Nairobi, September 20, 2022 — Authorities in Ethiopia should immediately and unconditionally release Abay Zewdu, chief editor of privately owned satellite and YouTube-based broadcaster Amara Media Center (AMC), and cease detaining journalists without charge, the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Tuesday.
At about 1:30 p.m. on September 10, security officers in civilian clothes and members of the Ethiopian federal police arrested Abay from his home in the capital, Addis Ababa, according to privately owned news sites Ashara Media and Addis Zeybe, Abay’s sister Zoma Zewdu, and AMC board member Aregahagn Negatu, both of whom spoke to CPJ via telephone.
On September 13, authorities brought Abay before the Federal First Instance Court, Lideta branch, in Addis Ababa, according to Zoma. Police told the court that Abay was held on suspicion of disseminating false information and organizing students from the Amhara ethnic group to commit violence, according to a court document reviewed by CPJ. Police also accused him of collecting photographs of ethnic Amharas, labeling them as unjustly killed, and sending these photographs to members of the international community with the intention to create chaos, terrorize the public, and pressure the government. Authorities did not specify when these offenses allegedly took place and have yet to file formal charges against Abay, according to the court document and Aregahagn.
Zoma told CPJ that, after hearing the allegations, the court adjourned the matter for September 15; during that court appearance, the judge granted Abay bail of 5,000 Ethiopian birr (US$96) for September 16, which the journalist posted. However, Abay has remained detained as of September 20, following the prosecution’s appeal against the bail order, according to Zoma.
“Ethiopian authorities have relentlessly chipped away at press freedom in their country, including by throwing journalists behind bars, narrowing the space for critical reporting and commentary,” said CPJ sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo. “Abay Zewdu and other journalists detained for their work do not belong behind bars and should be released.”
Abay was initially detained at the Federal Police Crime Investigation Center in central Addis Ababa and transferred to Aba-Samuel detention facility in the outskirts of the capital on September 18, according to an AMC Facebook post and Zoma.
Amara Media Center’s coverage from the days before Abay’s arrest included a news report about Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war in the north of the country that featured an interview with a member of Fano, an armed militia in Amhara state; a report about the recent detention of journalists Meaza Mohammed and Gobeze Sisay in Ethiopia; and a live broadcast of opposition parties’ press statement objecting to the controversial administrative boundary between the city of Addis Ababa and the state of Oromia.
CPJ has documented the arrest of numerous journalists since the start of Ethiopia’s civil war in November 2020 prompted a media crackdown that led to Ethiopia now ranking with Eritrea as sub-Saharan Africa’s worst jailer of journalists.
Many journalists have been held without being formally charged and police frequently appeal bail orders to further delay their release.
CPJ emailed both Federal Justice Minister Gedion Timothewos Hessebon and the Justice Ministry but received no reply. Federal Police Commissioner Demelash Gebremichael did not answer calls from CPJ, or respond to queries sent via text message and messaging app.
Contacted by CPJ via messaging app, Federal Police Spokesperson Jeylan Abdi told CPJ to direct queries to Amhara state, but did not explain why given that the journalist and the authorities who arrested and are prosecuting him are not located there. CPJ emailed the Amhara Communications Bureau, but no one responded.