US senators call for release of journalists in Ethiopia


Three leading Democratic US senators have written to Ethiopia’s prime minister to express concern about the erosion of press freedoms in the country and to call for the release of journalists detained there.

The letter from Senators Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy and Ben Cardin to Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday said that “over the last few months, the Ethiopian government has increasingly engaged in a pattern of intimidation against journalists”.

They said this trend was in stark contrast to the beginning of his premiership in 2018 when his government had freed scores of detained journalists.

“We urge you to return to that path by immediately releasing all journalists in detention and taking concrete steps to protect press freedom,” the senators said.

Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Media watchdog groups reported the arrests of at least 13 journalists in Ethiopia last year, seven of them in November when fighting erupted in Tigray between federal forces and the party governing the northern region.

In late December, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was arrested and detained without charge for 12 days. The arrest followed the beating of a Reuters photographer, Tiksa Negeri, by two Ethiopian federal police officers on 16 December.

Ethiopian police released Gemechu on 5 January.

The letter also referred to the shutting down of internet access in Ethiopia amid political protests and a communications blackout in Tigray during government military operations.

“These draconian tactics are a relic of Ethiopia’s undemocratic past, when internet shutdowns and employing anti-terror laws to silence journalists were commonplace,” the senators said.

Ahmed, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has overseen sweeping reforms since taking office, including the lifting of bans on more than 250 media outlets and the release of dozens of journalists.

However, rights groups say press freedom has eroded as the government faced outbreaks of deadly violence including fighting between the military and rebellious leaders in Tigray.

Only one of the 13 detained journalists was charged, for social media posts about COVID-19 that were denounced by the health ministry as false, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and Reporters Without Borders in Paris.

The journalist, Yayesew Shimelis, was released on bail in April but his case continues in court, his lawyer Tadele Madhin, who also represents several other journalists, told Reuters.

Overall, eight out of the 13 reporters have been released and the rest remain in custody, the two groups said.

Reuters has not been able to independently confirm the overall tally for those released and those still in detention.