonly known as Kilinto, according to news reports. A journalist who visited the journalist in late October said Melesse’s face was covered with a rash. Melese’s wife, Tadelech Merga, told CPJ that the journalist had suffered from allergies, but that he had received medication and his condition was improving in early November.
Yibekal Gizaw, then the head of the National Human Rights Action Plan Office, a department within Ethiopia’s office of the federal attorney general, told CPJ in a July 2020 email that Melese and the other Oromia Media Network employees were “arrested in connection with their role in broadcasts involving repeated calls for ethnically targeted attacks against non-Oromo minorities in the Oromia Regional State.” He alleged that the network’s broadcasts had constituted “incitement for ethnic cleansing” that had “led to the widespread damage to property, looting and killing of ethnic minorities.”
In August 2020, Yibekal wrote to CPJ that Melese had been arrested not on July 2 but on June 30, during an incident in which Jawar and others are accused of disrupting the transport of Hachalu’s body to its burial place. Tuli disputed that claim.
In a November 10 email, Yibekal said that Melesse’s arrest was not politically motivated. Federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment on Melese’s detention, and referred CPJ to the federal attorney general’s office.