Meskerem Abera, founder of Ethio Nikat Media, was arrested in April 2023 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. She was charged with terrorism in June, alongside 50 co-defendants, three of whom were journalists. Meskerem, 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, she was in prison awaiting trial.
Meskerem 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. She has been detained at least three times in two years.
In March 2022, Meskerem founded Ethio Nikat Media, a YouTube-based news channel, while also working as a teacher at Hawassa Teachers College in southern Ethiopia, her husband Fitsum Gebremichael told CPJ. Meskerem was the chief editor and a commentator for the news outlet, which had over 47,000 subscribers as of late 2023, according to CPJ’s review.
On April 9, 2023, federal police officers arrested Meskerem at her home, Fitsum and her lawyer Henok Aklilu told CPJ.
Two days later, Meskerem appeared in court on allegations of inciting violence and riots through social media and other platforms and providing weapons training to an unspecified informal group, according to Henok. She was not charged but police were granted time to hold her in custody pending investigations.
Meskerem 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.
On April 30, the Ethiopian Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force published a statement accusing Meskerem and 46 others of involvement in terrorism in Amhara state.
On May 16, Meskerem 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 Henok and a demand letter by the detainees, reviewed by CPJ.
On June 7, 2023, the federal Ministry of Justice formally filed charges against Meskerem and 50 other people, including three other journalists—Genet Asmamaw and Dawit Begashaw, 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 Meskerem was involved in forming and served as the deputy coordinator of the Amhara Fano Unity Council, which they described as a “clandestine organization, which the defendants used to do their terrorist activities” by bringing together militant groups, including the Fano militia. They said she led the council’s propaganda efforts, organized and trained youth in the Amhara state to take up arms against the government, and served as a communication hub connecting political groups opposed to the government’s treatment of the Amhara people.
The prosecutors also accused Meskerem of training students to form an intelligence network, seeking to dismantle federal and state constitutions, and fundraising for a “terrorist operation.” As part of their evidence, the prosecution referred to 51 pages of text messages obtained from Meskerem’s cellphone, which Henok said had not been tabled in court or made available to the defense.
After multiple appearances before the Lideta branch of the Federal High Court, Meskerem and her co-defendants were denied bail on July 19, according to Henok. The following day, she 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 dismissed, 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.
Ethio Nikat suspended broadcasts after Meskerem’s second arrest; she had announced the channel’s return to air days before her April 2023 arrest.
In December 2023, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi told CPJ in an emailed statement that he could not comment on the detention of Meskerem 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