WASHINGTON, Jan 13 (Reuters) – Three top Democratic U.S. senators have sent a letter to the Ethiopian prime minister expressing concern over the erosion of press freedoms in the country and demanding the release of journalists detained there.
A letter from Senators Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy and Ben Cardin to Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday stated that “in recent months, the Ethiopian government has been increasingly intimidating journalists.”
They said that this trend was in stark contrast to the beginning of his prime ministership in 2018, when his government had released several imprisoned journalists.
“We urge you to return to this path by immediately releasing all detained journalists and taking concrete measures to protect the freedom of the press,” the senators said.
Abiy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Media watchdogs reported the arrests of at least 13 journalists in Ethiopia last year, seven of them in November, when clashes broke out in Tigi between federal forces and the ruling party in the north.
In late December, Reuters cameraman Kumerra Gemechu was arrested and charged 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 Gemesou on January 5th.
The letter also referred to the closure of Internet access in Ethiopia amid political protests and disruption of communications in Tigray during government military operations.
“These draconian tactics are remnants of Ethiopia’s anti-democratic past, when shutting down the internet and enforcing anti-terror laws to silence journalists was commonplace,” the senators said.
Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has overseen far-reaching reforms since taking office, including lifting bans on more than 250 media outlets and releasing dozens of journalists.
However, rights groups say press freedom has been eroded as the government has faced deadly violence, including fighting between military and revolutionary leaders in Tigray.
Only one of the 13 jailed journalists has been charged with posting on social media about COVID-19 reported by the Department of Health as false, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders in Paris.
Journalist Yayesew Shimelis was released on bail in April, but his case is still pending in court, his lawyer Tadele Madhin, who also represents several other journalists, told Reuters.
In all, eight of the 13 journalists have been released and the rest remain in custody, the two groups said.
Reuters could not independently confirm the overall result for those released and those still in custody. (Report by David Brunnstrom; Edited by David Clarke)
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