Tewodros Zerfu

Beats Covered:
Local or Foreign:

Tewodros Zerfu of Yegna TV was arrested in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on August 26, 2023, accused of breaching a state of emergency that was declared on August 4 in response to conflict in the Amhara region. He was transferred to a military camp, where he was held without charge, and joined a hunger strike to protest poor conditions. 

He 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. 

Tewodros co-hosts “Yegna Forum,” a biweekly political program on the online outlet Yegna TV. As of late 2023, Yegna TV had over 600,000 YouTube subscribers and over 2.5 million Facebook followers. 

In addition, Tewodros is a commentator for the online outlet Menelik Television, with over 192,000 followers on Facebook, and a teacher at a private school in Addis Ababa. 

On August 26, 2023, police arrested Tewodros while he was chatting with a friend at a cafe in Addis Ababa, according to Yegna TV, Menelik Television, his sister Seblework Zerfu, and Yegna TV founder Engidawork Gebeyehu.

Seblework told CPJ that the police officers did not accuse Tewodros of any specific offense but said the arrest was made under legal provisions introduced when a six-month state of emergency was declared on August 4 in response to conflict in the Amhara state—which Tewodros had criticized. He had also questioned the neutrality of the federal army in the conflict. 

In Amhara, the Fano militia were fighting federal forces in a conflict that began in April, after the federal government announced a controversial decision to integrate regional militia into the federal army. The Fano were previously allied with the federal government 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 state of emergency law, reviewed by CPJ, gives security personnel wide powers of arrest and suspends the due process of law, including the right to appear before a court and receive legal counsel. Ordinarily, Article 19 of Ethiopia’s constitution requires police to produce detained persons in court within 48 hours. 

Hundreds of people were arrested in the months following the declaration of a state of emergency, according to news reports, including at least eight journalists with a record of covering the Amhara conflict. In addition to Tewodros, three other journalists arrested after the state of emergency—Abay Zewdu, Belay Manaye, and Bekalu Alamrew—remained detained in late 2023 and are included in CPJ’s prison census.

Tewodros was initially held at the federal police detention center in Addis Ababa and was later transferred to a military camp in Awash Arba, some 240 kilometers (145 miles) east, according to Seblework and a September 2 statement by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (ERHC), a statutory watchdog. CPJ could not determine the exact date of Tewodros’ transfer. 

In October 2023, Tewodros and 28 other detainees in Awash Arba military camp took part in a three-day hunger strike, without food or water, in protest over deprivation of medical care, food, and clean water, and what they described as political persecution in the Amhara region, according to Seblework and a letter written by the detainees, reviewed by CPJ. 

In December 2023, federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi told CPJ in an emailed statement that he could not comment on the detention of Tewodros and other journalists under the state of emergency 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.