© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a question-and-answer session with lawmakers in Addis Ababa.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three prominent US Democratic senators have written to the Ethiopian prime minister to express concern about the erosion of press freedom 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 stated that “in recent 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 term as prime minister in 2018, when his government had released dozens of detained journalists. “We urge them to return to that path by immediately releasing all detained journalists 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 clashes broke out in Tigray between federal forces and the party that rules 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 December 16. Ethiopian police released Gemechu on January 5. The letter also referred to the shutdown 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 the use of anti-terrorism laws to silence journalists were common,” the senators said. Ahmed, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has overseen radical reforms since taking office, including lifting bans on more than 250 media outlets and releasing dozens of journalists. However, human rights groups say freedom of the press has eroded as the government faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including fighting between the military and rebel leaders in Tigray. Only one of the 13 detained journalists was charged, by 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. In all, eight 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 count of those released and those still in detention.