Ethiopia urged to release detained journalists in Tigray

Ethiopian authorities have been urged to release detained journalists and media workers in the country.

On Wednesday, authorities released a BBC reporter and several other media workers detained in the past few days by the military in the war-torn northern Tigray region, but the whereabouts of other journalists are still unknown.

The release of BBC’s Girmay Gebru followed pressure from global media watchdogs and press freedom right groups. 

He was released without any charge, and no official reason has been given for his detention.

Girmay, a reporter with the BBC’s Tigrinya-language service, was arrested on Monday alongside four other people at a cafe in the regional capital, Mekelle. They were taken away by people in military uniform, witnesses said. 

Nothing is known on the whereabouts of the four people arrested with Girmay.

According to the BBC, the reporter was taken to a local military camp where the federal north command forces had previously been stationed. 

A spokesman for the BBC on Tuesday said: “We have expressed concern to the Ethiopian government officials and we are awaiting a response.”

Within four days alone, the Ethiopian military during the weekend and early this week detained five journalists and other media workers who were covering the conflict in Tigray. 

On February 27, soldiers arrested two translators – Fitsum Berhane, working with an Agence France-Presse news crew and Alula Akalu, working with the Financial Times – and a local reporter and fixer, Tamrat Yemane. This is according to reports by the AFP and the FT, and two journalists who spoke to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

In a statement on the arrest of the journalists, CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo said the arrests “undoubtedly lead to censorship and create fear.”

“The scarcity of independent reporting coming out of Tigray during this conflict was already deeply alarming. Now, the Ethiopian military’s arrests of journalists and media workers will undoubtedly lead to fear and self-censorship,” he said.

“Ethiopian authorities should release these journalists and media workers immediately and provide guarantees that the press can cover the conflict in Tigray without intimidation.” 

Months after banning international media from Tigray, the Ethiopian government on February 24 allowed seven selected foreign media outlets to cover Tigray. 

Two days later, an Ethiopian ruling party official warned that the government will take action against false and misleading media reporting on conflict in Tigray.

Financial Times, AFP and BBC were among the seven media that obtained permission from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority and the Ministry of Peace to report to Tigray.

In a statement, Phil Chetwynd, director of AFP Global News, said no charges were pressed against Fitsum Berhane and “his collaboration with a media outlet should not be a motive for his arrest. We call for his immediate release.”

The Financial Times said that it was taking every possible step to ensure release of the jailed journalists.

“Our concerns have been raised with the relevant authorities as we are working to understand the reasons for the arrests,” a spokesperson for the newspaper told Reuters.

The Tigray region has been under military command since last November, after Prime Minister Abi Ahmed announced a military operation to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Late in November, after government forces took control of the region’s capital, Prime Minister Abiy officially announced that war on Tigray was over.

However, clashes between federal forces and forces loyal to the TPLF have continued in many parts of the region and the state of emergency remains in place.

Thousands were killed in the fighting, and tens of thousands were displaced.

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