The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned the appalling treatment of media by authorities in Ethiopia after a number of journalists and media workers were detained in the country last week.
According to media reports, three journalists and six bloggers were arrested last Friday, 25 April, and Saturday, 26 April, using an arrest warrant from a public prosecutor. The journalists who have been arrested are Tesfalem Weldeyest, who writes independent commentary on political issues for Ethiopia’s Addis Standard magazine and Addis Fortune newspaper, Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, senior editor at an influential Amharic weekly magazine Addis Guday, and Edom Kassaye, who previously worked at state daily Addis Zemen Newspaper and is an active member of the Ethiopian Environmental Journalists Association (EEJA).
The group of bloggers are reportedly members of the Zone 9 group, which is known to be very critical of government policy. They have a strong following on social media. They are: Atnaf Berahane, Befeqadu Hailu, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Abel Wabela and Zelalem Kiberet.
Those who are being detained are accused of using social media to create instability in the country and collaborating with international human rights organizations. They have not been formally charged with a crime, according to several reports. They were arrested by armed security forces and taken from their homes to the Federal Police Crime Investigation Sector ‘Maikelawi’.
“We strongly condemn this disgraceful crackdown on media professionals in Ethiopia,” said IFJ President Jim Boumelha. “We call for the three journalists and bloggers who have been detained to be released with immediate effect.”
Reports have said that the three journalists, Weldeyest, Asmamaw and Kassaye, may have been arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with the Zone 9 bloggers. All those who have been arrested have been denied access to their family and lawyers.
The Zone 9 blogs were frequently blocked inside Ethiopia, but gained a following with Ethiopians in the diaspora, according to local reports. The arrests follow an announcement on April 23 on Facebook by the bloggers in which they said they would resume publishing after seven months of inactivity.
“This scandalous action by authorities in Ethiopia clearly undermines the provisions of the country’s constitution which guarantees freedom of expression,” said Gabriel Baglo, IFJ Africa director. “It is clearly stated in the constitution that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. We call on authorities in Ethiopia to immediately release these journalists and uphold the fundamental right of citizens to freedom of speech.”
Crackdown on the media in Ethiopia began in 2009 when the government expanded its legal authority over journalists and civil society groups. The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation gave new powers to the government to arrest those deemed seditious, including journalists who step beyond the bounds of politically acceptable reporting or commentary.
The IFJ has always called on the Ethiopian authorities to immediately free all journalists convicted under the provisions of the country’s 2009 anti-terrorism law.
These journalists include Solomon Kebede, Wubset Taye, Reeyot Alemu, Eskinder Nega, Yusuf Getachew, and recently Somali reporter Mohamed Aweys Mudey. Eskinder Nega is serving an 18 year jail term, Wubshet Taye is serving 14 years, and a famous case Reeyot Alemu is serving a five-year prison sentence. She won the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2013. Somali journalist Mohamed Aweys Mudey was also sentenced to 27 years in prison.
The IFJ has stated that Ethiopia is clearly now Africa’s second worst jailer of journalists and media professionals, saying that the journalists wrote about issues of public interest for their country without calling for violence.
“The anti-terror law of 2009 must be revamped to promote the right of freedom of speech,” concluded Baglo.