A Kenyan journalist who was arrested and detained in Ethiopia for two months before he was released after he contracted the deadly coronavirus has indicated that the world may have celebrated changes in Ethiopia a little bit early by awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.
“All I can say is that I think maybe the world celebrated a little bit too early on the perceived changes in Ethiopia,” Kenyan journalist Collins Juma Osemo, also known as Yassin Juma, said in an interview with Voice of America.
Juma told Voice of America while in quarantine as he prepared to return home that his experience shows the press in Ethiopia continues to face severe restrictions.
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He said he was in Ethiopia on assignment for the U.K.-based Sky News as a producer. His own company, Horn24 Media, also planned to film a documentary for the Oromo Broadcasting Network (OBN), an Ethiopian government affiliate in the Oromia region.
However, in an ordeal that lasted more than two months, Juma was arrested and faced multiple charges, including inciting violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials.
Juma told VOA that he contracted the coronavirus while in a detention center in Addis Ababa and broke a rib during an altercation with men he believes were security personnel after he was released on bail.
Fekadu Tsega, the director at the Office of the Attorney General, on Thursday disputed Juma’s account. He also denied that individuals in custody are mistreated, telling VOA, “That’s not how we work.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent journalism advocacy group, reported on August 14 that the government of Abiy Ahmed Ali, a Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister has ordered investigations into media organizations and arrested a total of 4,700 people.
Other human rights organizations have said the number of those arrested was above 9000.
Violent protests erupted in Ethiopia following the June 29 killing of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa. Since then, Ethiopia has shut down the internet and accused some media outlets of inciting violence.
On August 5 and 6, 2020, security personnel in Ethiopia arrested three current and one former employee of the privately-owned Amhara Satellite Radio And Television (ASRAT), according to an August 10 statement from the media outlet on Facebook and the four individuals’ lawyer, Henok Aklilu, who spoke with CPJ via phone.
Journalists Belay Manaye and Mulugeta Anberbir, cameraperson Misgana Kefelegn, and former employee Yonatan Mulugeta were being held on allegations that they incited violence but have not been formally charged, according to the sources.
The four appeared at the Federal First Instance Court in Addis Ababa on August 7, according to ASRAT’s statement. Henok told CPJ that police accused the journalists of inciting violence by producing reports showing the Amhara people, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, as oppressed and characterizing the Ethiopian government as incapable of protecting the Amhara people. He said police said the reporting was aired between November 22, 2019 and June 2020, though did not point to specific reports or the role of each accused individual in the reporting.
VOA noted that “for years, rights groups and dissidents have raised concerns about the Ethiopian government’s use of anti-terrorism laws to target journalists”, adding that “violent unrest in the country, and concerns about the role of inflammatory news reports and social media posts in stoking violence, contributed to public support for the laws.”
In an interview from a health center in Addis Ababa, Juma told VOA he was arrested while visiting the home of jailed Oromo opposition leader Jawar Mohammed.
Along with several employees of Oromia Media Network, he said he was detained by federal police and faced charges ranging from blocking a funeral procession to not having the proper accreditation to work as a journalist. He told VOA all the charges were eventually dropped.
Ethiopian prosecutors questioned the documents Juma filed when entering the country.
“It was not clear that he was a journalist at first, as it was written saying ‘IT professional,’” Tsega told a VOA Amharic radio program. “While others were saying he was a journalist, [Juma] himself said he is an IT professional.”
“When there was a search in Jawar’s home, and in connection with what was found in the residence and satellite-related equipment under investigation, he was arrested because he was suspected of assisting with these efforts,” Tsega said. “His profession as a journalist came after the fact, and why he wanted to hide this information himself, he [Juma] only knows the answer.”
The prosecutors also alleged that Juma didn’t get the proper accreditation to operate in the country.
“We also looked into the case when we heard that he is a journalist from media outlets because all foreign journalists have to go through accreditation through us. We found that Yassin Juma is not registered in our records anytime,” the director-general of Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, Getachew Dinku, said, speaking in Amharic.
Juma disputed that account, saying he obtained accreditation to work on a documentary from the Ministry of Tourism when he embarked on his project.
“I have the accreditation,” he said. “The government knows I have it. They can check all the Ministry of Tourism. Actually, it’s the Ministry of Tourism that gives accreditation, not any other Ministry, not Information. So, they have it, and the government has it. They can check.”
According to the report, after he was released on bail in early August and walked out of the Arada Sub City Police Station in Addis Ababa, Juma said he was approached by people who he believes were plainclothes security personnel.
“All of a sudden, six armed men came with a small van and then I started, well, I started protesting,” he said. “I mean, ‘why are they stopping us? We’ve just been freed.’ And then they were stopping us. So, while we were protesting, they started now beating us. One of us was hit on the wall and then, I sustained the broken rib and my back also … We were forced into a vehicle. And they warned us not to protest or do anything or they are able to do anything to us.”
He said the vehicle drove around the city and the men took Juma and the others back to the police station they had just been released from, and then left them there. He told VOA the police officers looked confused when he was returned.
Juma was moved again to a crowded city jail in Addis Ababa, where he said he contracted the coronavirus.
VOA quoted Tsega, from the Office of the Attorney General, as denying security officials were involved in picking Juma up after he was released on bail. “If [Juma] is truly saying that he has been beaten and experienced harassment, let him formally report it,” Tsega said, speaking in Amharic.
According to him, Juma was kept at the detention center for a couple of days after his bail as a quarantine measure because he tested positive for the coronavirus.
On August 20, following efforts by the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa and other international groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Juma was moved to an isolated health facility to recuperate. He said he expects to return to Kenya this week, the report said.
Human rights organizations around the world and some American politicians in recent months and weeks have raise the alarm over rights violations in Ethiopia.
This week, two high profile American senators sent a letter to the U.S. State Department calling for the immediate release of Ethiopian opposition figure Jawar Mohammed, as crackdown widens under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.
Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith urged the U.S. State Department to “take all appropriate actions” to ensure that Mr Jawar and fellow activist Misha Chiri “are treated humanely”.
They also called on the department to assist the pair to “exercise their full rights”.
Mr Jawar, who was previously exiled in the US where he established a media business in Minnesota, was detained last month by Ethiopian authorities after being linked to the murder of a policeman during violent protests following the killing of music star Hachalu Handessa in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Mr Jawar’s allies deny his involvement in the murder.
“The recent political unrest and responsive actions taken by the Ethiopian government have threatened the progress that has been made,” the senators said in their letter.
Early this week, activists released what they described as a partial list of Oromos killed by Ethiopian security forces since August 17, 2020.
The list, sent to human rights organizations around the world, is made up of more than 70 names. It shows the names of the victims and the city where they lived before they were killed.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. They are believed to constitute 34.5% of the population, numbering about 37 million. They are predominantly concentrated in Oromia Region in central Ethiopia, the largest region in the country by both population and area.
The list of the victims has not been independently verified, but Africa’s second most populous country has been on the brink in recent months, and it is said to be the making of one man, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who came to power in 2018, vowing to make things better not worse.
For some months, it appeared he was headed in the right direction. He surprised many with a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, a breakthrough that earned him global honors and a Nobel Peace Prize.
Two years after, the influential country with at least 109 million strong population, which shares borders with Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west and Sudan to the northwest, is embroiled in a self-inflicted, man-made crisis.
Last week, Abiy Ahmed fired defense minister Lemma Megersa, a former ally.
Megersa was replaced by Kenea Yadeta, the former security chief of Oromiya region, the most populous of Ethiopia’s 10 regions.
Nine other top officials were also replaced, including the attorney general, his deputy and the mining minister.
Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed were once close and trusted allies, but relations soured in November when Megersa publicly criticized Abiy’s decision to consolidate the ethnically based-parties in the ruling coalition into one political party, the Prosperity Party.
Last week, Prosperity Party suspended Megersa’s membership.
Abiy’s father and Lemma both come from Oromiya where bloody street protests propelled Abiy to power in 2018.
But Abiy’s support there is being eroded, especially after bloody protests sparked by assassination of a popular singer left at least 178 people dead and about 9000 others in detention.
Last Saturday, Human Rights Watch warned that Ethiopian authorities have been detaining dozens of opposition members and journalists for prolonged periods and often without charge since late June 2020, raising serious rights concerns.
The rights group said a month after one of the most violent spates of unrest in the country’s recent history, police and prosecutors need to publicly account for all detainees’ whereabouts, comply promptly and fully with court bail orders, and ensure easy and regular access to lawyers and relatives for those not released.
“The actions of Ethiopia’s investigative authorities raise concerns that they have not moved on from past practices of arresting first, and investigating later,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly bring credible charges based on clear facts and evidence against the detainees or ensure their release.”
“Communities reeling from the recent violence deserve meaningful justice,” Bader said. “Entrusted with this responsibility, the government needs to show that it is both doing the hard work of bringing those responsible to account and that it can adhere to the rule of law by conducting credible and thorough investigations while still upholding the rights of those accused of serious offenses.”
The arrests follow the June 29 killing of a popular Oromo artist and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, in Addis Ababa, the capital. Hachalu’s death triggered unrest and violence in several towns, particularly in the Oromia region, and left at least 178 people dead from both civilians and law enforcement. Some were mourners and protesters, killed by security forces when they opened lethal fire. Attacks on mainly ethnic and religious minority communities in Oromia also resulted in killings, massive property destruction, and displacement.
Last Friday, Amnesty International called on Ethiopian security forces “to stop the use of deadly force on protesters.”
“There is never justification for the use of lethal force when it is not to protect lives,” Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena, wrote in a statement received by TODAY NEWS AFRICA in Washington DC.
Amnesty International was reacting to the killing of at least 16 people following protests over the arrest of zonal officials, community leaders and activists by Ethiopian security officers in the Wolaita Zone of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPR) since August 9, 2020.
“This unnecessary force has claimed so many lives in recent days, including protesters and bystanders. Among the 16 people who have been killed are a boy who was homeless and a woman with a mental disability, neither of whom were participating in the protests. No one should be killed for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or for being around a protest.
“The authorities must urgently stop the use of lethal force in the context of protests and thoroughly, effectively and impartially investigate these killings. All those found responsible must be brought to justice in fair trials. Victims and their families must also have access to adequate reparations,” Muchena added.
People took to the streets on August 9 after Ethiopia’s Defence Forces arrested more than 20 officials of the Wolaita Zone, as well as community leaders and activists, allegedly for holding a meeting in contravention of COVID-19 measures.
According to multiple witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International, security forces beat up and shot at protesters and bystanders while trying to disperse the protest.
Amnesty International said a homeless boy was killed in Wolaita-Soddo city on August 9 as the security forces violently cleared people off the streets following the arrests. Seven more people were killed in Bodditi on August 10, including a 14-year old boy, footballer Getahun Ashenafi and a woman with a mental disability.
According to government sources, at least 16 people have been killed to date as protests continue.
Two witnesses told Amnesty International that a woman was killed by security forces on 12 August while on her way to shop for groceries. Tension remains high due to the heavy deployment of security officers from the police forces, the SNNPR special Liyu police, and the Ethiopian Defence Forces.
Medical sources told Amnesty International that 18 injured people have been admitted to Soddo Christian Hospital in Wolaita, some of them to the Intensive Care Unit.
Abiy has promised to hold the first free and fair elections in Africa’s second most populous nation next year, but his democratic reforms have also unleashed ethnic divisions that frequently spill into violence, noted Reuters.
The news agency quoted political analyst Mohamed Olad, as saying that Lemma Megersa’s removal may further whittle away support for Abiy in Oromiya region.
“Lemma enjoys wider support and approval in Oromia than Abiy,” he said.
“Whether he will activate that reservoir of goodwill depends on two things. First, whether he will be free to exercise his political rights …(and) whether he is willing to play an active role in politics.”
Reuters noted that Lemma Megersa’s criticism joined a “growing swell of voices – some from Oromiya – who accuse Abiy of trying to centralize power and of rolling back his democratic reforms.”
Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjørknes University in Oslo, told Reuters that the debate whether to centralize or devolve power was at the heart of Ethiopia’s fractious politics.
“This is the key controversy in all federal arrangements – the power balance between the federal and regional states,” he said
Tronvoll said if the Oromo youth who helped Abiy to power turn against him, it could pose a problem during the elections.
Reuters noted that “unrest in Oromiya not Abiy’s only worry. The northern Tigray region, whose people dominated the last administration, has announced it will hold regional elections this month in defiance of a government decision to postpone polls across the nation due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.”