Detention of Journalists in Ethiopia Serves as Example of Deteriorating Media Freedom

Following a four-month ordeal, an Ethiopian journalist is back home with his family, although he still may face years in prison if convicted of violating the country’s wartime state of emergency law and anti-terrorism law.

Amir Aman Kiyaro, a video journalist accredited by the Associated Press, was arrested on November 28, 2021, in Addis Ababa following a reporting trip outside of the capital. He was accused of illegally communicating with members of the Oromo Liberation Army, which the government has labeled a terrorist group. Under the nation’s state of emergency, journalists have been punished for interviewing political figures, dissidents and members of armed groups. The state of emergency was lifted in February.

Amir and another freelance video cameraman, Thomas Engida, were held as suspects but never charged with a crime, a representative of the AP said.

Ian Phillips, vice president of international news at The Associated Press, said the case shows how journalism is being criminalized and reporters harassed in Ethiopia. He emphasized that Amir was on a legitimate reporting trip and committed no crime.

“The crackdown on the media that this case represents, there is no true accusation that can be leveled against Amir,” Phillips told VOA in a March 25 interview prior to Amir’s release. “He is a respected, balanced journalist who has covered both sides of the conflict. He’s been picked up and this is an arbitrary detention and we have been calling on Ethiopian authorities to do the right thing and release him.”

Zecharias Zelalem, a Canada-based Ethiopian journalist whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera, said arrests like this drove him to sign an open letter calling on the government to respect media rights. He said 46 journalists were detained in 2021 in the country making Ethiopia one of the worst jailers of journalists in Africa.

“The general optimism that we had a couple of years ago with the much-heralded reform, with the promises that journalists would be able to operate unperturbed, this has not panned out,” Zecharias said. “The promises and the pledges did not materialize. And unfortunately for journalists, the situation is starting to mirror what we saw in 2009 when Ethiopia passed its infamous anti-terror proclamation, which was used to round up journalists en masse. So, we had to speak up about a very, very dire situation that our colleagues on the ground in Ethiopia are facing.”

When the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, there was widespread optimism about the direction the country was taking. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the next year partly due to “granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners” which included journalists and “discontinuing media censorship,”the committee wrote when making the announcement.

However, progress eroded and the country plunged into a civil war in November 2020. Journalists were intimidated, harassed and arrested.  

It became virtually impossible to get accurate information from within Ethiopia once conflict intensified and the government imposed an internet communication blackout in some parts of the country where there was conflict.

Journalists have been prevented from reporting in areas where the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel group that is fighting the central government, is active. Accurate information is hard to come by, experts say.

Zecharias said the reporting Amir was doing, traveling to an area of Oromia currently controlled by a rebel group, is vital since there is virtually no coverage of what daily life is like there.

“What he was carrying out was very important, crucial journalistic work,” he said. “Very few journalists have been able to gain access to areas under the control of the OLA to see what life has been like for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in these areas, much of which have been subjected to internet and phone outages, we don’t have an accurate picture of.”

Amir’s lawyer Tadele Gebremedhin said his client was released on a 60,000 birr ($1,165) bail and ordered not to leave the country until his case is investigated. He said the journalists have been accused of working with foreign media outlets and “spoiling the country’s development plans” through negative reporting.

VOA reached out to the office of the prime minister and attorney general requesting comment but received no response.

As free press advocates continue to push for the fair treatment of journalists, arrests continue in Ethiopia. On March 31, four journalists were arrested in the Somali region of the country, according to local reports.

“We will continue to cover the story of journalists who are unjustly held. This is not acceptable behavior. These are arbitrary detentions,” Phillips said. “If there is proof of something, then that evidence has to be surfaced and has to go through a proper trial process, something that is extremely important to us at the AP and to our news organizations.”

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