Four media workers recently arrested in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit northern Tigray region have been released.
Fitsum Berhane and Alula Akalu, translators working for AFP news agency and Financial Times respectively, BBC journalist Girmay Gebru and Temrat Yemane, a local journalist, had been arrested over the weekend and earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Abebe Gebrehiwot Yihdego, deputy head of Tigray’s interim administration, told Reuters news agency “all journalists and translators have been released without charges”.
Mulu Nega, leader of Tigray’s interim administration appointed by Addis Ababa, had earlier said the four were being investigated and “there is already some evidence”.
“They let us out today. They didn’t say anything about why they let us go. But they said they have decided to free us,” Fitsum said.
Tigray has been at the centre of fighting since November last year when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), accusing them of attacking federal army camps.
The northern region was an information black hole for much of that time, with reporting heavily restricted and the internet cut off.
Seven international media organisations, including Al Jazeera, have now been granted accreditation to report from Tigray, but journalists were warned by officials they might face unspecified “corrective measures” if they did not meet local standards.
Fitsum told AFP that soldiers entered his home and accused him of supporting the TPLF.
“They were saying a lot of things about how I am a member of the TPLF and have been helping the party since the war started and giving them information,” he said. “But I denied all because I don’t know what they are talking about.”
Abiy’s government declared victory over the TPLF after its forces withdrew from principal cities and towns at the end of November.
However, low-level fighting has continued in some parts of Tigray, home to more than five million people.
Thousands of people are believed to have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes since fighting began.
Eroding press freedom
Since taking office in 2018, Abiy has overseen sweeping reforms, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets and the release of dozens of journalists.
However, rights groups say press freedom has been eroded as the government faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray.
Media watchdog groups reported the arrests of at least 13 journalists in Ethiopia last year.
Reuters news agency cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was detained in December and was held without charge for 12 days before being released. No reason was given for his arrest.
In January, three leading US Democratic senators wrote to Abiy expressing concerns about the erosion of press freedoms and the government’s “draconian tactics”, while calling for the release of detained journalists.