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US voices concern about Ethiopia media arrests

March 2, 2021

The United States voiced concern Tuesday over the arrests by Ethiopian authorities of four media workers in the conflict-hit northern Tigray region, saying the move was inconsistent with the government’s commitments.

The four media workers arrested since Saturday include Fitsum Berhane and Alula Akalu, who were working as translators for journalists from Agence France-Presse (AFP) and The Financial Times.

Both outlets had obtained permission from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority and the Ministry of Peace to work in Tigray, where media access has been tightly restricted since hostilities began five months ago.

“We’ve been in touch with the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority and other Ethiopian government officials to express our concern and to seek an explanation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

“These actions are inconsistent with the Ethiopian government’s commitment to permit international media access to Tigray,” he said.

Daniel Bekele, head of the government-affiliated but independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, said in a Twitter post he was “concerned” about the arrests.

“While misinformation & disinformation are recurring challenges in the crisis, arresting journalists is disproportionate response. Bring credible charges or release,” the post said.

Ethiopian officials have not said why they were arrested or what they are being investigated for.

AFP’s global news director Phil Chetwynd called Monday for Fitsum’s immediate release.

“We have not been informed of any specific charges against Fitsum Berhane. His collaboration with a media outlet should not be a motive for his arrest,” he said.

The other arrested media workers are BBC journalist Girmay Gebru and Temrat Yemane, a local journalist.

Soldiers carried out all of the arrests, according to witnesses and relatives of the men.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations in early November against leaders of Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), saying they were a response to attacks orchestrated by the party on federal army camps.

He said hostilities were “completed” in late November when federal forces entered Mekele, the regional capital, but TPLF leaders remain on the run and fighting has continued.

Reports of atrocities against civilians continue to mount, including by soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, which has teamed up with Abiy against the TPLF.

Both Addis Ababa and Asmara officially deny Eritrean troops are active in the region, despite widespread reports of their presence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a telephone call with Abiy on Monday, urged Ethiopia to allow an independent, international probe into allegations of mass killings.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa on Tuesday also called for the immediate release of journalists detained in Tigray.

“Targeting journalists and their associates… gravely undermines the government’s promise to open up to the press,” the groups said in a statement.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.