Ethiopian journalist Melese Diribsa, with the Oromia Media Network (OMN), was arrested on July 2, 2020, and detained along with several other journalists from the network. In September 2020 authorities charged Melese and 23 others, including OMN itself, with inciting civil war. As of late 2021, he remained in pretrial detention.
Melese is the news director of OMN, a privately owned 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 shortly after his arrest.
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, including Chibsa, 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 2020 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 the third also did not feature any logo, and showed a woman speaking at a public forum into an OMN-branded microphone.
In December 2020, in an email response to CPJ’s inquiry, the Oromia Media Network said that the charges against itself and Melese were “politically motivated” and “part of silencing of the peoples of Ethiopia.”
In July 2020, 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 2020, Melese was moved to the Addis Ababa Remand Center, commonly known as Kilinto, according to news reports. A journalist who visited Melese in late October 2020 said Melese’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 a November 10, 2020, email, Yibekal said that Melese’s arrest was not politically motivated.
In January 2021, Melese joined some of his co-defendants in a hunger strike demanding improvement of prison conditions and an end to the harassment of OMN, according to Kedir Bullo, a lawyer representing Melese, as well as media reports and a tweet by the Oromo Political Prisoners Defence Team, a group that covers alleged political cases against the Oromo.
Kedir told CPJ that Melese’s health deteriorated and he ended the hunger strike after two weeks; he added the journalist was not hospitalized during the strike.
On March 15, 2021, Melese pleaded not guilty, saying that the charges against him were fabricated and that he was part of a government crackdown on journalists, according to a copy of that plea, posted by the Oromo Political Prisoners Defence Team and news reports.
Also on March 15, prosecutors requested that the court hear 146 witnesses’ testimonies in a closed session, according to multiple reports by the Addis Standard news website. On March 22, the defense challenged the government’s request, and in April the Federal Supreme Court rejected the request for closed sessions and ruled that the witness hearings would be conducted in public, according to Kedir and the Addis Standard.
Prosecutors requested the court postpone hearings until after elections in June; the hearings were then repeatedly delayed due to defendants’ refusals to appear out of protest over court processes, and due to an annual August-September court recess, according to news reports and Kedir. As of November 2021, the next hearing in the case was scheduled for December 3, according to a report by the news website Amba Digital.
Federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi referred CPJ to the federal attorney general’s office for comment. That office did not respond to CPJ’s September 2021 requests for comment on Melese’s detention and the delays in the trial.